Tom Jolliffe looks ahead to how the landscape of film may change in the next few years…
The entire film world, top to bottom, across most of the world has hit pause as we deal with more pressing life affecting matters. Studios have delayed releases and productions. We’ve seen a number of films switch from an intended theatrical release to hitting pay per view in the home market. To some films there’s an evident balance needed. You can either hit now, whilst there’s more interest, or delay your release a year and potentially get engulfed among a load of other delayed releases (or lose a lot of your buzz in the time).
With Disney starting their new channel there had been some wondering whether some of the bigger tentpole releases this year might have made a switch to home premiere. There probably comes a point though, where spending well over $150 million means a theatrical release is essential. Where the home market switch has worked more effectively it seems, is those lower budget films from Blumhouse etc. Likewise, a few that were slap bang in the middle of their theatrical run, like The Invisible Man and Bloodshot, were quickly released in our homes when the cinemas shut down. In the case of Invisible Man, Blumhouse had already made a killing on the film and had more than enough theatrical success before lockdown, whereas Bloodshot had a disastrous run. The opportunity to hit the homes quickly and try to offset their theatrical losses probably made a lot of sense.
Still, cinema has been on a knife edge for a while. With most of the money being eaten up by a handful of the biggest studios (Disney in particular), and it becoming increasingly difficult to gain financing and make money way down the line in indie film-making, there’s a danger the system will crash. Audiences are already finding themselves being drawn away from the big screen. Rising prices, and a lack of diverse choices, alongside a rising array of choice in the home (and ever more affordable, high end home cinema set ups) means that audiences are largely only being drawn out to certain films. There has been a bit of an upsurge in recent years thanks to an increase in successful low-moderate budget films with Blumhouse, A24 and a few others doing a great job of making genre films for low budgets and making solid returns. Likewise, the success of franchises like John Wick, whilst some of the bigger budget alternatives are haemorrhaging interest (money down the drain with Terminator: Dark Fate etc.), proves that you can spend less on cinematic spectacle (as long as you spend it right).
Disney’s success with almost innumerable billion dollar grosses, and in particular a strong following for their Marvel brand, has almost masked wider industry problems. Unoriginal mega budget films are beginning to lose their appeal. Ideas, be they reboots, sequels or whatever, are just woefully unimaginative. Does anyone really want to see Chris Pine in a remake of The Saint? Probably not enough to warrant the budget it’ll likely have. Sure, if you make a $30 million movie and expect a tidy $100 million worldwide, it’ll be successful. Studios are clouded by dollar signs. They’re chasing $500 million, $1 billion, and feel like you need to spend well over $100 million to ensure there’s enough spectacle to achieve that. Such is the pre-occupation, that often characterisation, engaging stories and timely film-making go out the window. Going back to Terminator: Dark Fate. Release that at the time Rise of the Machines came out, it would have been better, but last year? It was over a decade out of date and just laboured. They’ve persistently had the wrong approach, when the way to do it (if we really have to) is re-invent it in a Blumhouse model.
What happens now? Will the cinemas reopen with a bustling queue waiting around the block? People will naturally be wary of large crowd based entertainment, at least for the next 18 months. Some cinema chains are already in danger, because they were in danger before. Marvels insane numbers for the Avengers films (the last two particularly) can’t be matched, and those numbers were the kind that dragged the rest of cinema in by the coat tails. Those overall year on year numbers don’t look as bad then (though inflation isn’t always accounted). Trouble is, if Disney aren’t propping up the box office numbers, and have a couple of underwhelming films, then we have problems. At Marvel, they’ve certainly been skilled in retaining their appeal, but they’ve now run through their A-list properties, and we’re approaching a potentially huge change in consumer tastes.
For indie film-makers we might see an opportunity, but it’s going to be difficult. To make the films many aspire to is difficult, because they don’t get financed. There’s not much money floating around. Low budget action films still remain a strong greenlight possibility, as long as there’s a name attached. Horror films can be shot for next to nothing and have a market, but only one enough to keep a perpetual chain of productions if you don’t overextend yourself. Churning films for the home video market is still prevalent. If they were cheap before, they’re often incredibly cheap now. This makes it more an exercise in creative expression over making a living of course, and it’s there where you see a lot of passion, even if the end results aren’t always the best.
Here’s a problem though. Hesitance. Reluctance. Delays. They can bury indie productions. Finance doesn’t always come from within film either, but regardless, as many lick their wounds financially whether they’re investing from within or out of the film world, there’s going to be a reticence to put money into some of these films. Sometimes it’s all about tastes. I’ve had films myself that were looking set for production later this year, which are now looking at 2021, but sometimes you’re on a timescale. You’re hitting a trend, a wave of interest. If it’s not there next year, you could be looking at development hell, or vaulting something for the next cycle. As for production companies, pushing back a film is that bit longer until you can complete and sell it, meaning you’re being pushed financially. Stasis is difficult in a market reliant on perpetual movement sometimes. The sad reality is, it will kill some aspiring companies.
I do envision a lower budget mentality across the board. From the big studios, all the way down to indie purveyors of entertainment. Ultimately, many studios, including some I’ve worked with, want to make more expensive movies. They want to progress, because if you’ve got more money to spend you don’t need to make as many creative compromises. Making those step ups will be just that little bit harder, because the reluctance to outlay money in the current climate. That being said, the guys at the bottom end, perfecting the art of one week schedules and micro-budgets may just have an advantage over the next few years if they have to remain under a budget ceiling. As those film-makers making films for a million or so see their budgets fall, they’ll find themselves being pushed creatively. The landscape of what you can and can’t put in a film could change. Crowd scenes may be a thing of the past, at least for the next few years, but there again, for the micro-budget film-maker, crowd scenes have always been a no-go for budgetary reasons.
There’s still plenty of excitement in the business whether you’re involved in the actual making process, or just as an audience member. What happens next, how much money is around and how it is spread across the board will test a lot of people. Film will always be there, and if we see more of a concerted push to have some more character focused films (when there’s less buck for the bang) that could only be a good thing. Importantly, when the next event like this happens (and almost seems an inevitability) then those continuing array of options across home media will be a godsend.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch) and Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see… https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/