The thrill is gone — this fall, cinema has finally lost sovereignty over who’s alpha leader of the audiovisual industries
Content Futura 2023 · Part 1 · A blog series · 16 weekly episodes — 1000 words/post (more or less) from 09/01/22–12/31/22
“The secret to a long life (Is knowing when it’s time to go)”* A bit of a lyrical approach to an inevitable rule of life, the global cinema sector had to learn the hard way this August in the wake of new stories from Middle Earth via Amazon (AMZN). Cinema finally lost a long fought battle with the online content industry over who shapes, defines and dominates the rules and styles of the global film content industry.
“I’ll wait, until I can see this on TV” has been a familiar phrase amongst film fans for decades. For a long time, it epitomized a consumer choice mostly motivated by personal unwillingness / willingness for money spending within a system of release windows serving a profit-maximizing distribution system; based on a timeline, carefully guarded by all players in the battleground of the participating Film-/Cinema-/TV-Industries. With Cinema on top of the food chain and, following a long and winding waterfall that often took certain films several years to sail along, what is so-called Free TV at the end of it.
Ultimately, this window distribution system being the dominant form of audiovisual content distribution allowed Cinema — in concert with a vast group of opinion leading tastemakers (aka “The Press”) and Filmfestivals — to graciously “dismiss” films more or less at its own discretion down the value-added chain towards the respective next levels — e.g. “Home Entertainment”, PayTV, VOD and then, finally, free TV; at least as long as satisfactory numbers of people showed up at the box office. If the registers did not ring well enough, the top helmers happily and quickly passed on the product — now ennobled “Cinema quality”- towards the subordinate channels.
Dominating the entire distribution system internationally came along with the handy domination of debates and dynamic message control in marketing channels. The Cinema sector and those who represented it controlled what was hot next, what would be the upcoming new big thing in everything film and audiovisual content. The dominating market position of cinema also defined what became news in the field — and that news gave Cinema new raison d’être constantly.
For those familiar with the film and entertaiment industry, it’s no news that this old-school system of film and cinema distribution has been under fire for a long time now (ca. since the very late 1990ies). But this August, it finally collapsed. Forever. It was the result of the perfect storm decades in the making that got enhanced by recent geo-political events and the willingness of the retail giant Amazon to spend bigger on filmed entertainment than (almost) anyone else before.
It happened that while in Venice (Italy) the 79th Mostra, one of the world’s most glamorous renowned Film Festivals was underway (08/31/22–09/10/22), Amazon studios globally released The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (short: “TLOTR: TROP”) as a series thru its streaming service, AmazonPrimeVideo (release date 09/01/22).
And the latter completely took over the public debate. On all channels. Everywhere. It downgraded the Venice Festival including all the films premiering there to second interesting at best for audiences and in industry gossip all over the place. No matter that “Venice” traditionally had been a highlight of everything film and cinema industry kicking off the last quarter of the year, as well as the unofficial opening of the next winter’s awards season. Since the release,” TLOTR: TROP” dominates global debate around film and audiovisual content.
A giant loss for the Cinema sector in public perception even more so as Amazon’s “The Rings of Power” does hurt the Cinema sector particularly deep because it takes away another — if not THE one — big global Franchise that has been able to unite them all in front of a silver screen. From arthouse- to mainstream-, from action film- to drama-, from blue-collar to white-collar-fans: Peter Jackson’s “Lord Of The Rings” Trilogy and two-part-”Hobbit”-adventures had been something many people did agree to watch in cinemas. And, rubbing more salt into the wound of losing out against “Big Streaming” on who will be screening the newest sequel to one of the most valuable fantasy brands globally, the Amazon release also hits defenders of Cinema in another super weak spot: As one of the big pro arguments for going into cinemas is and always has been the mention of the big screen, especially “The Lord Of The Rings” got marketed by cinemas on the premise that “Big pictures need big screens”. Fair point, given the fabulous fantasy worlds shown from all kinds of wide angels in the films. However: “TLOTR: TROP” does show a lot of fabulous fantasy worlds now as well. And people do watch it and love it — without a silver screen … (Btw.: same story with what Disney (DIS) is doing with Star Wars, another former “cinema only” brand — with interesting spin off’s like “The Mandalorian” recently happening online only.)
Strong hits to take for an industry sector that recently struggles anyhow all over the Western World. E.g. German box office right now is down ca. 50%, while US Box Office is down ca. 20% year-on-year based on pre-pandemic levels.
I can’t say I’m happy about all this is happening. I spend a good amount of my career in the context of cinema and my heart will always be with big pictures on big screens in big rooms full of comfy chairs and lovely folk. But that’s how things go. The times are changing.
And honestly, I can’t say that no one could see it all coming. It’s rather been written on the walls, it’s actually happening since a long time. Pandemic or not. Russian attack on Ukraine with resulting energy crisis or not. The Cinema industry and its allies in the festival and media world did have had a lot of time — ca. 20 years in my book — to explore answers to the major changes that digitalization forces on their businesses — but avoided to look at the need for change and to react appropriately (also see one of my older posts on this here). And if you look at some of the recent efforts to curb their problems it’s not easy to trust the Cinema sector finally got it now: US theatrical destroyed most of what was left of a once prestigious bank holiday box office with a “3-Dollar-Each-Film-Day” over Memorial Day weekend. The result: (August 2022 US Box Office was down 43% based on pre-pandemic levels). German theatrical works hard to follow up in what right now seems to be a race to the bottom from my POV. With what they call “Kinofest” on the first weekend of September 2022 (all films 5 Euros/each/selected shows). Sounds like signaling self-destruction and “How to devalue your product in one day or less” instead of brand building and ramping up a value-for-money approach.
At least some people around German Films (representative organisation of the German Film Industry to promote German films globally) and Deutsche Film Akademie seem to have an understanding of what’s going on as an independent jury organized by the two institutions recently nominated “ All quiet on the western front / Im Westen Nichts Neues” for being Germany’s Oscar® contender in the 2023 race — a film that will be in cinemas for four weeks only (just for the reason to fulfill the Academy Award® application regulations) before opening wide on the streaming channel of the company that essentially paid to have the film made: Netflix.
Let’s hope that these latest seismic shocks shaking up the Cinema sector recently will help to weed out more of its progress-denying players and help to re-stabilize the Cinema sector as a reliable business. One that starts and continues to better understand how to serve its cultural responsibilities as well as to maintain being an up to date entertainment opportunity in digital times beyond a (vast) niche. For this, it would be helpful for the Cinema sector to actively take action to reclaim the position as leading institution for “everything film” — as selector, tastemaker, go-to address of expertise.— Locally. And all over the place. Cinema is not dead (yet). It just got downgraded once more.
Here in my weekly series “Content Futura 2023” I will write more soon about how cinema could upgrade itself. (In relation to the dramatic decline of cinemas relevancy, I outlined some suggestions in this post here in 2019 already.) Because this downward spiral trend will continue unless the Cinema sector figures out smart ways to make the audience say again “I’ll wait until I can see this in a Cinema.”
*Great song title from a great song written and performed by Michelle Shocked — **I’m aware that checking on Google Hits is a bit of an imprecise metric. Consider it a pointer.