Ever since Netflix had the gall to start making great movies, the feud between theaters and streaming services has been escalating. That conflict erupted into an all-out war last week when Warner Bros. Pictures announced it was sending its full slate of 2021 films to HBO Max on the same day they arrive in theaters.
Reactions to the decision among movie critics and veteran filmmakers ranged from comparing it to the death knell for the cinematic experience to the industry equivalent of an atomic bomb dropped on the future of filmmaking — and that was before everyone’s favorite obstinate auteur, Christopher Nolan, weighed in.
“Some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service,” Nolan told The Hollywood Reporter. “Warner Bros. had an incredible machine for getting a filmmaker’s work out everywhere, both in theaters and in the home, and they are dismantling it as we speak.”
Christopher Nolan rips HBO Max as "worst streaming service," denounces Warner Bros.' plan https://t.co/RTWwksKMpB pic.twitter.com/hP6me6Iklc
— The Hollywood Reporter (@THR) December 8, 2020
These strong words from one of Hollywood’s most celebrated filmmakers echoed those of other cinephiles, industry creatives, and movie press condemning the decision by WB’s parent company WarnerMedia as another nail in the coffin of the time-honored communal experience that movie theaters provide.
While critics of the decision raise some fair points about its financial implications, the collective tantrum being thrown over a perceived threat to the “theater experience” only begs the question: What sort of theater experience are they really trying to save? Because there’s a very good chance that opening up the streaming gates might actually be a good thing for theatrical purists.
A dirty secret
Not to pull the curtain back too far on the movie business, but there’s something you should know: Christopher Nolan and many of the other people bemoaning WarnerMedia’s decision don’t watch movies the same way the rest of us do.
When celebrated filmmakers and film press talk about the “communal experience” of watching a movie, they’re rarely envisioning what the general public experiences at a theater. Movie stars and directors typically don’t attend screenings that are open to the general public. The red carpet premieres they attend are restricted to industry insiders, creatives, and VIPs who live within the entertainment world. In most cases, the communal experience they’re describing is actually an invite-only affair — limited to those with a vested interest in supporting the film.
Having attended a few of these premieres myself, I can assure you that Nolan isn’t sitting through any movie screenings with a person loudly talking on their phone while their kids run wild in the aisles.
The theater experience for many movie critics and film journalists is also vastly different from that of the average, ticket-buying movie fan.
Like industry-focused screenings, press screenings are limited to those invited by the studio and its public relations team. Obviously, the studio wants to make the experience a positive one, so the screenings often take place in dedicated rooms with the sort of plush seating and audio and video technology that provides the best presentation possible for the film. Everyone attending the screening is typically a media professional of some sort, so avoiding any distracting behavior is both a professional courtesy and — if you want to be invited to future screenings — an unspoken obligation.
These experiences are worlds away from what most theater patrons experience at their local multiplex, where “going to the movies” can be an exercise in frustration — and at worst, a terrible disservice to the film being shown.
Ignoring the current pandemic-related concerns posed by theaters, buying a ticket to the latest film is a calculated risk that just as likely to be a rewarding decision as it is to be an infuriating one depending on what the aforementioned communal environment throws at you.
Opening weekend for the latest superhero, sci-fi, or fantasy franchise typically means a theater filled with small children who have a tenuous grasp of volume, personal space, and bathroom timing. Similarly, high-profile horror movie screenings will often feature plenty of survival advice from loud audience members and aspiring comedians in attendance (“No! Don’t go in the basement!”), while hearing plot points loudly explained to hard-of-hearing patrons has become all-too-common when attending general-admission movies aimed at a geriatric audience demographic. And there’s the phone callers, nonstop texters, and those who bring the loudest — or worse, smelliest — snacks possible into the theater.
For large numbers of movie fans, the notion of the “communal theater experience” is akin to watching a movie with three or four generations of family members crammed into the same room — with the added bonus of having to spend $40 on snacks and drinks while doing so. This doesn’t exactly offer the best environment for appreciating a filmmaker’s craft and the talents of everyone involved in the immense task of nurturing a movie from idea to on-screen fruition.
The streaming answer
The truth is, sending movies to streaming services at the same point they arrive in theaters just might present the best solution to preserving what Nolan and movie industry types are talking about when they wax poetic about the theater experience.
By providing an alternative viewing option for families that don’t want to miss the latest superhero movie or anyone who prefers a movie-watching experience closer to what they have at home — complete with mid-film bathroom breaks, loud conversations about a character’s bad decision, or the ability to answer a text or take a call — theaters can reassert their role as the place where true movie addicts get their cinematic fix. Without the people who would rather be at home anyways, movie lovers can concentrate on what’s happening on the screen instead of being distracted by what’s happening two rows in front of them, and immerse themselves in the film along with a (hopefully) like-minded audience.
And for those at home, the ability to watch a new movie on a streaming service like HBO Max can also allow them to be part of a communal conversation they might otherwise be excluded from.
Currently among the most expensive streaming services, HBO Max comes with a $15 monthly subscription cost. While that’s quite a bit pricier than its competitors, it’s less than the price of a single ticket at many movie theaters.
By making films available on HBO Max (and hopefully, other services down the road) on the same day they premiere in theaters, people who might otherwise not be able to afford a trip to the theater for every new release or would prefer not to distract from others’ theater experience for one reason or another can still participate in the communal experience a new movie provides. They don’t have to miss out on the conversation surrounding the film or feel left out of the latest pop culture phenomenon.
In fact, contrary to Nolan’s comments, releasing movies to streaming services on the same day as theaters doesn’t actually dismantle Warner Bros. Pictures’ machine for getting a filmmaker’s work out to the public — it upgrades that machine.
So where’s the money?
In discussing WarnerMedia’s decision, Nolan went on to say it “makes no economic sense.”
And in that respect, he’s right: There are some big economic questions that need to be answered if this grand experiment is going to work.
The financial architecture of the movie business is a complicated and fragile system built upon countless contracts and agreements establishing who gets paid and how much they earn according to various commercial and critical benchmarks. Although streaming services have been around for a relatively long time now (by Hollywood standards), the streaming landscape remains an unsettled — and volatile — frontier when it comes to the business of making movies.
For example, not every studio can follow the Netflix formula and throw piles of money at projects without any guaranteed return, and despite the increasingly consolidated nature of media, most movie studios lack the sort of billion-dollar safety net that Amazon Studios has built into its filmmaking ventures. If WarnerMedia is going to make its 2021 plans a financially viable path forward for the movie business, it has some big issues to address in this area — but you have to give the company credit for taking a risky first step in that direction.
In the end, the studio’s streaming plan will likely be deemed a success or failure based on economics, not because of any threat it poses to an overly rosy, nostalgia-fueled perception of the theater experience. The way we experience movies is an ever-changing, constantly evolving work in progress, and if filmmakers and movie press are truly, sincerely concerned with making the movie-watching experience both positive and communal, understanding the modern movie audience a little better — particularly how they prefer to experience movies, given the choice — will go a long way toward achieving that goal.
After all, one thing the internet and our current pandemic-fueled use of it has made abundantly clear is that you can still have a communal experience without being in the same room together.
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