What happens when an immovable object meets an unstoppable force? Thus is the state of movies in 2020. It’s difficult to understate how profound an effect COVID-19 has had on the film industry; after a historic year in 2019, with Disney alone producing several movies that made billions of dollars, major theater chains are now struggling just to stay in business. There have been numerous reports of AMC, the largest theater chain in the world, planning to file for bankruptcy, and Cineworld just announced that it would once again be closing many locations temporarily after almost every tentpole film slated to release this year had been delayed.
This closure has been taken especially hard as it seems emblematic of many of the issues plaguing the industry right now. For one thing, the thousands of people employed by these chains have felt betrayed by the unstable nature of the openings and closings of their places of employment. Varietyreports that many of the employees who lost their jobs at Cineworld only found out by watching the news. It also says that they feel that Cineworld“has kept them largely in the dark about the situation.” In the U.K. alone, 5,500 people work for Cineworld, so the effects of the film industry’s troubles stretch far beyond that of padding the pockets of studio executives. The cause of this closure is multifaceted.
Box office revenue is increasingly concentrated in major blockbuster releases. Financially successful films not based on previously established intellectual property are becoming rarer every year, with movies by directors Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan being notable exceptions. The latter is seeing the diminishing returns of name recognition just this past month. If studios are afraid and unwilling to put their bankable properties back into the proverbial wild that is the COVID-19-era movie theater, there’s little else to rely on.
Releases with lower budgets might have been able to bring in healthy if not somewhat reduced box office totals this year, but for $200 million movies, there are simply not enough people willing to go to the theater. Conversely, consumers aren’t always willing to pay enough for these releases through on-demand streaming services. This creates a vicious cycle; the movies that have historically brought in more revenue are delayed, so theaters remain mostly closed or have modified, reduced schedules. Because theaters are closed, those movies are pushed back even further. If each film wasn’t as much of a financial gamble, with many costing hundreds of millions to make, there would be a greater willingness to test giving them a theatrical release, and a more consistent stream of them as well. Instead, these lower-budget films have been relegated to streaming releases in a desperate attempt to at least break-even.
Christopher Nolan's "Tenet" (2020) was supposed to be the savior of the box office, but its $45 million domestic gross so far says otherwise. The film industry can no longer count on a few movies to bear the burden of what should be a wider range of mid-budget and lower-budget releases. This will promote riskier, more inventive filmmaking, giving unproven voices a chance to shine.