For the first time ever, I am worried about the future of movies. Others in my field have been sounding alarm bells for years about the increasingly blurry line between film and television, and the dominance of at-home streaming services, which threaten to make the theatrical experience obsolete. I never bought it. Film has been through tough times before, from the Legion of Decency to the advent of video games, and it has always persevered. The worst case scenario was that it would one day become niche entertainment – like opera or ballet, not really intended for mass audiences anymore – but it would always be important. That’s what I told myself.
Now I’m not so sure, and it’s funny how such a minor bit of news can dramatically change one’s perception. It was just announced that “Top Gun: Maverick” and “A Quiet Place II,” two highly-anticipated sequels whose release dates had already been moved twice, are being pushed to 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. To put it another way, there may not be an opportunity to see a movie in a theater until next spring. I always knew this was a strong possibility, but now that it’s a certainty, I’m chilled by the implications. Getting through the fall and winter with no movie theaters is not a reality I’m ready for.
Spring will eventually come, but for cinephiles, winter may last forever. In the next year, casual viewers may get too comfortable watching movies in our home. Netflix, of course, is leading the charge, specializing in genres that used to demand a visit to the cinema. This year, they already released two big action movies – “Extraction” and “The Old Guard” – to great popularity, if their own streaming numbers can be believed. Each film had its merits, but they both feel like carbon copies of proper blockbusters. The right elements are there, but something intangible is missing. Maybe it’s the theater itself.
This fall, Netflix will attempt to topple another titan of the theatrical experience: the Oscar drama. They’ll release “Mank,” a biopic of famed Hollywood screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz by auteur David Fincher, and “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” a courtroom drama written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. The latter had a planned theatrical release but instead sold to Netflix so that it could have a streaming release this fall and qualify for the 2021 Oscars. Both films stand to be a good deal better than “Extraction” and “The Old Guard,” neither of which will be in awards contention, but the end results may be the same. We’ll get used to seeing another genre at home, and the prospects of maintaining the sanctity of the theatrical experience will be further dimmed.
I recognize that I’m not breaking any news here. For some time now, the balance has been shifting from theatrical distribution to streaming, and with it a blending of TV and film. But the pandemic has accelerated the shift, and while it doesn’t mean that film won’t bounce back in the short term, but, as we wait, we may quietly pass the point of no return. We may simply forget what makes film distinct from television or anything else. We may have forgotten what happens when we sit in the dark with a crowd of strangers and experience something together. We may forget why movies matter. For all of my optimism, I never expected a pandemic that would close theaters indefinitely, threaten their business model, and force all of us to our couches for an extended period of time. Covid-19 could end up one of the best things to happen to Netflix and Amazon (check their stock prices), and one of the worst to cinema. If that’s the case, we’ve already lost the war