Could coronavirus-enforced streaming mean better blockbusters?

There are few more problematic venues than the local multiplex if your aim is to avoid contracting Covid-19. That’s why cinemas were among the first businesses to be hit by the pandemic. And it could be a while before any of us are able to watch anything on the big screen.

Hollywood is putting on a brave face for the time being. Only one movie, Trolls World Tour, has so far been shifted from theatrical release to streaming platforms, though films such as Disney’s Onward and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Universal’s The Invisible Man, Warner Bros’ The Way Back and Lionsgate’s I Still Believe have all made their way to the small screen far more rapidly than would have been expected prior to the outbreak.

The president of the US-based National Association of Theater Owners, John Fithian, indicated this week that multiplex owners were keen for Trolls World Tour to be an “outlier” rather than an indicator of the new Hollywood normal. But Warner Bros recently denied reports that superhero movie Wonder Woman 1984 might go straight to streaming platforms. The fact is that studios are unlikely to continue honouring the longstanding theatrical “window” , which ensures cinemas get movies for a significant period before they are allowed to debut in the home, when multiplexes are unable to open.

Movies, unlike live gigs or going to see a DJ spin in a nightclub, can be consumed at home with the minimum of disruption to the experience. It’s not only possible to monetise content streaming, but audiences are already used to paying for movies online. It is therefore inevitable, should the pandemic last for more than a couple of months, that more and more releases will make the leap straight to the small screen.

Might there be a silver lining here for those of us waiting with bated breath for the next big sci-fi, fantasy or comic-book movie? For a while, it’s been clear that Hollywood has reached such a level of technical excellence that audiences viewing big-budget movies in the cinema are no longer bothered if the film makes no logical sense, has terrible dialogue and features clunky acting. How else to explain the runaway success of Michael Bay’s Transformers films or DC superhero flicks such as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice?

Let’s imagine for a moment what Hollywood might look like in a world without cinemas. We would lose moments such as those glorious watery fight scenes in Blade Runner 2049, the outrageous pulsing of Hans Zimmer’s gorgeously bruising score pummelling the eardrums into ecstasy while Roger Deakins’ epic cinematography sets synapses on fire and almost causes our eyes to pop clean out of our skulls with its sheer high-definition intensity. Denis Villeneuve’s film is a perfectly enjoyable watch on the small screen, but at a high-spec cinema it’s a religious experience. Likewise, James Cameron’s Avatar has its detractors, but few can forget the first time they saw it in blistering 3D on the big screen.

On the other hand, might the shift to streaming lead to some interesting changes in the way film-makers approach their art? Imagine if the creative team behind The Mandalorian had been in charge of making the latest Star Wars film, Rise of Skywalker, and had been given the time and patience to deliver a fitting finale to the long-running space opera, rather than a botched, overly self-referential rush job with zero new ideas.

Is it too much to hope for that we might see a gentle transition towards a cinema of ideas over spectacle. It’s been palpable in recent times how well cerebral science fiction works on the small screen, from shows such as Westworld and Black Mirror to straight-to-streaming films such as I Am Mother. While both feature their fair share of action thrills and spills, these are predominantly dialogue-based concoctions that are perfectly enjoyable on a laptop. When similar ideas end up being translated for the multiplex, the result is often far lazier, as if the focus is on making those high-octane set pieces really pop at the expense of storytelling. The best we can hope for is a half-decent Terminator movie every few years.

Perhaps in years to come, we’ll see this period as a turning point for big-budget cinema, when the closure of multiplexes for long periods encouraged film-makers to try a different route to getting their ideas in front of an audience. When, forced to turn down cinema’s volume, Hollywood finally realised it needed to turn up the imagination.

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