Movie Studios’ Risky Pandemic Demands Are Bad Business

The world experienced a reckoning of sorts over the past 18 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and if there’s a silver lining to be found in this tragedy, it’s the spotlight the virus has shone on systems that can be — and should already have been — changed for the better.

For movie fans and film journalists, one of those changes took the form of increased streaming availability of films, which offered general audiences an alternative to crowded theaters and gave press and critics the opportunity to do their jobs without endangering themselves or their loved ones.

In recent months, however, many studios have suddenly begun to restrict streaming access to their films, pushing fans, journalists, and critics back into theaters amid another deadly COVID surge. And sadly, it’s a decision that sets Hollywood back at a time when the conversation around movies has a unique opportunity to take a big step forward.

People at the movie theater watching a movie. They are wearing protective face masks. Focus on a family with one child.
Filippo Bacci/Getty Images

Behind the scenes

Before diving into why studios’ recent, regressive decisions are a problem, it’s important to pull back the curtain on how film journalism — and criticism — tends to work.

The relationship between the press and Hollywood is somewhat symbiotic. Movie studios rely on the media to draw attention to their films and build excitement. Bigger, more mainstream media outlets reach a larger, more general audience, while smaller outlets tend to have a powerful influencing voice in more focused, niche ways. The more exposure a movie gets across the widest range of outlets — whether they’re as big as The New York Times and CNN or as focused as websites dedicated to particular actors or shared interests — the more awareness of a film there is.

And more often than not, that awareness translates to ticket sales.

A photo of someone watching a movie in a theater.
Tima Miroshnichenko, Pexels

On the other side of that relationship, media outlets rely on movie studios to provide them with a level of access to their projects that will appeal to their readers, listeners, or viewers. It can be as simple as making new images from the film available to the press or as complicated as scheduling interviews and press tours for the movie’s cast and creative team. Film journalists and critics earn a living by acquiring this content — images, clips, interviews, or reviews — and presenting it in ways that interest their audience.

In pre-pandemic times, most movie studios scheduled special press screenings for their upcoming films in select theaters ahead of their premiere, providing journalists with an opportunity to see the film and plan out coverage of it. Similarly, critics were given the opportunity to review the movie ahead of its release in order to (the studios hope) encourage even more audiences to show up on opening weekend. (This is why it’s typically not a good sign if a studio doesn’t hold a screening for critics until a day or two before its premiere date.)

That’s how the relationship typically worked — until COVID came along, that is.

A whole new world

A photo of someone watching a movie on their couch.
Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels

Like many industries, Hollywood’s traditional business model was completely upended by the pandemic.

Studios were forced to change how they release films during the pandemic, with many embracing the sort of streaming and on-demand methods of film distribution they (and filmmakers) long dismissed as second-class environments for cinema. It was a forced evolution of sorts, and it only happened under the extreme duress of worldwide theater closures and a suddenly uncertain future for the theatrical release model.

The pandemic also changed the way studios interacted with the press. No longer able to host press screenings due to theater closures, studios began making films available to stream for journalists and critics, and later made the option available to general audiences (via on-demand or other payment-based systems) as the lockdown persisted.

It might qualify as the understatement of the decade to say this shift in the distribution of films was a big deal — after all, this is an industry that’s still grappling with whether streaming movies should even be recognized as, well … movies.

Not only did this reluctant embrace of streaming distribution affect audiences’ relationship with movies during the pandemic, it also removed a long list of restrictive elements that had long been a shameful part of film journalism and criticism.

This seat’s taken

Kids and their grandparents wearing protective face masks while watching movies at the cinema.
RG Studio/Getty Images

Previously, studios’ unwillingness to host press and critic screenings outside of large cities like New York or Los Angeles ensured that the conversation around those films was limited to press and critics based in and around those cities. Studios insisted that journalists see a movie to conduct interviews and receive the access their jobs depend on, so who writes about films has long been limited by where they live — or maybe more importantly, where they can afford to live.

Limiting press screenings to theaters has long presented issues for disabled members of the media, too. A vast number of theaters around the U.S. maintain a tenuous compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements for access, and as such, studios’ insistence on in-theater screenings for press and critics creates exactly the sort of barriers to inclusion that Hollywood often claims to be breaking down.

“Believe me, I would prefer to see a film in a theater setting, too, but no one who needs this accommodation is going to ding your project on sound or cinematography because they watched it in their living room,” wrote Gizmodo’s io9 Deputy Editor Jill Pantozzi — a wheelchair user herself — in an August 3 guest column for Variety addressing studios’ suggestion that seeing films outside a theater negatively influences journalists’ and critics’ opinions of them.

Consider the obstacles that theater-only press screenings create for individuals with young children, or those located in communities without a major theater or transportation resources (or any number of other factors), and the pool of people able to join the conversation around a film gets even shallower.

With the pandemic, however, many of those restrictions were effectively removed. Out of necessity, studios began making films available to journalists and critics to stream, and afforded them the opportunity to conduct interviews (virtually, of course), write reviews, and otherwise keep excitement high while earning a much-needed paycheck. Journalists with disabilities and those residing in smaller media markets suddenly found themselves part of a conversation with filmmakers they had long been prevented from joining, while reviewers accustomed to watching more privileged or able-bodied critics get the first pass at films now had the same opportunities as everyone else.

For many marginalized journalists and critics, it was the best of times amid the worst of times — making it even more tragic when movie studios recently began rushing to restore the pre-pandemic status quo.

An image of popcorn spilled on a movie theater's floor.
Tima Miroshnichenko, Pexels

Questionable priorities

As it stands now, Walt Disney Pictures appears to be joining Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures, and other studios in telling critics and journalists they’ll need to risk exposing themselves to COVID in order to provide readers with coverage of their films.

Despite a recent surge in the ongoing pandemic that has filled hospitals around the nation, Disney recently declined to make Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings available to press and critics outside of a few crowded theatrical screenings in densely populated areas of the country. That put the Marvel movie in the company of recent films like F9: The Fast Saga, Snake Eyes, and A Quiet Place Part II, which all debuted in theaters without a streaming option for critics, journalists, or general audiences.

Simu Liu in Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Marvel Studios

Although Sony and Paramount shied away from providing digital screeners of their biggest films to the press and critics throughout much of the pandemic, the Shang-Chi decision is a shift in policy for Disney, which initially made Black WidowJungle Cruise, and other films accessible digitally to critics and press initially, then to its streaming service’s subscribers. (Asked whether the theater-only restriction will be the studio’s policy for press and critics going forward, Disney representatives declined to respond.)

Disney’s decision also seems to contradict its own assertion about the dangers posed by the pandemic.

In response to a lawsuit filed by Black Widow star Scarlett Johansson against the studio that alleged that the decision to release the film digitally robbed her of potential profits from its theatrical release, Disney called the actress’ decision “especially sad and distressing in its callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Not all studios seem determined to make press, critics, and audiences choose between their health and the next big film, though.

Empathy matters

Streaming services-turned-studios like Netflix and Amazon Studios have seen their profiles rise during the pandemic, thanks to their long-standing digital screener system and distribution models, which eliminated many of the growing pains traditional studios have contended with during lockdown.

Warner Bros. Pictures was one of the few traditional studios to take its COVID response a step further by announcing that all of its theatrical releases for the year would be available simultaneously in theaters and on the HBO Max streaming service. The studio followed that up by providing digital screeners to press and critics for many of its major films.

In July, when it appeared director James Gunn’s R-rated supervillain team-up film The Suicide Squad might not end up available to press and critics ahead of its release, Gunn himself intervened to offer some reassurance (via social media) about the studio’s plans, and a digital screener was eventually made available. (A Warner Bros. representative also contacted Digital Trends to confirm that the studio’s other films receiving a simultaneous release in theaters and on HBO Max this year will also be made available to press and critics digitally ahead of their premieres.)

Your voice (and others) are heard. We’re trying to figure something out. We don’t want people to be left out. ❤️

— James Gunn (@JamesGunn) July 23, 2021

And yet, for much of Hollywood, it appears that a pandemic that infected nearly one million people in the U.S. in the last seven days won’t stop studios from getting back to business as usual when it comes to their relationship with the press and critics — even when the numbers don’t support their decision.

Numbers don’t lie

Of the 10 highest-grossing films of 2021 so far, six were made available to press and critics digitally before they premiered — including this year’s current highest-grossing film at the box office, Black Widow.

Expanding that sample size a bit, 10 of the year’s 15 highest-grossing films at the box office were also made available digitally to critics and press ahead of their release, with many of those films also earning additional revenue from audiences watching at home via on-demand services. That suggests there’s little, if any, support for studios’ often-repeated argument that films’ revenue is negatively affected (by piracy or other factors) by the availability of digital screeners for press and critics.

(Note: Whether theatrical ticket sales are affected by the films’ simultaneous release on streaming services is a different argument — and one that Johansson is currently having with Disney, despite her film’s status as the highest-grossing film in the U.S. this year.)

Similarly, studios’ concerns about reviews and other coverage of films being negatively affected by watching them outside theaters also seem misplaced. Among the movies that were provided to press and critics digitally this year, nearly every film currently has either a “Fresh” rating on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes or a critical consensus that aligns with audience reviews of the films.

Ultimately, making films available digitally to critics and press — regardless of their streaming availability to general audiences — appears to have little impact on their commercial or critical performance. But that hasn’t stopped studios from insisting on a return to the less-accessible, less-diverse, and in the midst of a deadly pandemic, more dangerous way of doing things.

A necessary evolution

A black-and-white photo of a remote control and glasses.
Steve Johnson, Pexels

At a time when Hollywood is hoping to make itself appear more attuned to the need for diversity and inclusion in cinema, studios’ sudden pivot back to a more restricted relationship with journalists, critics, and audiences stands in stark contrast to the image the industry is trying to present. That many of those same journalists, critics, and audience members have children too young to be vaccinated yet, or immunocompromised family members, or high-risk factors themselves makes the theater-only restriction even more tone-deaf amid the rising COVID threat.

The long-term effects of streaming availability on the business of making movies remain uncertain at this point, but Hollywood will likely need to make some tough decisions about its revenue model in the years to come as streaming services stake out a bigger claim on audiences’ attention and wallets. What the last 18 months have undeniably proven, however, is that movie studios are more than capable of creating a more inclusive, diverse, and safe environment for journalists and critics within Hollywood’s existing framework — even outside of a pandemic environment.

If the movie industry wants to stay relevant in an increasingly online, interconnected film community that recognizes the importance of accessibility, inclusion, diversity, and sensible approaches to safety, it would do well to embrace policies that add more journalists’ and critics’ voices to the conversation instead of more barriers.

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