Over six months after local cinemas were first forced to close due to the arrival of COVID-19 in Australia, exhibition is still in the throes of a protracted crisis – but perhaps not in the ways that some might have anticipated, writes Cinema Nova CEO Kristian Connelly.
Every year my colleagues and I run an industry event to celebrate the Academy Awards. Only 24 hours before the big day, eventual 2020 ceremony Best Picture winner Parasite had become Cinema Nova’s top-grossing film of all time. Having professionally invested over eight months into the South Korean psychodrama, watching a foreign language flick triumph over Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman – a passion project for the director that streaming service Netflix had sunk untold millions into both producing and crafting a no-holds-barred awards season campaign – felt like a watershed moment. High on champagne I called my mother in tears of joy to predict, “this will change everything”.
One month later the main topic of conversation at the opening night of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival was centred around something else that had emerged from Asia: COVID-19. Having already debated whether to attend the event at all, we joined a less than capacity crowd gathered in a South Yarra bar without giving a thought to social distancing – a term yet to enter the everyday vernacular. As the day’s box office data started to land in email inboxes, I took the festival organisers aside: trade was plummeting, having dropped by two-thirds against the prior week. Within four days the remainder of the festival program had been postponed.
Ten days hence, after 9pm on a Sunday night, Australia’s Prime Minister was on television. As if unable to bring himself to speak the inevitable, the PM waffled through his press conference as my team and I parsed via SMS whether he had yet announced what we had all been anticipating for days. Eventually we decoded his awkward bonhomie: cinemas, along with many other businesses, would be forced to close immediately.
What I felt then I can barely remember. But what was clear is that while COVID-19 was quick to arrive, it would not be quite so fast to leave.
Acknowledging there have been recent local film distribution and cinema industry machinations as well as a lopsided second wave in Victoria that removed a third of Australia’s movie-goers from the market, what do I think I have learned so-far from this unexpected reboot of the business of show?
Opportunity knocks for independents
The morning prior to the film festival opening coincided with a trade screening of an anticipated studio sci-fi sequel due to release a few weeks later. Over a breakfast meeting with the distributor we debated how fixed the opening date was. Supposedly locked-in and not likely to change, the release date was moved to September within days.
The actions of the studios in Q1 2020 are a tutorial in corporate culture. Sony, with its Japanese executive likely conscious of the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined in the Bay of Yokohama and previous viral outbreaks that had spread across Asia, promptly moved its entire blockbuster schedule into 2021. By comparison, most American studios took a more optimistic view (possibly aided by presidential musings) that COVID would be under control by the northern summer and bumped the likes of James Bond, Top Gun 2 and Black Widow by a few months.
With local leaders quick to close international borders (to lesser and greater degrees of eventual success), Australian cinemas closed in late March appeared likely to resume trade sooner than other major international markets where the situation appeared to be shifting from bad to worse. Regularly speaking to reporters keen to predict which industries would be worst hit, I observed that the abyss caused by exiting day-and-date studio titles could be filled by Australia’s diverse independent distribution sector – a theory that quickly became fact as New Zealand based indie Rialto and Melbourne’s Madman quickly offered-up a slate of titles.
When cinemas reopened midyear, films that might have previously played at twenty venues (or not in theatres at all) were suddenly debuting on nearly two hundred screens. Box office ‘hits’ (in the adjusted COVID sense) included foodie-drama Love Sarah, Liam Neeson armchair-travel exercise Made In Italy, and an animated redux of Snow White that originated out of Korea. All were released by the independent sector.
A personal favourite, ‘time travel’ comedy La Belle Époque, achieved a box office result that would be more than respectable for a foreign language title pre-COVID thanks to a brilliant premise that helped buoy word of mouth. Sadly, it was practically alone in its success with audiences. Features in languages other than English offering realist tales set in the deserts of the Middle East or at South American workplaces failed to ignite – reinforcing the notion that multiplex movie goers have been trained to only attend American films on-mass.
With each week bringing unwelcome news that another franchise studio title has been shunted further down the schedule, Australian cinemas are fortunate to have the support of independent distributors as long as there are unreleased features with the veneer of being genuinely theatrical. But it is also up to cinema operators to successfully communicate that not every visit to the multiplex must be for a fantastical pixel-laden spectacular.
China – the most evolved market in terms of arresting the transmission of COVID – has recently seen two domestic films cross US$100m at the Chinese box office, making them among the most successful films of the year globally within a matter of days. South Korea, which kept theatrical venues open for much of the pandemic, has also experienced success from home grown titles including the sequel to Train To Busan; Peninsula. Australia has been a mixed bag in-part due to the Victorian uncertainty, but with some venues performing at around half of 2019s trade week-on-week, grosses could be far worse for a scenario that is deficient in major blockbuster product, is still experiencing hesitation among some cinema-goers to return and has auditorium capacity limitations in all open markets.
Still awaiting the exodus
With Pixar’s Onward opening in American cinemas in the first week of March, the entertaining animated fantasy only managed to play advance screenings before Australian venues were closed. Promptly pivoting the remainder of the roll-out to the fledgling Disney+ streaming service, the news media narrative quickly decided that Onward was the first domino to fall. With market leader Netflix already established, the looming lockdown would be a windfall for Amazon’s Prime, Disney+, local player Nine Media’s Stan and other streamer or VOD start-ups that were being announced daily.
But, with a few troubled or limited-appeal exceptions, the exodus from major studio schedules to streamers has yet to eventuate. While the US market (where consumers have paid for cable programming for over four decades) has established a lifecycle that can see a title move seamlessly from theatres to video-on-demand to a studio’s own streaming platform to a third-party streamer or network television, the international marketplace is not only less evolved but also less cohesive. This fragmented international situation saw studios face a conundrum: how do you rapidly duplicate the consumer habits of Americans in other international markets during a once-in-a-century event, all without wasting millions of dollars?
An argument could be made that the pandemic expedited the roll-out of some digital services to detrimental effect (see HBO Now and Quibi’s oft derided arrival), and the jury is still out on whether the Disney+ pricy upsell of their Mulan remake as ‘Premier Access’ (why not Premiere Access!?) has had the desired outcome for the Mouse House. As for what to do with anything that doesn’t easily fall into the ‘family friendly’ Disney+ basket, the decision to move Steven Spielberg’s anticipated West Side Story remake into Christmas next year indicates the remaining importance of the studio/exhibition relationship. Particularly when the filmmaker in-question was allegedly integral in diverting Oscar votes to Universal’s Green Book over Netflix’s Roma only two years ago.
We’ll Take Everything You’ve Got
The gradual pace of the pandemic has been an intriguing indication of the speed with which entertainment reaches our screens. Australian’s glued to popular reality series Masterchef watched as each week saw contestants stand further apart from one another, in the process schooling production houses globally in how to socially distance on-screen without it looking like a Year 7 co-ed formal.
Network television dramas have gradually been replaced by studio audience-free panel shows, nostalgia-fuelled documentaries cobbled together from existing footage, and news that resembles a Zoom meeting. Streamers have similarly had to get creative as subscribers consume more content than services could have reasonably assumed they were capable of watching. Enter peculiar English decorating shows, virtually unseen dramas acquired from now-defunct competitors, freshly dubbed anime and in-house features and events originally scheduled to drop months or even years later.
While cinemas globally await the stabilisation of key markets before shelved blockbusters make their long-delayed debut, home viewers will continue to expect a plethora of fresh content for their monthly subscription just as they’re starting to consider the necessity of incurring these monthly costs in the face of financial uncertainty. Digital subscriptions, which are neither necessity nor luxury, likely face a retention challenge as viewers consider whether they are delivering the same level of entertainment as they were before COVID first reared its ugly head.
Undoubtedly there will be yet more movies originally conceived for theatres instead making their way to an app. Nevertheless, as production works to meet the challenge of creating a COVID-safe set, the resistance to move more studio titles to streamers is contributing to the problem for in-home entertainment providers when audiences expect a steady stream of fresh and compelling content. And that’s before mentioning that Nielsen data continually indicates that series television far outweighs the appeal of feature films among streaming consumers.
Cinematic Memory Runs Shallow
Working within an industry which intersects with a personal passion, it will surprise no one that there are a lot of books about movies at home. Reading Taschen’s subjective Best Movies Of The 70s, 80s and 90s not only prompted me to revisit our exhaustive DVD (and VHS!!) collection but also to observe the relatively uninspired state of retrospective cinema programming caused by the aforementioned dearth of new releases.
With a few notable exceptions – and acknowledging that some studios throttled access to their exhaustive back catalogues – retrospective programming has on the most part either suffered from having a short memory, being the brainchild of an Amblin fanboy/fangirl or was proffered from plug-and-play distributor collections. Accepting that some consumers are just looking to distract the kids during school holidays as well as the concept that there are selected titles that will always attract a devoted following, success at the cinema has always needed to think beyond weekend daytime sessions and forever going back to the same ‘evergreen’ well.
Trawling through my own DVD collection, I have delighted in the opportunity to revisit the never more relevant Do The Right Thing (1989), the chilly prescience of David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010), yuppie introspections The Big Chill (1983) and Grand Canyon (1991), decline of the American empire dramas Falling Down (1993) and Quiz Show (1994), femmepowerment thriller Coma (1978), coming of age adventure Stand By Me (1986), post-fascism tragedy The Bicycle Thief (1948), the astonishingly hip early works of Almodovar as well as classics by Akira Kurosawa, David Lean and Bruce Lee. Among those still in the ‘watch pile’ are Wonder Boys (2000), Prick Up Your Ears (1987), Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Starship Troopers (1997) and something called Sweet Movie (1974, look it up…).
An entertaining stroll down memory lane, it’s also been a journey to lands that can’t be visited or are long since gone, an education in evolving approaches to storytelling, a reminder of the power of performance above pixels and, as alluded, a fascinating insight into how we come to find ourselves living through a geopolitical moment that seemed unimaginable only a decade ago. Digging beneath the surface of our individual and collective cinematic memories is something that inspires discussion, reflection and, most importantly, further exploration.
During the brief seventeen-day period Cinema Nova reopened in late June before the Victorian second wave, achieving a solid result on retro selections Bong Joon Ho’s Madeo (Mother, 2009), art-scape Russian Ark (2002) and spoof The Princess Bride (1987) was not only a rewarding experience but also reinforced the importance of offering variety and the unexpected. Audiences can be surprising, as US theatres found out mid-pandemic when a rerelease of middling 1994’s witch-comedy Hocus Pocus ranked second at the national box office behind Christopher Nolan’s Tenet.
A-B-B: Always Be Branding
Returning to day one of our unscheduled interruption, I gathered the team to make sense of our situation and to also correct the creeping assumption that the pandemic would be a brief two-week break from which we would all quickly “snap back”. Instead, this was going to be months.
Among us we conceived of a variety of distractions for our similarly shell-shocked audience including movie recommendations, memes, flashbacks, Top 30 countdowns, staff visits, polls and recipes – all of which have successively been served across social media during the subsequent months. Weekly eNewsletters pivoted from an alert about new releases and events to what was happening in the international world of film, which country’s cinemas were succeeding in their returns to screen, what we were looking forward to showing, and a variety of movie-related quizzes. Raiding my contacts list, a series of Zoom interviews were recorded with directors, critics and performers reflecting on their own lockdown experiences as well as their predictions for our shared industry.
Cinema Nova’s audience engagement barely skipped a beat despite the fact we’d gone from regularly being the number one venue in the country in the halcyon days of January and February to shuttered and dark from late March.
In the arena of exhibition social media, the absence of many (if any) new movies did lead to some odd decisions. Accounts that used to feature sex symbols now starred too many photos of bursting popcorn boxes or oversized soft drink cups (cue unwelcome comments about overpriced concessions), food platters sitting adjacent to unoccupied recliners as though Thanos had snapped his fingers just as the appetiser arrived, and attempts at engagement akin to “How good was going to the movies?”. Possibly forgotten in the confusion is the fact that audiences come to the cinema for entertainment, not a snack.
The pandemic has allowed the Cinema Nova brand to reinforce its appeal with moviegoers despite the inability for them to visit. Reminding audiences that cinema is so much more than watching a movie has always been top of mind; it is a window into other places, a forever evolving artistic discipline, a cultural hub for the community, and where we create memories. It is these memories which will help prompt them to return.
* * * *
These past twenty-eight weeks have been brutal for cinemas and the larger theatrical marketplace, and will continue to be until scientists make the greatest breakthrough of our lifetime. As an industry, we must find a way to keep the sector alive. Our patrons are counting on us to be there on the other side. Once we get there the power of nostalgia will be irresistible as audiences collectively seek to return to what we all cherished before 2020 did its damnedest.
Cinema is a kind of magic. It is an event. This alchemy of the shared experience of seeing a work of art has a collective cultural impact greater than any other. The kind that moves mountains of merchandise, creates stars for us to idolise, leaves a lasting impression on the international zeitgeist, and by which your personal favourites help define your character. It shifts comic taste, helps to normalise ‘the other’ and allows us to explore ourselves through the lives of our big screen avatars.
By Netflix’s own suggestion, series Stranger Things is possibly the most watched television program of all time. Does its larger cultural impact begin to compare to Black Panther, Frozen or Inception? Growling “I drink your milkshake!!” at someone likely conjures a more vivid memory for most people than anything related to Extraction, Birdbox or Murder Mystery.
Like broadcast television, home video, DVDs and home theatre before it, streaming will coexist with cinema rather than replace it. The event nature of going to the movies and its subsequent cultural reverberations cannot be matched – the communal experience is something that is virtually impossible to replicate in the home. It is this influence that is valued by performers, filmmakers, studios and their myriad promotional partners. The immersive nature of cinema, virtually free from domestic distractions, is to home viewing what attending a live concert is to playing to an album.
The broader challenge for exhibition ahead of arriving at our ‘new normal’ will be to keep reminding audiences of this innate appeal until they are ready to return, and then to deliver on that promise in spades. Only then can we sell them the popcorn.