Does a big film have quite the same impact when it doesn’t get a full cinema outing? A few thoughts on just how underrated the big screen might be.

In 2019, Warner Bros finally – after several attempts – scored a huge hit for its DC Extended Universe of movies. Granted, it’d had box office successes before, with films such as Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice, Suicide Squad and Justice League bringing home fair amounts of cash. But also, it’d had to pay a fortune to get them to the screen in the first place, and then to persuade audiences to watch them.

With the far more modestly costed Joker though, it had a genuine sensation, the kind of film that cinema has a unique power to lift into the metaphorical stratosphere. Released in October 2019, the $60m film grossed over $1bn in cinemas, and then did huge business again on home formats. Warner Bros played this expertly too, utilising the prolonged theatrical run that saw the film stick around for months in multiplexes. All the while it was there, bringing in its audience, it kept being talked about. Then there was the whole conversation about when could people see it again on DVD, Blu-ray, streaming and whatnot. It was posh coffees all round.

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Now imagine that Joker was released this coming October instead.

Working on an assumption – everything crossed – that cinemas remain open, its parent company now has a policy that its theatrical releases for 2021 are shared simultaneously with its US-based streaming service HBO Max. That if you’re in the States, you can go and watch a big new release in a cinema or you can see it from your sofa on the same day. In fairness, this didn’t stop Godzilla Vs Kong doing surprisingly good business in American cinemas, where the film should creep over the $100m line. But still, that was the first blockbuster out of the traps when American cinemas reopen, and subsequent Warner Bros releases shared with HBO Max have barely made a ripple at the box office.

In the case of Joker, a simultaneous streaming release would certainly have got it widely watched, but would it have become the phenomenon it did without cinema? Even stepping away from the romanticism and the joy of watching a film on the big screen: just as part of the business model for a major blockbuster, isn’t cinema pretty crucial? Because what we seem to be getting at the moment is a collection of companies who – again, under the pressures of the last year – are relegating the importance of a big screen release.

I wonder, for instance, if Sony should have held its nerve with the superb Mitchells Vs The Machines, and got us talking about it even longer by playing it in cinemas (as opposed to selling the film to Netflix). I’m wagering that the release of Peter Rabbit 2 in cinemas – also from Sony – is going to demonstrate a real appetite for family movies on the big screen again, and I think Mitchells could have really benefitted even more from that.

Sony isn’t alone, of course. Paramount sent Coming 2 America in the direction of Prime Video last Christmas (banking a nine-figure cheque in return), Disney popped Pixar’s Soul directly on Disney+ without the ‘Premier Access’ premium price bit, and it bypassed UK cinemas altogether for last year’s Mulan too. Then there’s Wonder Woman 1984 from Warner Bros, that got a brief cinema release in the UK before they all shut again.

In the case of at least a couple of those, I can’t help thinking that the lack of a theatrical window hurt them. That the films concerned were in the spotlight for less time than usual.

Going back to Disney, I thoroughly enjoyed Disney’s latest production, Raya & The Last Dragon. It arrived in cinemas in March, and also on the Disney+ platform via its Premier Access service. Only it didn’t get a cinema outing in the UK, given that they were all shut at the time. Now that indoor cinemas have finally opened again, it’s getting some big screen showings at last, but I can’t help wondering if its immediate moment has gone. I was doing some work with Film Stories Junior magazine just last week and talking to young reporters about the movie, and not one of them had seen it. A few hadn’t even heard of it.

And this is a major Disney animated feature. A film that looks like it’s fallen through the cracks at the moment.

Can you imagine that happening had a theatrical release been possible? With the associated buzz that goes around that? The film was still marketed heavily, but I can’t help thinking it just wasn’t the same. Not just because I’m a cinema fan, but also because it made it struggled to cut through.

Granted, it’s ripe for discovery once the Premier Access firewall price is dropped (next month, apparently: at the moment, you have to pay £19.99 on top of a Disney+ subscription to watch it). It’ll find an audience. But will it still capture the imagination and conversation that a cinema release seems able to fuel?

By way of contrast – again, appreciating this was in easier times – I can’t help but remember 2013’s Frozen, a film that’s gone through its fair share of backlashes since it became such an enormous hit following its cinema release. I still love it though.

The thing with Frozen too was that its cinema word of mouth absolutely powered it. That there’s still – and I know this sounds like I’ve been on a course – something of an ‘event’ about a cinema release. Cinema takes effort on all sides, and it’s a trip out. You might not believe it given the state of some audience’s behaviour, but most people are far more likely to pay attention to the film. And when a cinema is the only place you can see a movie for a period of time, that gets more of us moving.

My head isn’t entirely in the sand. The model has been changing for years and had to. The shortening of the exclusive theatrical window is long overdue for the vast majority of films.

But still, there’s what looks like in some quarters at least an over-eagerness to dispense with just what cinema can do for big movies. And I’ve not even got to what it can do for more modestly-budgeted ones either. Just look at the sensational word of mouth Mark Jenkin’s film Bait enjoyed off the back of a prolonged theatrical run.

I can’t think of anything that can give a film the profile of a good cinema release. None of this is to say that a film can’t find a huge audience on streaming, or on television. In some cases now, that’s their best shot, and that’s likely to be the case for the foreseeable future (and there are also films such as The Shawshank Redemption that flopped at cinemas and then became home viewing sensations: there are always films that break the rules).

But I just think it’s harder to cut through without a proper big screen release. For better or worse, there’s something a little less about choosing to relegate the cinema itself. As an aside, I’m also pretty certain that it’s the big companies primarily making these decisions, rather than filmmakers themselves. I can’t remember a single filmmaker I’ve spoken to who didn’t want their work ultimately on a cinema screen.

Yet at the moment, whilst a big cinema release used to be at the heart of a big movie’s release plan, now it feels like it’s edging towards an optional extra. I, for one, can’t help but think that comes at a real cost…

Lead image: BigStock

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