The impact of the pandemic has become an inescapable discussion point. From the news to conversations in the street, it seems every aspect of life has been affected in some way. The film industry is one of many that has faced changes throughout the last year. With the closure of cinemas, streaming services have become ever more popular, and more films are increasingly accessible at the click of a button: all from the sofa at home. Is the cinematic experience in danger of decline? Or, is it a temporary phenomenon, just like “Video Killed the Radio Star” and the predicted death of cinema by the hand of the home VCR in the 80s?
As of 2020, Netflix, the most popular streaming service in the UK, had more than 13 million subscriptions, while Amazon Prime had 7.9 million. These numbers rose during the pandemic. Time spent on these services almost doubled in 2020, with almost 5 million British households having signed up since the lockdown first began. Disney+ was a success story of the pandemic. Within 3 months of its launch in March 2020, it had over 5 million downloads for its app and 4.6 million subscribers in the UK. In a time when social interaction outside the household was limited, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+ and NowTV were able to provide entertainment and an escape from reality.
The “Golden Age of TV” that has reigned over the last 20 years has been spurred on by the rise of streaming services. Shows such as Game of Thrones demonstrated how a cinematic experience could be created on the small screen, with vast technological improvements. Various TV shows have had huge success because of the enjoyment people find in the extended character development over multiple hours and in binge-worthy content. Whereas films at 2 hours long, or even more, may be seen as a commitment, TV shows can feel shorter and snappier. Ironically, people often end up watching more hours of TV than the length of a regular film. TV streaming has made this possible. No longer do we have to wait for a weekly episode to be released; we can watch the entire season of Stranger Things in one sitting.
Streaming services have opened the door for TV. Now we can watch series at any time we like, from the latest releases to old favourites like Friends and The Office. TV shows were designed for the small screen: they were never meant for the cinema. So how have streaming services, and their increasing role in the industry during the pandemic, impacted film?
With streaming services so accessible, and the number of subscribers increasing during the pandemic, it perhaps gave more people the chance and time to watch films as well as TV.
However, in many cases, the pandemic caused problems for the release and the success of films. Phillippa Lowthorpe’s Misbehaviour, about the women’s liberation movement interrupting the 1970 Miss World beauty pageant, was released in cinemas in the UK on 13th March 2020. However, its theatrical release was cut short due to the pandemic, and the film was instead released early to video on demand on 15th April. It grossed about £300,000 in the UK and a worldwide total of $1,200,000. Its box office takings were clearly impacted by the short theatrical release and meant that it failed to attract as much attention from critics and audiences. In a pandemic-world of streaming, films run the risk of becoming lost in the plethora of options available.
In contrast, A Quiet Place Part II, which was released after more than a year of postponements due to COVID in May 2021, was highly successful. Despite the delays, it grossed nearly $295 million worldwide: the 6th highest-grossing film of 2021. Although it became available to stream on Paramount+ 45 days after its cinematic release, it is noticeable that it did extremely well having had a full cinema release and being one of the first films to do so after cinemas reopened. There is surely something to be said here for the magic of cinema. People were clearly still keen to see this movie on the big screen. However, the fact it was released to a streaming service, if not immediately, then not long after its cinema release, perhaps shows that the pandemic has accelerated a shift towards streaming services. Not only are large production companies considering how to gain the most money from their films, but the high numbers of subscriptions also show the demand for TV streaming. Rather than pay for a cinema ticket on top of their various subscriptions, audiences can watch films from the comfort of their own home.
The future of cinema release versus streaming is now a litigious one. The controversy is highlighted in Scarlett Johansson’s lawsuit against Disney, in which she argues Disney broke her contract by releasing Black Widow simultaneously on the big screen and on Disney+. The film suffered a 67% box office decline in its second weekend, which has been directly linked to its availability at home. The pandemic encouraged Disney and others to change the way we consume film, as seen in their release of Mulan to Disney+ without a cinema release. It would be expected that the huge Marvel series would still lure fans for the big-screen experience, yet the box office figures say otherwise. If even Marvel is struggling to draw people to the cinema, perhaps streaming has gained the upper hand during the course of the pandemic.
Sadly, when Johansson finally got her own standalone film after 11 years, it was affected by the pandemic, placed on Disney+ immediately unlike any Marvel film before and then performed the worst of any MCU film in its second week decline. Disney’s next release, Free Guy, with the male-lead Ryan Reynolds, will be released exclusively to cinemas. It seems that perhaps Disney, like other streaming services, is still testing out the waters for the future of their film releases.
It was perhaps inevitable that streaming services would increase in popularity, and there are so many benefits, including its ease and accessibility of so many different films and TV shows. But do you remember the magic of cinema? As we are coming into the post-pandemic world, the experience of seeing a film on the big screen, becoming fully immersed, having the atmosphere of an audience and the smell of popcorn in the air, is one we can enjoy again. Now is a great opportunity to support local cinemas and help show that there is a future for cinema releases.