Streamers: What’s Next for Movie Theaters?

Welcome to the brave new world of total confusion in the movie business

If there’s one thing we’ve all learned, or at least should have learned, over the least year or four, it’s that prediction is folly. As a calamitous 2020 comes to a close, and we take a moment, despite ourselves, to imagine what the coming 12 months have in store for cinema, about the only thing we can be sure of is that it’ll be better. Right? I mean, it kind of has to be better. Right?

In Portland, movie theaters have been closed to the general public since mid-March. The survival of one of the nation’s best exhibition infrastructures hangs in the balance.  Beloved independent venues such as Cinema 21, the Hollywood Theatre, the Northwest Film Center, the Clinton Street Theater, the Laurelhurst Theater, Living Room Theaters, and more have explored inventive ways to bring in at least a fraction of their normal revenue. These have included partnering with indie distributors to serve as portals for online rentals, renting themselves out for private, socially-distanced screenings, and selling concessions to go.


LOOKING AHEAD: AFTER 2020, AN UNCERTAIN 2021


It’s very likely that theaters won’t be able to return to anything like normal operation for several more months, which means more creativity will be required. One intriguing concept will be test-driven in January by the Hollywood Theatre, which is offering a four-week Master Class on the films of B-movie legend Roger Corman. Each week, participants will gather online to discuss one of Corman’s films. (Enrollees are responsible for watching the films on their own beforehand.) The discussions will be led and hosted by programmer Dan Halsted, and the real selling point is the roster of special guests Halsted has assembled. (One pandemic silver lining is that you don’t need to afford airfare in order to facilitate this sort of thing!)

Director Peter Bogdanovich doing his thing.

The films span various eras of Corman’s career, and, refreshingly, aren’t the ones you might first guess. The first is 1962’s “The Intruder,” which stars a pre-Trek William Shatner as a racist instigator who arrives in a small Southern town. That got your attention, right? The second is 1968’s “Targets,” a scathing indictment of the American culture of violence that was director Peter Bogdanovich’s first triumph. And, in fact, the ascot-sporting raconteur himself will be the special guest for that week’s discussion.

The series continues with 1979’s “The Lady in Red,” with screenwriter John Sayles (“Matewan,” Men with Guns”) joining Halsted to discuss this vibrant take on the John Dillinger saga; and 1978’s “Piranha,” with director Joe Dante on hand to riff about this entertaining post-“Jaws” entry in the aquatic horror genre. At $12 per class, or $45 for all four (and discounts for Hollywood Theatre members) this is about as affordable a film education as one could hope for, and promises to be among the most entertaining to boot. It could also provide a fertile model for other indie cinemas trying to keep the lights on during the pandemic, and it’s definitely NOT something that Regal Cinemas or their ilk are likely to horn in on.

Regardless of how well those sorts of ancillary measures work, though, film exhibition has been changed forever by the pandemic. With nearly an entire year’s worth of product unable to be released in the traditional manner, studios have come close to admitting total defeat in the face of the streaming tsunami. While it had become commonplace for independent distributors to release their titles for online rental simultaneously with, or shortly after, their theatrical releases, industry behemoths such as Disney/Marvel and Warner Brothers, after multiple postponements, have started releasing some of their billion-dollar backlog through online platforms.

Three films in particular, all released in the last couple weeks, point out the pros and cons of watching big-budget movies at home as opposed to on the big screen.

THE MIDNIGHT SKY (2020) George Clooney as Augustine and Caoilinn Springal as Iris. Philippe Antonello/NETFLIX

The George Clooney effort (he stars and directs) “The Midnight Sky” is the sort of mid-level, genre-adjacent product studios usually don’t have time for anymore. It’s the story of a scientist, left behind in the arctic wasteland of a post-apocalyptic Earth, trying to warn a returning crew of astronauts about the situation that awaits them. Also, he wants to make up for being a Bad Dad. It’s the sort of intimate, but visually immersive, tale that too often gets lost in the shuffle (see, for instance, Jeff Nichols’ “Midnight Special”) despite having broad appeal.

Instead of spending a few weeks on the 5th or 6th screens at the local multiplex, “Midnight Sky” went straight to Netflix, where it may be even more likely to get lost in the content jungle at first, but where it will pop up in the algorithmic recommendations of at least some of its target audience. Score one point for streaming.

“WW84,” as the sequel to the relatively well-received “Wonder Woman” (no, you haven’t missed the intervening 82 episodes), is deserving of all the opprobrium sent its way since its debut on HBOMax on Christmas Day. It’s a paragon of soulless sequel-itis, saddled with a virtually charmless star, a complete lack of wit or self-awareness, and some plot points that leave clumsy in the rear-view mirror and drive headlong into the downright offensive. Wonder Woman is a feminist icon as well as a comic-book icon, and for a film centered on her to bungle issues of sexual consent and female empowerment as badly as Patty Jenkins’ movie does is mind-boggling.

That said, like the similarly inept if less offensive “Aquaman,” it’s probably more fun (or at least less excruciating) to watch it in plasticine megaplex comfort, leaning back in a recliner seat while sucking on an extra-large carbonated beverage and ignoring the kid kicking on the back of your set, than it is at home, where the temptation to scream and run out of the room is harder to suppress. Camp is best appreciated in a crowd of the like-minded, and if there’s anything enjoyable about “WW84,” it’s best appreciated as camp. Point: movie theaters. [Strong counterpoint: A monthly subscription to HBOMax costs less than two of those extra-large sodas.]

Deceased music teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) encounters an eccentric street character (Graham Norton) in “Soul.” ©2020 Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved.

Disney, like Warner Brothers, has its own streaming platform (everyone does, don’t you have yours yet?), and the latest Pixar release, “Soul,” met the world via Disney+. Like most Pixar efforts, it’s beautifully rendered, lovely to listen to, and imbued with bittersweet wisdom. It follows a middle-school music teacher (voiced by Jamie Foxx) who unexpectedly meets his demise, just after getting his big break in life, by falling down an open manhole. His soul then travels through various realms trying to reunite with his body, in the process helping a cynical fellow soul (Tina Fey) try to find her “spark.”

Don’t worry, the metaphysics go down a lot easier when accompanied by trippy visuals and a jazzy piano score. “Soul” isn’t top-flight Pixar, but it would definitely benefit from being seen (and heard) in a top-flight cinema. One weeps for the army of animators whose thousands of hours of work will be seen by far too many on a subpar television, laptop, or (god forbid) phone screen. Movies like this make theaters essential, and one can only hope that, even if their ranks are thinned, even corporate cinemas will survive—and, just maybe, learn a thing or two about improving the customer experience.

Warner Brothers has already announced that all 17 of its 2021 releases, including the highly anticipated new version of “Dune,” the “Sopranos” prequel “The Many Saints of Newark,” and “The Matrix 4,” will debut on HBOMax day-and-date with their theatrical release. The results of this massive experiment will go a long way toward determining the fate of movie theaters in 2022 and beyond.

It’s customary for reviewing outlets to preview an upcoming year’s releases, but of course many of the most anticipated films of 2021 were also among the most anticipated films of 2020. In addition to the Warner films, big-budget tentpoles such as Marvel’s “Black Widow” and the latest entries in the James Bond, “Fast and the Furious,” “Top Gun,” “Minions,” “Ghostbusters,” “Conjuring,” “Kingsman,” G.I. Joe, and Godzilla franchises will all debut next year (fingers crossed, I guess?) rather than this.

In a more auteurist vein, we were also robbed of the opportunity in 2020 to see Steven Spielberg’s take on “West Side Story,” and the new year should bring new work from Jane Campion, Claire Denis, Lucile Hadzihalilovic, and Joel (but not Ethan) Coen. Some of those films might hit festivals this year and commercial release in 2022, but at this point we’re all desperate for any sort of new, quality, cinema. More immediately, Oscar contenders including Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” and the Anthony Hopkins starrer “The Father” will be making their way towards screens big and/or small over the next few weeks.

One hazard inherent in the New World of post-pandemic film distribution is the increased difficulty of keeping track of which movies are actually available to watch/rent/stream at any given time. Another Oscar contender, “Promising Young Woman,” has opened theatrically, but is playing on (as far as I can tell) exactly one screen in Oregon, the AMC Classic 12 in Corvallis. So if you’re in Corvallis, excellent! You can go check out Carey Mulligan’s acclaimed performance today. If not, you need to wait until it shows up online—which may happen…soon?

This column, going forward into the vast unknown of the next twelve months, will endeavor to create some order out of this chaos. From a perch in Portland, we will, from a cinephile’s perspective, keep tabs on what you can watch on which platform (including physical media—remember that?) and whether or not you should. And when our city’s temples of the seventh art stir from their enforced slumbers and shake off their accumulated rust, we will be there to stand back, snap to, and salute their perseverance and dedication to the communal experience that separates television from cinema.

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