Are you one of those people who hate Hollywood because Hollywood only serves superhero movies and sequels… most of which are sequels to superhero movies?
Well, here’s some encouraging news: Two of the highest-grossing films of 2022 are romantic comedies: The Lost City, with Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum, and a family film about a man and his dog. That would be Dogin which … Channing Tatum also shines.
ah! You say: But I like serious dramas. Or heartwarming dramas that I can watch with my family without Channing Tatum’s lead role† Well, Hollywood has you covered here too: Netflix’s The power of the dog — a moody sort of western — was a leading Best Picture contender in last month’s Academy Awards. And of course Apple’s code, an uplifting story about a Massachusetts fishing family, won the Oscar. Zero Tatums there.
Still not convinced of the health and breadth of the film industry? Here’s the truth: you shouldn’t be.
While some people who invest in the movie industry insist that there is a future where many people see all kinds of movies in the cinema, most sober observers think the ship has sailed, with a few exceptions. Channing Tatum can only be in so many movies a year.
Which means that movies in the cinema are now niche shows. Supersize niches, to be sure. But the era of everyone going to the movies is over.
“Outside of horror, superheroes and family, it has to feel like the most spectacular, special event,” says producer Jason Blum. That’s fine for Blum, whose Blumhouse Productions specializes in horror movies that people still leave their homes to see, like Get out and The robbery†
Okay. But what about the great future of streaming, which is currently on our giant, cheap TVs at home? In addition to all the Oscar-nominated movies they offer, there are more great things than ever before – from traditional TV networks like AMC (You better call Saul coming back next week) and streamers like Apple (I’m really interested in severance pay) and hybrids like HBO Max (I wasn’t into it at first winning time, but now I am†
But there’s a problem there too: This plethora of great streaming stuff is literally an abundance, and no one in the company thinks it’ll last forever. The giant tech and media companies funding the production boom don’t plan on doing this forever. Right now they tell themselves they are in land grab mode as they try to compete with each other and attract paying subscribers. But once the boundary is established, they plan to return to something like normal mode, where they don’t throw money at anyone with a script.
So. We envision a future where 1) most movies shown in cinemas will be made for audiences that go to cinemas — that is, young people who love superheroes, young people who like to be scared, and families with children who need have to get out of the house, and 2) everything else is meant to be watched at home. But eventually there won’t be as much of that stuff as there is now.
How should you feel about that? You should be feeling pretty good, Jason Kilar, the ex-boss of WarnerMedia, told me during his exit tour earlier this month: “I think it’s a very positive development, for two reasons,” he said. †[One] it is a model that allows for more aggressive investment in romantic comedies and dramas and [two] I think giving the consumer the choice is ultimately a good thing.”
And I kind of agree with Kilar? Yes, I cherish my memories of going to the movies with my family and friends, and it’s still fun to take my kids with me. But the main thing I like about movies are movies. And, for now at least, I have access to more great movies than ever before, available at the click of a button. For not much money at all. Who cares how I see them? (And when that plethora of stuff goes away, someone’s still going to make cool stuff, right? I mean, Steven Soderbergh plays with Web3†
But this too fills me with despair. Going to the movies – with friends, with strangers – and enjoying a few hours together in the dark is a very specific experience, and it’s taking more and more away from me. And ours: we are a country that does a lot of the same, but we don’t do it much together anymore. We are asynchronous and alone. Movies were an exception.
How did we get here? Slowly, then all at once: yes, the pandemic forced movie studios out of desperation to stream movies they might have once tried to run in theaters. More importantly, the pandemic gave studios the opportunity to do something they’ve always wanted to do – shrink the “window” of time between when movies appear in theaters and when you can see them at home†
It used to be that you had to wait three months at home to watch a movie. Even then you had to buy it on DVD or pay to download it. Now the industry standard is a 45-day delay — at which point you can watch them on a streaming service you’re likely already subscribed to, like Disney+ or HBO Max. Not quite free, but close enough — and, as Rich Greenfield, an analyst at Lightspeed Partners points out, enough to create a very powerful cycle: if it’s not a movie you’re dying to see in a cinema, you could be rewarded for your inactivity and receive it weeks later. That makes studios even less likely to try anything but a theater slam dunk to begin with.
But the big entertainment conglomerates had sent us this way long before we ever heard of Covid. As journalist Ben Fritz explained in his book The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Moviesyou can put a lot of that at the feet of former Disney CEO Bob Iger.
After the acquisition in 2005, Iger decided that Disney, which used to make all kinds of films from its various studios (Beautiful woman was a Disney movie so was Rushmore) would nothing but making so-called franchise films associated with Disney properties: Marvel, Star Wars and Pixar. That strategy worked spectacularly, forcing most of Iger’s competitors to try and emulate it, with event films linked to characters and stories people had already heard of. That’s why Sony, which for years resisted the Iger way, has succumbed and is now pretty much the Spiderman Studio. And why Warner Bros.’ future depends on whether you want to see another Batman movie. (Turns out: You do†
Around the same time, cable television networks, led by HBO but followed by FX and AMC, relied heavily on sophisticated, daring dramas and comedies delivered to their homes. It became a cliché to say that TV shows like: The Sopranos and Breaking Bad were actually feature films that happened to last tens of hours, but it was also true. Also true: you didn’t get off your couch to look at them.
The conglomerates have been doing even more in recent years to ensure that you don’t have to leave your home. They’ve launched new streaming services and stuffed them with… stuff: serialized serials, teen rom-coms, and feature films that you might have seen in a theater in an earlier era. Netflix, which all major media companies are furiously trying to emulate, rolls out at least one new movie a week.
But remember: it’s impossible that all the streaming services you can choose from today will be close: now Discovery, Inc. For example, WarnerMedia has acquired, industry observers expect Discovery to merge its own streaming service with Warner’s HBO Max, and we’ll definitely see more consolidation eventually, especially at sub-scale companies like Paramount and AMC. As the number of competitors shrinks, so will spending. “It’s definitely going to happen,” Blum says. “The level of spending at the moment is not sustainable in the long term.”
That’s a version of the future that I’m not excited about at all: a theater economy that only supports very specific types of movies and a lot less choice than I have now.
And even that version is not a given. The audiences for those movies have so many competitive ways to pass the time, starting with the computer in their pocket and offering them unlimited TikToks and other distractions for zero dollars. So enjoy it while it lasts however you want to do it. And for Channing Tatum? He’s making another movie – the third installment of his Magic Mike stripper series – but you can’t see this one in theaters. It should be streaming exclusively on HBO Max†
Thanks again for reading this column, telling other people, and responding to my request for tips and feedback. As this reader, who understands the inner workings of the New York Times, wishes to remain anonymous (to you), and criticizes last week’s piece on the inner workings of the New York Times. In particular, my claim that the Times takeover and subsequent Boston Globe fire sale…wasn’t right:
If you say the Globe purchase was a “disaster”, you’ve lost me. Now, I had nothing to do with the Globe purchase in 93 or its sale. I’m pretty sure bought it for about 12x [Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization, a key Wall Street measurement that’s supposed to highlight a company’s true profitability] and it was profitable for at least 15 and maybe 18 years of ownership. So how is something that I don’t know, somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.6 billion profit on a $1.1 billion purchase a disaster? Has it delivered more than the company’s cost of capital (ie the only true measure of M&A success)? I don’t know, maybe not. But it had to be close. It also resulted in the Globe being a much stronger journalistic entity for much longer than if it had remained independent (see nearly every other newspaper in markets 5-20). However, the bigger picture is a deal that was good for the strategy at the time and that strategy has changed and not a deal that has anything to do with the current deal.