When COVID-19 hit our world in the early winter, everything changed instantly. People were ill and dying, the economy collapsed, schools,stores, and just about every physical establishment indefinitely closed. While it is unanimous that COVID-19 affected everyone’s lives in dramatically different ways, each individual was probably disappointed about the absence of a major part of their life. 

For some, it might have been the inability to shop, or the cancellation of sporting events, or simply the postponement of hugging friends and family to a later date. For me, when COVID-19 emerged , and I inevitably knew movie theatres would begin to shut, a wave of sadness and longing swept through me.  Movies to me are not just about the movie itself– it is about the greater theatrical experience.   It’s about the debates over paying an extra $4 for comfier seating, collectively agreeing with friends on splitting a particular flavour of popcorn, or the nerdy joy when a trailer comes on for a highly anticipated film. It’s an experience centred around a film, but the experience itself is much more than that. 

Movies in theatres are a way I’ve developed and connected with friends and family over the years,  laughing together, crying together, complaining about how shitty a film was, or trying to wrap my mind around an abstract ending with my indie Queen’s film friends. 

Hollywood, and the global cinema industry at large, has responded to COVID-19 in a multitude of ways. SXSW was the first major film festival to announce its cancellation and we’ve only seen the trend spiral. TIFF recently announced an ambitious plan that consists of a combination of virtual, drive-in, and digital screenings for its annual festival in September. We have seen the postponement of some major releases (most notably Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984), while some smaller releases have gone straight to VOD. 

Something I can’t seem to wrap my head is how regressive some of these decisions seem to be. Take the VOD example. King of Staten Island, the Judd Apatow-directed Pete Davdison-starring film was set to be a fan-favourite at both SXSW and TriBeca Film Festival– both of which ended up being cancelled. Instead, Universal Pictures,the film’s distributor, opted to release the film straight to VOD. This means that it is available for purchase on iTunes, Apple TV, Google Play, and other similar services. 

Yet, a 30-day Digital rental of the film costs $19.99. Once you start the film, you have 48 hours left to view. That’s significantly more than the cost of a general admission ticket to see a film in theatres. The economics behind the price tag are logical from a profiteering perspective– less people will purchase the film online than pay to see it in theatres. It’s easy to see that even with the increased price, it likely won’t bring in as much money as a theatrical release. 

Yet, there are ways Hollywood could avoid the $19.99 movie. I was surprised that more streaming services did not acquire films at the digital film festivals that took place this year. After all, if Netflix or Amazon were to acquire a buzz-worthy festival film and release it immediately, the viewership would have been unbelievable. Drive-in-theatres have also had an unexpected renaissance and studios seemed to not utilize this method of viewing enough. I would also argue, using my amateurunderstanding of microeconomics, that by lowering the price to say, $9.99, more people would have purchased the film and the profit might have even been higher than the current sales.

$19.99 is more than  two months’ worth of Netflix, where I could theoretically watch a different film every single night. Don’t get me wrong, Universal’s plan was monstrously successful. King of Staten Island was the top-rented film on these digital platforms for two weeks in a row.  Despite this apparent success, the practice of releasing movies immediately to VOD is not only regressive, it’s also inaccessible. Part of the rise in streaming services was due to young crowds turning away from movie theatres due to the hefty ticket prices. And yet, to sell a film for $19.99 seems elitist and likely that it will only reach a wealthy demographic, likely one slightly different than those who would’ve seen it in theatres. 

Some distributors have postponed releases to ensure that the audience will be able to view the film as originally intended– while also  securing greater monetary profits. While movie theatres primarily profit off concessions, the operational costs involved with theatre maintenance and employment salaries create a very slim margin compared to the digital marketplace. You would think that the lack of operational costs associated with streaming would make going straight to Netflix instead of VOD a no-brainer, but this hasn’t been the case.

Frankly, I laughed out loud when I saw the $19.99 price. It reminded me of as a kid, when a Friday night at Blockbuster was one of the most happening spots in the neighbourhood. Or a few years later, when you and your friend would pay $4.99 for a Rogers on Demand movie at a sleepover. But, as I grew up, suddenly paying $12.99 for a movie theatre ticket weekly became less than ideal. 

Hollywood listened to us and gave us a solution. It gave us entertainment that was accessible and interesting. Would a film like Roma have been an Oscar-frontrunner with a theatrical release? Likely not. Would Orange Is The New Black be able to share the same stories if it were on network television? I doubt it would have ever been green-lit.  Streaming allowed people who, for one reason or another, did not utilize movie theatres frequently, to consume entertainment at their own leisure.

While realistically, the VOD model will diminish as movie theatres slowly begin to re-open, reflecting on   a small section within a larger chapter of history will allow us to question; was that really the best approach? Why, in an era, when the globe was literally confined to their homes, did they make entertainment as expensive as it could be ? More than anything, we see how Hollywood is manipulating COVID-19 to its monetary advantage. 

I eagerly anticipate the day where I can stroll into my favourite movie theatre again, and watch my film of choosing, for less than $19.99. I actively await a lazy Sunday afternoon seeing a flick with a friend and the joy that I, and many cinephiles alike, experience of enjoying a film with one another.

But, until then, no, I won’t pay $19.99 for a VOD. I will likely turn to a streaming service and pick something that likely would have never been able to see the light of day in a theatrical release such as Private Life on Netflix or Honey Boy on Amazon Prime. Let’s use this unique moment in history to explore films from the underrepresented, the marginalized, and well, not the $19.99.

HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: https://www.etsy.com/ca/listing/707436901/cinema-giclee-fine-art-print-retro-movie

Jordan Pike is a guest contributor to MUSE Online.


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