Arts & Culture Covid-19 Entertainment

Now playing: How COVID-19 is changing the cinema industry

The business of making and watching movies is undergoing a transformational change, but for how long?

Until the COVID-19 pandemic struck, movie-going provided a rare retreat from the harsh realities of life, even if for only two hours. Yet movie-going was among the first casualties of a time when every new day introduces more bitter truths than the world can deal with. With movie-going under lockdown for the near future, how and where are people getting their two glorious hours of entertainment, and how long will cinemas remain in the dark?

It’s a big hit

Cinemas have shut, release dates pushed back, film festivals stand cancelled or delayed, movie production has ground to a halt, but the biggest dent comes from box office collections that have lost billions of dollars with no sign of the pandemic weakening. The immediate impact has been devastating, but the future remains a bigger concern. Will a communal experience like going to the movies survive social distancing norms?

The curtain is rising on your TV set

Led by Netflix, streaming platforms have been breaking through movie industry bastions since the middle of this decade, producing exclusive movies and series that compete in scale, cast, creativity and budget with the biggest movie studio productions. They’re also making a pitch for critical acclaim and recognition. Netflix earned 24 nominations at the 2020 Oscars, more than any other movie studio or media company.

Traditionally, movie industries around the world observe a theatrical release window – the number of days a film has to run in cinemas before being made available to on-demand and streaming platforms.

Hollywood observes a 90-day window while its 8 weeks for Bollywood, the world’s biggest movie industry by number of releases. The COVID-19 pandemic has inadvertently helped streaming giants put a foot in the door. The release window is being bypassed, another significant bastion lost, at least for now. The biggest Hollywood theatrical releases of 2020 are releasing early on a streaming platform, but that’s not all. The Hollywood Reporter states that Amazon Prime Video bagged at least seven major Indian films that will forego theatrical release for direct streaming – something cinema chains there aren’t too happy about. The trend has not affected Hollywood as significantly, but there’s no telling how long status quo can be maintained.

There’s a new drive in Tinseltown

Reports from around the world point to the resurgence of a bygone trend: The drive-in movie experience is making a comeback, social distancing and all. Drive-in cinemas across the U.S. have remained open, with some witnessing an unexpected spike in collections. Gulf News reported about drive-ins and makeshift screenings on walls and buildings from as far and wide as Germany, Iran, France and Dubai.

Image: Robertas Daskevicius via

The Lithuanian capital city, Vilnius, teamed up with the Vilnius International Film Festival to project movies at the city’s airport, with plans to show movies from different continents every week, in keeping with the airport’s travel theme. Vehicles must be parked at least two metres apart, with a maximum of two people per vehicle.

It’s intermission, not ‘the end’

There’s little doubt direct-to-streaming is ringing in the benefits to consumers and streaming services alike. Streaming a movie, as opposed to watching it on the big screen, is not quite the same for moviegoers as well as the industry. Streaming services don’t make money on a specific movie. Their revenue comes from subscription fees. Studios sell movie rights to on-demand platforms, DVD and TV broadcasters, but the most lucrative revenue stream is their share of ticket window collections. Cinemas make some money on tickets, but more on food and beverage concessions, advertising and promotions. The movie industry cannot relinquish all that money and still pay fixed costs and salary bills. With the shutting down of cinemas, studios are being forced into tough decisions about delaying theatrical releases or sending movies to streaming and on-demand platforms. The trend is unlikely to sustain for long.

History says this is not the first shutdown in the history of movie theatres. It happened during the Spanish Flu epidemic from 1918 to 1920. The American film industry was impacted, only to be back in a new avatar, as noted by writer Richard Brody in the New Yorker: “Many smaller companies went out of business, and the resulting shakeout led to a consolidation that made the big ones bigger, creating the studios that became the masters of production, distribution, and exhibition together; the flu, combined with the end of the war, gave rise to the mega-Hollywood that’s being duplicated again today.”

It’s also worth remembering that cinemas overcame the onslaught of video and has been fending off piracy for decades, only to face new foes in satellite television and more recently, streaming platforms. Despite the unending storms, the record-breaking box office numbers that blockbusters continue to generate is a statement that the culture of going to the movies and and the ecosystem of cinemas find new ways to survive and to keep pace with the competition.

After months of being cooped up indoors and watching movies on TV, computer and mobile screens, patrons will return to cinemas when they open. The magic of the big screen with its attendant sound, projection, food, service, technology like IMAX, the delightful illusion of 3D and the childish thrills of 4D motion seats cannot be matched at home. And the collective joy of going to the cinema will continue to be a leading out-of-home entertainment form, unlikely to be superseded by anything else.

Meanwhile, Netflix added a record 15.8 million new subscriptions between January and March, doubling Wall Street’s expectations and outdoing their own. By its own admission, the boom will wane when people ride out the quarantine, as noted by CEO Reed Hastings, “Our guess is subscribers will be light” in the third and fourth quarter”.

Cinema has survived world wars, pandemics, religious bans, competition from technology and changes in viewer preferences. When they do open, people will return to their two hours of glorious entertainment with friends, family and popcorn.

Until you are ushered to a seat in a dark hall, reserve a space in your house and make your choice from the Sonos home theatre system to bring home a semblance of big screen magic.

Sonos Playbar is a mountable soundbar for TV, films, music, and the perfect addition to help transform your big screen TV into a living room theatre – it was specially tuned by Oscar-winning sound engineers. Whether you mount it on the wall or place it below your TV on a stand or console, Playbar automatically tunes itself for the best possible sound.

While you’re here, take a look at what else is being shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic – from the out-of-the-box to the downright silly.

By Romeo Coutinho

Rationalist, truth seeker, full time writer, part time dreamer.

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