In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, things seemed to be going from bad to worse for Hollywood. Studios, already suffering from declining ticket sales, now faced theater and theme park closures, release delays, and production freezes. Television networks, battered by cord cutting, saw sporting events canceled or delayed, depriving them of their most valuable programming.
But the chaos also sharpened Hollywood’s attention, forcing it to focus on what consumers want. Streaming services, already a major priority, fast became the only way most people got their film and TV fixes. Netflix Inc. added 26 million customers in the first half of 2020, a record for new subscribers. And so media companies set aside legacy businesses and learned how to stream.
Warner Media LLC experimented with dropping TV episodes on its new HBO Max service all at once. Walt Disney Co. announced plans for more TV shows based on its Marvel and Star Wars properties, bolstering its approach of spacing out major releases to maximize Disney+ subscriptions. Universal, Warner Bros., and Disney all canceled plans to release major movies in theaters and put them online instead. News and sports divisions everywhere tailored programming to streaming audiences. And now Amazon.com Inc. is buying MGM.
The transition hasn’t been seamless. Some companies introduced services mid-pandemic, asking customers to subscribe based on films and shows that couldn’t be properly marketed with billboards or as coming attractions in theaters. NBCUniversal Media LLC, which had planned to use the Summer Olympics to promote Peacock, instead had to rely on English soccer and reruns of The Office. Warner Media’s introduction of HBO Max was hamstrung by its initial absence from the popular Roku and Fire TV streaming devices and by confusion over how it differed from HBO Now and HBO Go. And, of course, RIP Quibi.
Now, though, more than a year into a pandemic, the future of entertainment seems clearer. Pop culture has moved online—for everyone. “My 91-year-old mother is texting me now,” says Tom Bernard, the co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. “A lot of the older generation—people who aren’t teenagers and in their early 20s—the internet has now become the system for communication.”
Although no one can say precisely how this will all play out once movie theaters, theme parks, and live events get back in full swing, there are some key ways the entertainment industry has evolved that will change life for you, the viewer.
1 You will now get cinema-quality new movies without entering a cinema.
When Godzilla vs. Kong was released this March, it signaled the return of the Hollywood blockbuster. The monster mashup has grossed more than $425 million at the worldwide box office, making it the biggest English-language movie since the pandemic began. But as it was filling theaters to their permitted capacities, Godzilla vs. Kong was also the most popular movie on HBO Max. Warner Media had released it in theaters and online at the same time, continuing its recent break from decades of orthodoxy.
Since the days of Jaws and Star Wars, studios have released movies more or less the same way: several months in theaters, followed by home entertainment, be it Betamax, VHS, or DVD. Universal Pictures Ltd. was the first to change things during the pandemic, releasing Trolls World Tour as a $19.99 rental in April 2020. Then Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. followed suit, releasing Scoob! on HBO Max in May. Disney, which made $11.1 billion at the box office in 2019, released the film version of Hamilton directly to Disney+.
None of the studios offered specifics on the returns they saw from their experimentation, but they clearly liked the results enough to continue. Universal skipped theaters and released The King of Staten Island as a stream over the summer, and Warner Bros. and Disney dropped Wonder Woman 1984 and Soul, respectively, online and in theaters simultaneously in time for Christmas. Warner Bros. then moved to release its entire 2021 slate, including Dune, Space Jam: A New Legacy, and Godzilla vs. Kong, on HBO Max at the same time as in theaters.
This isn’t the first time original movies have been released directly on the internet. Netflix and others have been doing it for years. But it’s a first for the major movie studios. In the past, theater chains would have blocked such efforts, but once the pandemic began, their leverage was gone. “The movie business I grew up in is effectively over,” says Alex Kurtzman, a veteran writer and producer whose writing credits include Transformers and Star Trek Into Darkness. “And I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.”
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