It was only halfway through the 2010s when filmmakers started to grouse about an unusual subject: iPhones. Spike Lee can’t believe people want to watch great movies on their phones. “I know it’s not a popular view, but as a filmmaker — we kill ourselves with editing. With lighting. With sound,” he told Variety in 2015. On the special edition of his impenetrable opus “Inland Empire,” David Lynch puts it even more succinctly: “It's such a sadness that you think you've seen a film on your f-----g telephone. Get real.”
And yet, Netflix says that 70 percent of all streaming on its platform happens on a good old-fashioned television screen, not a phone, computer or other device. Put that in your tub of popcorn and butter it.
In the 1980s, VHS tapes and Blockbuster (RIP) brought the magic of the theater into the comfort of your own home, but in the 2010s, movies could now be accessed in your pocket, or more appropriately, in your hand during your commute or your tablet during a long flight. As of 2018, Americans stream about 8 billion hours of content a month, which is more than an hour a day for all consumers over 13.
To be fair, people haven’t stopped going to the movies. That might be because as the screens got smaller, the movies got bigger. It’s one thing to watch “Birdbox” on Netflix all alone (or while “chillin’” with someone special) but it’s another thing entirely to see “Avengers: Endgame” on opening night with a theater full of rabid fans.
Mostly thanks to giant franchises, global box office sales hit an all-time high in 2018 with $41.7 billion, with the domestic box office bringing in $11.9 billion. But a 2018 market report by the research firm IBISWorld projected that box office growth will be “sluggish” and “attendance will remain largely flat."
“Continually increasing access to home entertainment options will likely deter consumer spending on movie theater outings, forcing the industry to rely more heavily on other domestic licensing revenue, such as on-demand video and online streaming. This will put pressure on the studio model.”
Things aren’t looking so bad for Netflix, whose stock was at $7.50 a share at the start of the decade and will cash out at $302.50 by the end of it. (Note to self: Invest in Netflix.) But the success of the streaming service is attracting marquee films, like Martin Scorsese’s latest, “The Irishman,” to it. (The film’s release included a short theatrical run, but mostly so that it can be eligible for the Oscars. The same thing happened in 2018 with Netflix’s eventual best foreign language film winner “Roma.”)
Confusingly, Netflix also competes in the Emmys. Does the platform think it’s the movies? Does it think it’s TV? If it’s not TV, then is it somehow HBO? The future is a weird and sometimes scary place.
Whatever Netflix is, its clash with theater chains isn't going to end soon. Ironically, a 2019 study by EY’s Quantitative Economics shows that those who stream more content at home are also the same people who go to the theater more often.
Maybe the problem isn’t so much streaming services, but what Hollywood has to offer. In fact, many indie movies now arrive “day-and-date” to both theaters and video on demand services like Amazon video and iTunes, a trend that started earlier this decade. Movies with smaller audience can be marketed to a niche and don’t require as heavy a theatrical run. For an extreme example, in 2015 Sony recouped about $40 million on "The Interview” when cinema chains pulled the movie after protest (and terrorist threats) from the North Korean government.
But it’s now hard for anything that is smaller and quieter and costs less than $200 million to get a lot of attention at the Cineplex. Sequels have always been big business, but thanks to Marvel we now have the “cinematic universe,” which is more than a franchise and less than, what, total global domination?
A look at the top-grossing films of all time shows 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame” at the top with $2.8 billion. Of the top 10 films, four are “Avengers” movies, one is a “Star Wars” flick, one is a reboot of “Jurassic Park” that has become its own universe, and one is the seventh sequel to “Fast and the Furious,” which is now spinning off movies as fast as its cars spin out busted tires. Another of the top films is “Avatar,” which James Cameron is currently blowing up into four more films. The only one left on the list is “Titanic,” which, due to the vagaries of history, can not be expanded upon, spun off or otherwise built into an empire. Of those 10 movies, eight were made in the 2010s and nine were made after 2009.
Disney, which owns the Marvel movies as well as Star Wars and other lucrative franchises, brought in 40 percent of all U.S. box office sales in the first nine months of 2019. not everyone was as successful. But notably, not all franchises are created equal. Other than the certified hit “Wonder Woman,” Marvel rival DC Comics has had a much harder time connecting with its films like “Superman V Batman: Dawn of Justice,” “Justice League” and “Suicide Squad.” While we’re lauding the success of the interconnected movie universe, let’s say a prayer for Universal’s intended Dark Universe, which was scrapped after the failure of the Tom Cruise kick-off vehicle “The Mummy.” (NBC News is owned by NBCUniversal.)
Everything now needs to be tied to everything else. There need to be prequels, post-quels, two-movie finales, days-long marathons of the 20 movies that lead up to the big events. When people have everything they could possibly want on their phones, they want (and perhaps increasingly expect) movies to be events. And as this trend continues, studios are not only not making midbudget movies anymore — the smaller comedies and dramas that often appealed to discerning adults — audiences aren’t paying to see the ones they are making, either.
You’re probably reading this article on your phone. Once you close it, you can as easily use the same device to watch a Marvel movie on Disney as you can send a text or check your email. Or maybe you’re off to see the new “Star Wars” at the theater. But if these trends continue into the next decade, it means the future will be full of more content, bigger content and more expensive content. And it will follow us wherever we go, wherever we look, even when we’re not watching.
- Brian Moylan is a freelance journalist who specializes in television, celebrity, and other very important matters. He lives in London.
This piece was first published by NBC Think.
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