COVID Is Changing How We Watch and Engage With Movies. The Industry Is Trying To Keep Up

Oct 5, 2020

The pandemic has drastically changed how we watch movies. That's having a big impact not only on movie studios, but also theaters and streaming platforms.

Tim Shelley spoke with Dr. Cory Barker, a Bradley University media professor who's researching how COVID-19 is impacting movie distribution and viewing.

Tim Shelley: You've done a lot of research and a lot of writing on movies and the film and entertainment industries in general. What we're here to talk about today is, you've done some research on how the pandemic has changed how we view movies, or how movies are distributed. If you could just talk a little bit about your most recent research here.

Cory Barker: Yeah, absolutely.

One of the things I've been really interested in, since the pandemic really hit hard in the United States is the film and television industry, have responded to that environment, not only from a production standpoint, as far as cutting down production, and figuring out ways to actually shoot film and television products in the middle of the pandemic, but more interested in the distribution of things that were already in the can.

So, particularly on the film side, I was really curious to see, early in the pandemic, there were a number of films that were slated to be released in theaters, and, March, April, or who had just been released in theaters basically, in early March, right when the pandemic really hit badly in the United States. And how studios decided to push a lot of those plans, theatrical releases to what they're calling premium video on demand, which is essentially dropping it on iTunes, or the Amazon Store, or Google Play.

And instead of allowing you to rent it for $3, or $6, they were charging $20. Because the idea was that this is supposed to be a movie that's in theaters, and therefore, a premium. And obviously, that's an attempt to try to make some money back that they're losing from it not being in the theater.

What was most fascinating to me, and what I've been looking into, is how they promoted those releases to premium video-on-demand. And primarily how they tried to use social media, specifically Twitter, to drive attention to those releases, given everything that was going on in the world, and just, frankly, still going on in the world. But in March and April, there was a lot of sudden social media promotion, where they were encouraging fans to rent these movies, and even recruiting directors or writers or producers of stars, or those films or even celebrities who are not involved at all, to download, rent.

And then everybody kind of wants to replicate the experience of watching something in the theater, or even just watching a live television episode. And then tweet about it, share news about it, use a particular hashtag. And so it was really fascinating to see how they were trying to pull social media into the promotion and distribution process as a way to try to replicate a kind of collective experience, which, in part was intended to get more people to rent these movies and help their bottom line in a very uncertain time.

TS: The pandemic still going on, I'm guessing most people who are listening to this can sympathize with spending a lot more time watching stuff on Netflix, or Hulu, or Amazon Prime than perhaps they did prior to the pandemic, because we're all home a lot more. So, how successful have [studios] been in trying to push new releases and more people to these platforms and social media?

CB: Yeah, I think, to be honest, I don't feel like it's been as successful as they had hoped. I mean, I think in the beginning of our pandemic world in the United States, there was a lot more of this experimentation to try to make some of that money up. And then as we got into May, in June, when we're reaching basically the normal kind of summer blockbuster calendar, there was obviously a real resistance from the major studios to release films that wouldn't theoretically make a billion dollars or more than a billion dollars worldwide in the theater. To drop that on iTunes and ask people to rent it for $15.

And so you started to see more kind of panic and consideration for what to do. You know, the big kind of talking point was surrounding Disney's Milan and Warner Brothers' Tenet. Warner Brothers kept kind of punting the release date of Christopher Nolan's Tenet like every couple of weeks, they would say know what's coming out in three weeks, and then they would say no, it's coming out three weeks from today.

And Disney took another approach with Milan and decided to release it to the Disney+ streaming platform that they're trying to grow that's about a year old. And they said, if you want to pay $30 - even more of a premium - this is an opportunity to see a movie that we were planning on releasing in theaters.

And the first couple of weeks after that was released, there was a lot of industry reporting about how theoretically successful that premium release was for Milan. But then just last week, Disney announced that it was pushing all of its plans, you know, movies there was going to release this fall in this winter that were originally planned to be released in the spring and summer, to next year, or even at the end of next year, and there wasn't really a suggestion that many of those films would go to Disney+.

So that tells me that as we've moved through this pandemic, and people's experiences have kind of dragged on at bein in their house or kind of mostly in their house and stuck with certain types of entertainment not being able to access others, the experimentation that was happening earlier in the pandemic, in the spring, has kind of gone by the wayside as the studios realized that their primary way of making money is really the best way for them forward, even if that means taking six months to a year before they release those movies.

And so I think there's been some excitement around the potential on, you know, us being at home, and certainly watching more. And there was a lot of reporting and studies that have come out since the pandemic started in the U.S., as far as more time spent on certain platforms like Netflix primarily. But a lot of that data is not fully...it's not that it's not accurate, but it's not information that's readily accessible to industry reporters or scholars. And so you have, I think, I have a tendency to question a little bit when they say a certain number of people are watching this Netflix show, when that information is coming just from Netflix, right?

For a certain number of people are watching Netflix or a number of hours, that information is somewhat credible, but maybe it's not the most credible information. So over the last six months, we've seen kind of an immediate peak of, okay, here's all these new ideas, people are spending more time at home, it's going to change the industries. And as we move into the late summer and into the fall, now, there's a lot more of like, we just have to get back to normal, even if that's six months to 18 months from now.

TS: But what does this mean for the traditional movie theater, then? Because they were closed for several months as we're dealing with the pandemic. They've now reopened in a limited form with reduced seating capacity and other measures in place. But for the large part, theaters still are only kind of operating right now.

So what's this mean for the future? The way you describe it, it sounds like the major studios are kind of banking on the traditional movie theater model making a comeback post COVID. But they're willing to kind of wait it out, so to speak.

CB: Yeah. And I think that that's the interesting tension point, right? The studios certainly have a lot of money invested in the films that they've already produced in their production pipeline. But they have more resources to essentially wait out the pandemic, or try to wait it out a little bit more.

You know, even Disney and Warner Brothers with Mulan and Tenet, the films I mentioned, those films have done pretty well in other parts of the world where the pandemic is more under control, and people can go to public places like movie theaters. It's in the US where they've struggled the most.

And so I think what's interesting is that the studios have resources, notunlimited resources, but they have enough to try to wait this out a little bit longer.

But as the pandemic has progressed, we've seen tons of stories about theater chains not necessarily having the resources to be able to wait these things out. As far as financially, there's a lot of -- AMC's Executive Board and leadership team has repeatedly talked about what needs to happen as far as their ability to stay afloat. And that's partially why they've reopened under limited terms, because they thought that, if they open, studios will have no choice but to put these movies out in theaters, because the studio's bottom line, you know, was dictated by the success of these type of big blockbuster films.

And then, when these movie theaters opened up, and they didn't necessarily get the new releases, that's kind of a self-generating cycle where they don't have a lot of new releases, people are still skeptical, so they don't go to the theater. And then the studios say, 'Well, people aren't going to the theater. They're not risking it. So no, we're not going to release another new film.'

And so that just keeps moving forward. I think the theaters are hoping that theywill have the ability to hold out until at least until spring of 2021. I'm not sure. You know, I don't think any of us are sure of a vaccine or anything like that. But I think that they're hopeful that they will be able to get a film here and there. And as  our ability to contain the virus hopefully improves, they will have an ability to slowly rebuild the confidence from the consumers.

I think it's just one of those things where they are so beholden to how people feel about the virus and their own safety in those public spaces. And there's been a number of stories about individual locations in these big theater chains. Some of them are takingthe safety precautions and social distancing really seriously. And in other cases, they're really not. They're saying that they're taking these things really seriously. And then when people go, it's [a] pretty low kind of attempt at doing social distancing, and keeping people safe in a way that then gets on social media. And people are talking about how they see this team might need to do a better job of protecting people when they're in these spaces.

TS: Yeah, and just to go a little bit further down the food chain here. How big of an impact does this have on, I guess, Family Video is really the last big one [home movie rental business]. But we've heard Family Video's also closing some their locations, including, some right here in the Peoria area. Is this kind of the same effect happening with them down the food chain?

CB: I thought early in the pandemic -- and that's another thing that I talked to some people about casually, like, maybe this would be an opportunity for video stores to have a little bit of a retro kind of boom, because people were going to be staying at home.

But based on, the state-by-state or even local restrictions, so many of those places were not able to be open. And so people couldn't go into those spaces, to rent things to take them back to their homes.

And so I think the home rental, in a physical sense, market was already decreasing rate for a lot of reasons. And just like so many things with the pandemic, what's happened is the virus has only kind of accentuated or emphasized some of the challenges or real significant problems that existed with the business model, or the economics surrounding something like a Family Video.

And I think it's so easy to stream things, right? I think that that can't be underlined enough. There was similarly, at the beginning of the pandemic, a live television ratings boom. More and more people were suddenly watching broadcast television, again, in a live context. And they saw a big rating spike for the first four to six weeks, March, April.

And by the time we got to May in June, that dissipated, as well. So it was really interesting that, at the outset of the pandemic, in the United States, there was almost this kind of like, return to some of the comforts of our lives and a lot of ways and different types of people were watching more television, watching media, in maybe more traditional ways.

And as this has gone on, I think, you know, just to extrapolate a little bit, I'm sure people, you know, feel more burned out about the experience that they're having in the pandemic. And I think that that has played into how the studios in the television networks, and even the streaming platforms are thinking about how to reach people in this environment.

I mean, there's been multiple new streaming platforms that have had debuts in the middle of the pandemic that were planned multiple years out, from HBO Max to NBC Comcast Peacock. Both of those have been unveiled during the pandemic. And I think that those respective conglomerates were probably not imagining there being a global pandemic when they were trying to get people to pay for a new streaming service.

And so I think even the combination of the pandemic and the multitude of more streaming services, simultaneously makes it easier to stream more things, and also kind of makes it more overwhelming to decide what to choose from. And people are probably kind of leaning back into the comforts of things that they watch on the platforms that they watch, which is ultimately probably great news for something like  Netflix, because people have been subscribing to that for a really long time.

TS: Absolutely. Cory, anything else you wanted to point out from your research or your observations that we haven't touched upon yet?

CB: Yeah, I would just say that I think it's really fascinating the way in which the studios are trying to replicate a communal experience, whether that's through the social media campaigns that they were having, with the kind of Twitter live tweeting processes that were happening earlier.

In the pandemic, twoo there's been an increased push for the streaming platforms all to integrate a kind of chat function into their interface on the screen so that you can be in one location with your friends halfway across the country. And you can hit play at the same time. And you can kind of share that viewing experience by chatting into the Netflix watch party interface, or whatever it is. And there was a story that just came out in the last week that Disney+ is trying to do that as well.

So there's a sense that these studios know that the social element is really key when people are feeling burned out and alienated and just terrified of what's happening in the world. But they're not sure the best way to do it. Because they want to do it in a way that keeps people watching them in their ecosystem, subscribing to their content. And so we've seen experimentation of that from doing it in a kind of very public sense of something like Twitter, and now moving it into the kind of private streaming platform where people can just have kind of a small conversation between them and a half-dozen friends, as opposed to everybody using the same hashtag in a public setting. So I think that's a fascinating transition, and experimentation that's been happening in just this little six-month period.

TS: Cory, thank you so much for your time today and [I] really appreciate it.

CB: Thank you.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WCBU will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WCBU can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.