The Parents are Fighting Again – Universal, AMC, and the Remains of Cinema

The parents are fighting again.

Right, so, there’s a spat between struggling American cinema chain AMC and Universal studios that’s going on like two furious cats ready to rumble. Universal, in need of money and with a plate of films sitting doing sweet FA, opted to push Trolls World Tour out via VOD in the US, skipping a theatrical release. Naturally, there’s nothing cinemas can do about that at the moment, given their hands are tied by the current pandemic we find ourselves housebound by.

Then, in a prime case of ‘fuck it, may as well do it for everything’, Universal decided that, well, let’s let SEVP and CFO Michael J. Cavanagh spill the beans:

“In response to these shutdowns, we immediately and proactively moved our theatrical films to a premium video on demand service. While we are very pleased with the PVOD success, the particular circumstances of each film are unique and we will determine our future distribution approach on a title by title basis.”

Kicking the can, AMC spat back saying that, ‘yeah, nah, we aren’t gonna show your films no more Universal’, and put a blanket ban on Universal films screening in their theatres. Like a hot headed sibling needing equal attention, Cineworld cinemas huffed into battling, also stating that they too would deny Universal films the chance to screen in their cinemas.

Universal, currently sitting smart with the upper hand right now, pushed back stating their own ‘yeah, nah’, and reaffirmed the case that on a case by case scenario, future films will be rolled out as a day and date option for viewers, saying the air diffusing statement ‘when that distribution outlet makes sense’ in relation to where films will arrive for a rabid public to consume.

Meanwhile, in the land of Aus, far away from this brouhaha, yet still close enough to marginally hear what’s going on via the tin-can-telephone internet the country has, kangaroos have returned to the cities.

These kangaroos have likely never visited a cinema, and if they had, they may wonder what this whole debate is all about. Why is this even a debate?

In short, with no cinemas, and a library full of films, studios still need to make money to stay alive and breathing. It’s why there was a shorter release gap between cinema and home for films like Birds of Prey and The Invisible Man, or why films like Onward and the last Star Wars appeared on streaming services sooner rather than later.

In America, certain independent films have been released earlier online, with part proceeds going towards keeping cinemas alive (albeit, in a coma).

Look, if you’ve got your finger on the pulse of what’s going on, then this is all old news. You know this. Why am I even going on about it?

Well, because whatever splashback occurs from our cinematic parents arguing again will cause ripples across the cinema landscape in Australia. For the sake of clarity, ease, and the mere fact I’m writing this on a Friday afternoon, we’re going to use Trolls World Tour as our study guide item as to why things need to dramatically change going forward.

Ok, so the trumpets blare, and the song they’re singing is that Trolls World Tour made $US95 million in online rentals. That’s a pretty solid taking for a family friendly film. Universal have stated that they want to release the film in cinemas when the world is allowed to sit in the dark with strangers once again. As per above, AMC and Cineworld are having none of that, and it’s not just because they’re not Justin Timberlake fans (this is a questionable statement that is unquantifiable).

But, in Australia, just like every other damn music world tour, Trolls World Tour is going to take its sweet damn time getting to us. It’s not scheduled to arrive here til September, and even then, who knows what the landscape will look like then?

As such, with everyone sitting at home pretending they’re working in between making Tik Tok videos with their cats, film piracy has surged across the world. Piracy tracking website MUSO covers this extensively in an article about the impact of coronavirus on piracy. It’s well worth the read, but I’ll highlight this one important point:

Comparing the last week of March when lockdown began to the last week of February 2020, MUSO saw film piracy increase by 41% in the USA, 43% in the UK, 50% in Spain, 62% in India and an astonishing 66% in Italy. These numbers would seem to confirm that it has never been easier to view content illegally and people have never been more relaxed about doing so.

They also have a white paper available to read about the impact of Coronavirus on the movie industry. It’s short, and well worth a read (especially for the part about how rapid the increase in demand for Contagion went).  

Now, I want to hazard a guess that Australia doesn’t factor into this list because of the governments good job at keeping Australia’s rate of infection down. Yeah, Scotty from Marketing, have a treat. Just the one.

But, either way, one title right at the top of the pirated film list is that leftover nineties tchotchke musical Trolls World Tour, which currently sits atop a certain very popular (yet still widely available in Australia, give that treat back Scotty) piracy site as one of the more in demand films.

Now, Universal knows intimately the importance of international box office for their films. Heck, the Fast & Furious series is a financial juggernaut predominantly because of this reason. People like the Vin. Give them the Vin, and they’ll be happy. So, that reason explains why they’re holding off having Trolls unleashed in Australia til September.

Take a quick glance back at Village Roadshow’s The LEGO Movie debacle, where they lost millions when its release was delayed in Australia, giving Aussie ma’s and pa’s who know how to google the ability to download the flick a whole 48 days before it arrived on our shores.

At the time, Village called it ‘one hell of a mistake’, and then, when The LEGO Batman Movie was due to arrive, they held it back again by 43 days. (As an aside, I love reading these two articles written months apart by cnet writer Claire Reilly, here and here.)

Instead of letting the dancing Trolls movie out onto on demand services in Australia, Universal have kept it back til a later date, even though kids were at home hopefully being diligent little Aussies and watching Bluey.

Yeah, ok. So, we’ve hit problem number one with this whole on demand service thingo right away. Now, I’m not saying every family is going to be pirating everything, but the cost of watching new release films all the time is immense, and as the demand and need to be ‘part of the conversation’ carries on, people will still turn to it when funds are tight.

In this massive state of flux, there is a clear understanding that things need to change going forward. The way of the old had its values and importance, but there’s an opportunity to rebuild things into something better, something more community focused.

Now, I could easily sit here and state the old rote adage that I’ve been twirling around like an idiot with juggle sticks – namely, the cinematic experience is paramount and sacred and the only way to watch movies – but the fact is that that’s just not the case anymore.

A lot of us have 4K TV’s, surround sound speakers, and the ability to hit our significant others if they won’t shut up while watching a movie. Sure, a cinema has a massive screen and state of the art Dolby surround sound, but can you hit a stranger for talking? Yes, you can, but you’re likely to be arrested.

What I’m getting at is the blatantly obvious. The home viewing experience is comparable to the cinematic experience. Not on scale or quality, but on ease and comfort.

This is what cinemas need to combat going forward, and they need to take this downtime to address the issues facing the cinematic experience.

AMC? Well, they’re currently rooted (in the Australian sense, not the bizarre American meaning), with their financial status being positively screwed right now. Australian cinemas are doing marginally better, but this Covid-19 situation will cause some genuine issues going forward.

They’re genuinely going to need a lifeline thrown to them, with audience numbers coming back to support them like never before. This is obviously going to be hard, with cinemas likely going to be faced with occupant restrictions per viewings, as well as the question of whether people will even want to sit in the dark with strangers for two hours.

I don’t want to write about what cinema means to me in this piece. I will point you to two critics with their thoughts on the importance of cinema, Luke Buckmaster and Jake Wilson, both of whom talk about the ‘cult of cinema’.

But, I will say that the next few things are written by someone who loves cinemas and films, and wants them to survive. I also write it from a place of privilege. Given my role with The Curb, I’m able to view a fair amount of films in advance, for free, in a respectful environment. I do spend a lot at the cinema, and will often be in a movie theatre two or three times a week, but I am not your typical movie goer.

I also write this knowing that as a cinema addict who lives for the theatrical experience, there have been more than a few times a year where I’ve been the sole attendee at a paid prime time screening. Those sessions ran at a loss for that cinema.

First up, as hard as this is going to sound, cinemas desperately need to reconfigure their ticket prices. The one constant argument I’ve heard about the state of cinemas and why people – especially families – don’t go to the movies more often is that it costs a ridiculous amount of bucks for a few hours out. Whether it means introducing a subscription based service in Australia, or simply lowering the costs across the board, this should be number one with a bullet on the plan for rebuilding cinemas when they reopen.

To help alleviate this, studios should definitely take less of an initial cut from cinema screenings to accommodate any initial lost revenue. After all, the margin that cinemas get from films themselves is low, causing the major revenue to be derived from food and drinks.

Which is the next thing… reduce the price of food and drinks. Yes, they make a lot of money for cinemas as it is, but they desperately need to be more affordable. Again with the families – the direct market for a film like Trolls World Tour – they’d be outlaying at least $100 to go and see a film together. To do that each month is downright impossible, especially on the stagnant income flow that Aussies have.

I know that the last thing that people will be thinking about when businesses are allowed to open up is going to see a movie, especially since they’ll be struggling to find work and earn money to feed their now-Tik Tok-celebrity-cat, but cinemas and films do employ a fair amount of people in Australia and they need to accommodate a drastically different economy.

Next up, address the talker in the room.

While I’m lucky and I rarely encounter the unwanted narrator in the room, given I usually sit on the margins of the cinema like an outcast, I recognise that this is the other major problem that people have with viewing films. If a couple is heading out on a date and has slapped down $50 for them both to enter the front door, then they’re going to want to sit there and listen to Ryan Reynolds make dirty jokes as a Pokemon for two hours, and not the dude in the row behind them wetting himself whenever he hears the name Squirtle.

Staff need to be more diligent about ejecting talkers and enforcing an environment where talking is discouraged. How this is done needs to be assessed on a cinema by cinema basis, but let’s start with premium cinema, like Gold Class. There is no reason why audience members can’t rat out a talker in a screening when there is high traffic from staff.

Now, I say that something needs to be done with no solution at all, knowing full well that the more staff monitoring situations like talking or uncivil behaviour, the more people are required to be employed, which then drives up the cost of food, which then also drives up the cost of tickets, and then… well… we’re back at square one and you’re answering questions from your estranged relative as to how they can best watch Trolls World Tour on their iPad.

Basically, the future of cinema needs to be more flexible. People have voiced their concerns about why they don’t want to go to the cinema, and to be perfectly frank, this coronavirus is just one more reason why audiences may steer clear of cinemas.

So, reduce the costs, make them more sociable, make the experience feel special.

This doesn’t mean fancying up the cinema in random ways – hey, let’s put a fucking bed in the cinema is not a great idea folks – but instead, amplifying why people go to the cinema in the first place.

There have already been steps to do this across the board, with cinemas like Hoyts and Reading adding reclining chairs to all screens, and making the luxury experience feel applicable across the board. But a bit more needs to be done.

I have no idea how good Trolls World Tour is, or will be. But, it is a money making film, and one that would certainly put bums of all sizes in seats and make a bunch for cinemas and studios. To see that kind of possible success be squashed and diminished because of the need for revenue is sad, and concerning.

In Australia, we already struggle to get some films here. There’s a truck load of independent films that simply fail to appear on screens or just randomly pop up on demand without notice. I fear that the same will happen to the larger films, the ones that help keep cinemas alive.

With that said, again, the future needs to be more flexible. If a film flops at the box office, then don’t wait months for it to land on demand or streaming services, but bring it to digital platforms sooner. If a film succeeds, then keep it around.

Additionally, more awareness needs to be made about the release of films in Australia. As someone who runs a culture site, I’m still desperately unaware of the release of smaller independent films on demand. I had no idea that Luce or Blindspotting had been released in Australia til I stumbled on them in the Google Play store. These are films I’d kill to elevate for audiences.

This is part of the reason why global day and date releases are a must going forward. It happens for Netflix, and the discussions that take place from shows like Tiger King help drive viewers towards the platform. The same needs to occur with films. There’s simply no reason why international audiences need to wait months for successful films to arrive. It’s just feeding directly into the piracy pool once again. Yes, there’s nuance to this point, but it remains true that cinema, TV, and pop culture entertainment is consumed on a global scale in a communal manner. People talk endlessly online about what they’re watching, with films and shows immersing themselves immediately into meme culture and civil discussions. Why are studios so eager to forgo that kind of free discussion til for the sake of… well… who knows.

Again, there’s nuance to that point, but it’s still unfathomable that a film like No Time to Die was scheduled to be released in the US a month after its UK release.

Look, I love cinema. It’s a holy ground for me, and one of the true places I find peace and solitude. I’m missing it more than I’m missing anything else right now. My heart aches for the dark screen and the stories that I can immerse myself in. I yearn for that experience, and I know many other people also yearn for it too.

But, I know that my patronage and a few other dedicated film lovers isn’t enough to keep the magic lantern burning. No, there needs to be more than that.

I feel like storming out of my bedroom and yelling at AMC and Universal to stop fighting and to sort this mess out. They need each other, and we need them. But for now, I just want everything to turn out in the end. I crave a Hollywood ending for cinemas and movies. I desire and yearn for that positive button at the end of this whole barrage of bullshit.

I just hope that enough people out there crave it too.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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