Are films disposable?
It was announced today that Paramount has sold COMING TO AMERICA 2 (COMING 2 AMERICA?) to Amazon. The streaming platform will release the title to its Prime members this December. This news comes a day after Disney announced they are focusing the majority of the company's energy on their streaming services, going as far as to call theatrical a "legacy platform" for distribution.
The march towards streaming overtaking theatrical releases was begun before COVID-19 forced the majority of movie theaters across the country to close down temporarily this past March. From as far back as 2011's Eddie Murphy comedy TOWER HEIST, studios have attempted to experiment with shortened windows or concurrent streaming/theatrical releases.
I personally don't mind day-and-date VOD releases - films like MANDY and THE BABADOOK slayed at the box office despite being available to stream at home at the same time and, most recently, this past February theaters will still selling out screenings of PARASITE despite the film having already been released on VOD and even being available to rent at the Redbox at your nearest McDonald's.
Due to COVID-19's effect on the theatrical industry, though, more and more films are completely abandoning their plans for a theatrical release and are instead going direct to streaming. Streaming is the future - there's no denying this and, if movie theaters should survive the next 12 months, they will need to learn how to co-exist with streaming platforms.
My concern about streaming's increasing popularity when it comes to an exclusive release strategy is entirely in regards to the film's longevity. Does streaming cheapen a movie's legacy? Does it make films disposable?
I'm 35 years old so I do not remember, necessarily, the days when films like E.T. or THE GODFATHER would play in theaters for months and months, if not years. The closest memory I have to this phenomenon is JURASSIC PARK. I remember seeing this movie opening day on June 11, 1993. I would see it in theaters again several times in the months that followed and would host a Jurassic Park-themed birthday party to watch it on VHS when it was finally released on home video in October 1994. That's a long window between theatrical and home video!
Films used to have a long life, though. They played in theaters, they arrived on home video, and then they lived on through cable repeats. Some films even got a second shot at theatrical success through the repertory film circuit and midnight screenings at the local megaplex. This extended lifespan helped films find an audience over time. Movies that bombed upon their initial release were slowly rediscovered, reappraised, and celebrated. This is how cult films were born.
In recent years, with the advent of streaming, the half-life of a film has been considerably shortened. Movies were lucky if they played in theaters for over a month. Video stores are dead and retail goliaths like Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy only stock a handful of perennial best-sellers or the very latest new releases. Curation is left to the streaming services and, besides a handful of niche sites that seem to genuinely put some thought into what they offer and when they offer it, most curation on streaming services seems like an after-effect of contract negotiation more than actual film programming.
How do people discover new films? There's a phenomenon where movies that were released over a decade ago will become suddenly popular again overnight - with titles like BAD TEACHER trending because the film was recently added to Netflix. But - just as these movies arrive out of nowhere to be rediscovered on streaming sites, they are also in danger of being as quickly forgotten once the site's contract for the title is over.
And that's talking about films that had a theatrical release in the first place. How many great movies have been directly released by streaming services over the last few years to have been completely forgotten by the general public a month after their debut? What streaming service-exclusive movie has had the largest cultural impact? How do you even achieve this kind of mark on long-term discourse when the very algorithm you are in service of will replace you at a moment's notice to make room for the next binge-worthy TV series or film? What happens when these services eventually go out of business or are replaced by other services? Will movies that were never given a physical media release be lost forever?
Without folks like Netflix, movies like DOLEMITE IS MY NAME or OKJA might not have gotten made - so I'm grateful for the funding into risky films that these streaming services offer. I just wish we, as a film-loving culture, could find a way to help give these movies a longer shelf-life, to help re-establish the lengthy half-life necessary for a film to find its cult audience.
Amazon is set to release BORAT 2 this month. The memory of watching the first BORAT in sold-out theater opening weekend is one of my favorite movie-going experiences. The audience lost their everloving shit during the movie - with entire swaths of the theater gasping for breath in between laughs. The film's success led to years where you could not escape bad Borat impressions and Sasha Baron Cohen's character became an icon. What kind of cultural impact will BORAT 2 have? What would have happened if the first film had been released directly to streaming, watched in between trips to the fridge or while riding an elliptical?
What does it take nowadays for a movie to be remembered forever? Is this cultural impact even possible to achieve nowadays or have viewers' attention spans become irreparably atrophied? I don't want to be a cynic - I want to imagine a world where theatrical and streaming can co-exist, as partners, to help lift up cinema and its power to impact the outside world. I want to believe that movies can change lives and affect the world if they just are watched by enough people over a long enough time?
What's it going to take to make this happen again?