The Hollywood Conflict: Streaming vs Theatrical

A look at how cinemas worldwide are struggling to emerge from the Covid-19 grip

Los Angeles: Any screenwriter in Hollywood will tell you that screenplays are all about conflict. Conflict should be in every scene, in every act, and on every page. The more layered, the better. So, when actor Scarlett Johansson, star of the Marvel superhero movie Black Widow sued the Walt Disney Company, alleging that the company breached her contract, she added yet another layer of conflict to the streaming vs. theatrical battle currently being waged in the movie industry due, in large part, to the coronavirus pandemic.

Johansson argued that when Disney offered Black Widow on streaming at the same time it played in theatres, it breached her contract, and that this dual release reduced her compensation, which was based partly on box office receipts from what was supposed to be an exclusive run in theatres. While Disney argued that the release of the movie on its streaming platform had significantly enhanced Johansson’s ability to earn additional compensation. This case will surely be closely followed by industry insiders since it publicly begins a debate on how talent and filmmakers should be compensated as the industry business models shift between streaming and theatrical.

In early 2020, as Covid-19 began its deadly march, movie theatres started getting shut and the box office plummeted 80 per cent. At the same time, over-the-top (OTT) media services grew by 37 per cent. The popularity of these platforms became attractive to subscribers because of instant and limitless access to high-quality content at a time many became insulated at home due to the pandemic.

Popular OTT providers include Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Disney+, HBO Max among many others. In addition, many studios began releasing films directly to consumers via premium video on demand (PVOD) or on their own streaming platforms.

With the introduction of Covid-19 vaccines, the United States and countries worldwide are now looking to emerge from the grip of the coronavirus pandemic. Movie theatres are reopening with certain mask-wearing and social distancing mandates. Around 85 per cent of the US cinemas have reopened, according to Comscore, which is the highest percentage since March 2020. Yet, recent theatrical openings have fallen short of expectations.

Only Black Widow ($80 million), F9: The Fast Saga ($70 million) and A Quiet Place Part II ($47 million) came close to the opening weekend hauls that would have been expected prior to the pandemic and still fell short of their expected blockbuster prospects in that they were all sequels in popular, pre-existing franchises.

In addition, all three movies had disappointing second-weekend drops. Black Widow saw a 68 per cent tumble in its second weekend, the worst-ever for a Disney released Marvel title, F9: The Fast Saga had a 67 per cent decline while A Quiet Place Part II saw a 59 per cent drop.

Hollywood has now been dealt a new headache with the spread of the Covid-19 Delta variant which may have played a role in recent disappointing box office takes. In a poll conducted 1 August by The Hollywood Reporter, where prospective viewers were asked if they were comfortable going to a movie theatre, across all demographics, percentages were down. In all movie-goers, the poll came in at 70 per cent down from 81 per cent on 11 July. This drop, in less than three weeks, reveals just how the Covid-19 pandemic is making it virtually impossible for studios and movie theatres to formulate a business plan.

As far as the debate on which is more profitable, theatrical or streaming, the answer is complicated and fluid. Not only do production and marketing costs need to be considered but also the ever-changing landscape ushered in by the coronavirus pandemic and its potentially far-reaching effects. When this dark pandemic cloud has lifted, will the consumers be ready for dinner and popcorn movie nights out again, or has being comfy at homes streaming movies with the kids taken a hold? Maybe a bit of both but to what degree?

In Screenrant, Stephen M. Colbert makes the case that movie ticket sales were drying up pre- pandemic while streaming is becoming more profitable, especially for studios with their own streaming service. In addition, studios share around half of their box office with theatres, whereas they get to keep the lion’s share of streaming revenue for their own content on their own platform.

In Investopedia, Dina Zipin observes that major Hollywood studios can bring in $250 million in profits from a single film, while a respected cable network like HBO can make money off a huge hit like Game of Thrones, which costs millions to shoot. Since unsuccessful projects and financial flops are par for the course, there is no guarantee which shows or potential franchise will be the year’s great moneymaker.

A case study of the hybrid streaming/theatrical model could be illustrated by A24’s release of the medieval fantasy, The Green Knight starring Dev Patel. A24 pumped up the social media buzz about the movie which also benefited from Patel as a huge draw as a leading man. A24 chose not to put it on PVOD but waited until the perfect time as restrictions eased to release the film in theatres. Then, in a new mixed release strategy, slated a one-day streaming event. The film opened No. 2 in theatres on 30 July 30, right behind Jungle Cruise, outperforming expectations with close to a $7 million weekend take. The data from the one-day streaming event on 18 August has not yet been released.

With FDA granting full approval of the Pfizer vaccine and with increased calls for proof of vaccinations by employers, as well as by restaurants, gyms, bars, concerts, and sporting venues and movie theatres, it adds a new layer in our return to “normal.” The page on how talent, studios, streaming services, movie studios, and others in the industry will deal with this is yet to be written.

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