Hollywood producers and filmmakers think they know what audiences want after a roughly a year of being stuck in their homes, cut off from friends and family while a global pandemic raged.
“People want to escape,” predicts Milan Popelka, chief operating officer of FilmNation, the company behind “Arrival” and “Late Night.” “Stories that are more uplifting and optimistic will be at a premium. There’s more than enough stress in the world, I don’t think people will be interested in watching something that adds to their stress levels.”
That means more comedies, musicals and feel-good stories mixed in with the usual diet of superhero films and sequels, producers say. It also signals that the movie business won’t be too eager to greenlight movies set during the darkest days of the pandemic… at least not for the foreseeable future.
“The last thing people want to watch is stories of people in isolation or wearing masks,” says Jason Blum, producer of “Get Out” and “The Purge.” “People are sick of the pandemic. I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of movies that are explicitly about COVID.”
Studios and producers may not be rushing to make a sequel to “Contagion” in a post-COVID world, but structural changes sweeping the media business could make them more willing to back movies that might have otherwise ended up in the scrap heap, dismissed as too much of a commercial risk. With consumers housebound, streaming services surged in popularity and the options for people looking for alternatives to Netflix or Amazon Prime dramatically expanded. Disney Plus may have launched before coronavirus upended cultural life, but its customer base swelled during the pandemic, a period of time that also saw the launch of Paramount Plus, Peacock, and HBO Max. All of these services are hungry for premium content, which is leading to a seller’s market for content creators.
“There’s more buyers and more competition for movies, which is good for business,” says Saban Films president Bill Bromiley.
The economics of streaming are also different from those of theatrical movies, which live or die on opening weekend grosses and thus tend to need to arrive with the kind of pre-awareness enjoyed by comic book adaptations or remakes.
“I think you’re going to see a renaissance in the two-hour feature format similar to what happened with TV,” says Blum. “These streaming services are looking to release as many as 100 movies a year and that means there’s going to be a lot more capital to make movies for the foreseeable future.”
Moreover, Blum notes, films like the Tom Hanks drama “Greyhound” or the teen rom-com “The Kissing Booth,” which might have struggled to get attention at a multiplex overstuffed with Avengers spinoffs, are huge hits on streaming.
“A few years ago you couldn’t get romantic comedies made. Now they’re back in full force,” says Blum. “And that’s true of multiple genres.”
Many customers are cutting the cable cord in favor of streaming services, which they can pick and choose on an a la carte basis. But the companies behind some of these new players believe that the future may be bundled. Already, Disney has offered subscribers who sign up for Disney Plus, Hulu and ESPN Plus (all of which the company owns) a discount. Others may follow suit, but in novel ways.
“I think you’re going to see some non-traditional bundles,” says Michael Burns, vice-chairman of Lionsgate. “You’re going to see three or four video streaming services that are being packaged with a music service or a podcast service or with an Amazon membership. There’s no reason couldn’t package Starz with a music service and a dating app.”
The rise of streaming may spur a boom in film production once coronavirus dissipates and it’s easier to shoot things safely. Some movies have been filmed during COVID, but at a great cost due to all the testing and safety measures that need to be implemented to prevent outbreaks. Once those barriers to entry are lowered and vaccines are readily available, producers believe that there will be a mad dash to roll cameras. Many aren’t just eyeing a streaming debut for the films they have planned. They think that people’s strong desire to get out of the home and socialize will help the movie theaters that have been able to ride out the public health crisis.
“When we begin to socialize again, I think we’re all expecting the floodgates to open,” says Gail Berman, producer of Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming Elvis Presley film. “Young people are dying to find a way to be together and socialize and share experiences.”
Matt Donnelly contributed to this report.