EDITORIAL: Bigger Movies on Smaller Screens

Earlier this year, my parents asked me what big movies coming up were shot in Vancouver and elsewhere in our home province of BC. As far as major theatrical releases were concerned, the only title I could conjure up was Sonic The Hedgehog 2, which was a tad outside their demographic (Not me though, I loved it ). Every other title I could come up with was destined for the small screen: The Good Doctor, Snowpiercer, The Flash, A Million Little Things, etc. I started to wonder what had happened to all the Vancouver-shot blockbusters of the Godzilla, Twilight, Planet of the Apes, Man of Steel and even Fifty Shades variety?

Further internet research to my parents’ query pulled up plenty of star-studded feature film titles being shot in BC this past year: The Mother (Jennifer Lopez), Lou (Allison Janney), Buddy Games 2 (Josh Duhamel), The Unforgivable (Sandra Bullock), and Peter Pan & Wendy (Jude Law). But all of these have either since been released or are destined for various streaming or VOD services, largely Netflix.

This anecdote serves to illustrate a trend that I had first noticed some years ago: multiple movies that would have once been released to theatres now more or less resigned to small-screen only distribution.

“We’re in the business of entertaining our members with Netflix movies on Netflix” the streamer’s co-CEO Ted Sarandos said in response to whether Netflix would be re-thinking its paltry theatrical strategy. The streamer has invested billions in its original content as the licenced shows that made it such a hit in the first place (The Office, Friends) have slowly been re-acquired by studios looking to build their own streaming libraries. 

But for what Netflix has gained in content volume, they seem to have lost in general value. Have any of the movies (as opposed to series like Stranger Things and Bojack Horseman) really become beloved classics or even “hits”? Was anyone really clamouring to see the mega-budgeted, star-studded The Gray Man like they were for the equally-expensive, yet theatrically exclusive Top Gun: Maverick? Will Ryan Reynolds’ Vancouver shot Netflix sci-fi The Adam Project be as fondly remembered as his theatrical sci-fi triumph Free Guy?

The Adam Project and Free Guy. Which Reynolds movie are you likely to most re-visit?

Streaming certainly has its advantages. You get to enjoy a movie in the comfort of your own home on your own schedule and this will even seem ”free” given that the price is a charge buried deep in your credit card statement. On the other hand, having access to a pause button means your experience with that movie will be more protracted as you pause to go to the bathroom, get a snack, scroll on your phone (something rightly frowned-upon in the theater), or even stop and check out something else if your selection fails to sufficiently please you in the first 15 minutes. After all, there are literally thousands of titles across the multiple streaming services you’re paying for. A free movie you caught as a time-filler is less likely to stick with you than something you went out with friends or a date for.  

       The writer with girlfriend Fiona Hu and buddy Joel Reimer at the opening weekend of Dr. Strange 2

For a theatrical movie, you’ve gotten dressed, gotten out of the house, met up with friends, and once the lights go down, you’re stuck on this ride ‘till the end, laughing or gasping with your fellow passengers. I often go to the movies with friends and it’s not uncommon for us to take an instagram photo with the poster and grab a drink to talk about the movie afterwards. Streaming ends up being that Uber Eats fast food you’ll forget as opposed to that awesome restaurant that you’ll go out of your way to recommend to friends. 

“Film creators strongly believe in theatrical exhibition as a measure of success” notes analyst Michael Patcher. Studios may be noticing this too as Warners has recently made an aggressive push to streaming which includes scheduling former HBO Max-exclusives like the House Party remake and Magic Mike’s Last Dance now scheduled for theatrical release and even outright shelving the nearly-completed Batgirl. As new Warner Brothers Discovery CEO David Zaslav notes: “The movies we launch in the theater do significantly better and launching a movie direct to streaming has done almost nothing for HBO Max in terms of viewership”. There’s simply more value in the theatrical experience and Hollywood knows it. 

Two of the biggest horror hits during this last Halloween cycle Smile and Barbarian, were originally destined for Hulu oblivion before high test screening scores convinced 20th Century Studios to pursue theatrical releases where they have since grossed $99m and $41m domestically, highly profitable for these low-budget productions. Even the less-than-well received Halloween Ends managed to accrue $63m theatrically despite being available on Peacock from day one. Many Predator fans wish the latest installment, the Calgary-shot Prey had been granted a theatrical experience as opposed to the Hulu-only (Disney+ in Canada) release, ostensibly to drive subscribers to the platform.

Prey missed out on what would’ve likely been a lucrative theatrical run

Even Netflix seems to be slowly realizing this as they have committed to a one week theatrical window in major cinema chains (including Cineplex here in Canada) for the upcoming Knives Out sequel Glass Onion starring Daniel Craig and Edward Norton. This is still far-short of the now-standard 45 day window for most major releases, but still far better than the limited screenings in indie theaters that the likes of Netflix heavyweights Don’t Look Up and Red Notice got. This strikes me as a smart move. After all, as Cineworld CEO Mooky Greidinger notes “The bigger a movie succeeds in the cinema, the bigger it is on auxiliary marketing.”

Daniel Craig and cast set sail for a one-week theatrical release for Netflix’s Glass Onion

In the end, I do believe there is a place for digital or streaming-only releases. I wouldn’t exactly expect people to flock to the cineplex for the likes of Rescued by Ruby or The Princess Switch. But the continued banishment of what should be high-profile movies to the bottomless content reservoirs on our smart TVs and apps only serves to devalue them in the long run. So be sure to check out Glass Onion when it begins its limited theatrical one in Cineplex this month and perhaps it will be enough for the streaming giant to let at least one of its Vancouver-produced titles on the big screen again. I’d like to have something exciting to tell my non-Netflix subscriber parents when they ask me about those again next year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *