For Samantha Follows, a 54-year-old bartender in Los Angeles, the frustration has become routine. A friend will recommend a movie to watch, and thus begins an arduous mission to find out where she can actually view said movie.
“It drives me crazy,” Follows says. “I’ll go through a ridiculous experience of going online… it says it’s on Netflix but it’s not there, and then a friend says it’s actually on HBO Max. I get resentful. Not only can I not afford to sign up for every streaming platform, but I also don’t want to have to do that.”
Follows’ exasperation is all too common in an age where new movie distribution patterns are regularly being established, fractured and reset. For decades, there was one way for audiences to experience a new film: in theaters. Now, the blurring line between streaming and theatrical releases is putting an extra layer of work on the consumer to figure out where and when a movie will be available. It’s a problem that will only become more pronounced as theatrical windows continue to shrink and blockbuster movies move more freely between subscription streaming services.
“For every marketing department around town, it’s a new, real consideration that part of your job is not just to event-ize a movie, but to educate consumers about the where and how,” one studio marketing executive says on the condition of anonymity. “That wasn’t the case a few years ago.”
That’s become increasingly clear as the box office attempts to recover from COVID-19. When the pandemic forced movie theaters to close, the one-size-fits-all model to debuting theatrical movies went out the window, leaving cinemas in the lurch as traditional Hollywood studios forged strategies that were more favorable to distributors. In theory, it provided a rare opportunity to revitalize a slow-to-change system. In practice, it’s hard to imagine how the average consumer, one who likely couldn’t tell the difference between a movie from Paramount, Sony or Universal, is expected to keep track of rapidly changing trends in film distribution.
To wit, nearly every major movie that’s opening in theaters this summer is arriving in a different manner. Paramount’s “A Quiet Place Part II” is playing in theaters for 45 days before moving to Paramount Plus, while Warner Bros.’ offerings “Space Jam: A New Legacy” and “The Suicide Squad” are premiering on the big screen at the same time as they land on HBO Max at no extra cost to subscribers. From Universal, “F9” and “The Forever Purge” are screening in cinemas for an unknown period of time before jumping to premium video-on-demand. But even more perplexing to consumers, release plans aren’t even consistent by studio; Universal’s animated feature “The Boss Baby 2” is launching in theaters on the same day it bows on Peacock, where subscribers can watch it for free. Disney’s “Cruella” and “Black Widow” will be offered in theaters or to rent on Disney Plus for $30, while Disney and Pixar’s “Luca” is skipping theaters entirely to land on Disney Plus without a surcharge. Phew.
“I’m every bit as confused as the consumer right now,” says Peter Newman, a film producer and the head of Tisch School of the Arts’ MBA/MFA program, who has been following the industry for decades.
As a casual moviegoer, you’d be forgiven if you expected the Warner Bros. musical “In the Heights” to come with a surcharge on HBO Max. It would be understandable if you thought you could see a recent release like “A Quiet Place Part II” on Netflix. And it makes sense that you’d be operating under the mistaken assumption that you could pay extra to watch Paramount’s “G.I. Joe” spinoff “Snake Eyes” at home on the same day it opens in theaters. It’s all part of the confusion that comes with trying to comprehend the fog of the post-pandemic moviegoing landscape.
“The public isn’t ready to dig that deep to understand on a case-by-case or picture-by-picture basis where something is available,” Newman says. “The rare exception is the must-see movie.”
New information from industry researcher Guts and Data backs up that notion. The company surveyed 600 active moviegoers, most of whom were not able to distinguish where new movies will first be available to watch. Only 33% were aware that Lionsgate’s action comedy “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard,” which opened on the big screen last weekend, was being offered exclusively in theaters. Of those surveyed, 39% thought the film would be accessible to stream while it’s also on movie theater marquees. Meanwhile, just 21% of those surveyed knew that the Pixar movie “Luca” is available to Disney Plus subscribers at no extra cost but isn’t available in cinemas. 43% thought “Luca” was also playing in theaters.
People are also mixed up about when new films are debuting, according to Guts and Data findings. Only 23% of those surveyed were aware of both the title “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” and knew that it was already screening in theaters. For “Luca,” just 34% were aware both of the property itself and the fact that it had already premiered.
There’s always been a degree of confusion, industry experts say, about release dates for new movies. But it’s gotten increasingly difficult for a blockbuster-hopeful, especially one that don’t hail from an existing film franchise, to stand out when there’s also 52 new films coming to Netflix this year alone — not to mention the numerous Marvel TV series on Disney Plus or the latest in a string of buzzy HBO Max shows.
“Back in the day, there was such limited choice. You would look at the newspaper listings to see if the local theater was showing a movie,” says Jason Squire, who wrote “The Movie Business Book” and is a professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. “The good news for consumers today is there’s so much choice. The bad news is that you may not know how to find that choice. That’s devastating for revenue.”
Marketing can be the make-or-break factor when it comes to making it simple for the public to find an upcoming feature. There’s a reason why TV spots and commercials for “A Quiet Place Part II” heavily emphasized the fact that it’s playing “only in theaters.” (The film subsequently enjoyed a huge opening weekend at the box office.) The issue is that audiences don’t always pay attention to everything the advertiser wants them to. After all, it’s not realistic to assume all moviegoers will see a buzzy teaser and immediately Google to find out where to watch it.
At the same time, the companies that make these movies are part of massive conglomerates. That means they’re not just interested in reaping box office rewards, they are also a critical component in the promotion of the streaming services that their media overlords believe will be the future of the entertainment business. It’s just as much a priority for Disney Plus, Amazon Prime, HBO Max and others to tout the platform as a whole and boost subscriber numbers. The downside to advertising a streamer as a one-stop-shop for accessing tons of premium content is that certain movies, the kind that don’t have built-in fanbases, can get lost in the shuffle. That’s a problem because theatrical movies that were in the works prior to COVID-19 were greenlit and granted certain production budgets with the expectation that they’d hit a certain box office benchmark. And without new properties getting the proper attention to tap into the zeitgeist, it makes it harder for fresh IP to spark new franchises.
New York City resident Tim Fitzgerald, who works in fashion, says promotion for the glut of new content across streaming platforms and in theaters feels like “an acid trip.” On top of that, he finds it hard to justify shelling out extra money to see one movie at home when he already pays monthly for the service. “Disney makes a zillion dollars a year,” he says. “They have me pay a subscription fee and then want me to pay another $30 to rent ‘Cruella’? No ma’am.”
Likewise, Zoe Malliaros, a 26-year-old Manhattanite who considers herself an avid movie watcher, calls it a “mental exercise” to remember where new films — even those she’s already seen — are playing. “I rented ‘Promising Young Woman,” which I think was on Amazon.” she says. “I can’t even remember. There has to be a better way.”