While the obvious public health, social and economic consequences of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic are well known, this period may also change, perhaps permanently, the way we see movies.
During Lunar New Year 2019, the Chinese box office totaled $360 million in the first weekend alone. But this year, as over 70,000 theaters closed and major movies were postponed, that same box office grossed only $2 million over the holiday weekend, even though it was previously expected to generate $1 billion globally.
Since their widespread closure in January, cinemas suffered greatly. with typically high expenses and little-to-no revenue stream. According to China’s Economic Daily, which is backed by the country’s State Council, over 5,000 film and TV companies have disbanded, almost twice the number who did so in the entirety of 2019. Furthermore, there were less than 8,000 registrations of new movie theater industry-related companies in the first two months of 2020, which is down 25 percent from the same period in 2019.
After the sharp decline of Chinese cinema, the Hollywood cinema industry then followed suit. With most theaters closed in the U.S. and China, two of the biggest markets worldwide for cinema, the industry is facing a potential loss of up to $15 billion in revenue.
To accommodate the unprecedented decline, studios are seeking alternative ways to generate revenue. The American studio Universal planned to make three cinematic releases available on streaming platforms while they were still playing in theaters. A series of movies are also being released straight to demand.
When I, wearing a face mask and sprayed with disinfectant, was traveling to the U.S. for the start of the spring semester just a few months ago, I was surprised and delighted to learn that director Xu Zheng had sold his much-anticipated film Lost in Russia to platforms Douyin, Toutiao and Xigua Video to be viewed by a nationwide audience, a majority of which are in self-isolation. Even though it was a pretty bad commercial film with cheap jokes and little substance, it still helped a lot with my stress and anxiety at a time of horrible disaster.
The novel online-release mode was greatly appreciated by fans and the general audience. Within the first three days of release, the film was streamed over 600 million times, leading to loads of app downloading and resulting advertising revenue. Xu’s decision to forgo all previous advertisements invested by individual cinemas has received great backlash and a ban from all major movie theaters for his future films. Besides the short-term financial loss this caused for the film industry, Xu’s success pioneered a shift to a new way of movie-going for the Chinese population.
The COVID-19 outbreak is already changing how films are released, with many studios accelerating their home entertainment release plans. Gitesh Pandya, the editor of boxofficeguru.com, explained that online-first movie releases suit small and medium-sized films studios, saying that these are the companies "who may want to increase digital releases so they can still reach a global audience."
In the U.S., online entertainment, which is already an integral component of daily life, boomed. Many Baltimore theaters, including the Parkway and Charles, experienced temporary closure and are now switching to playing films online.
An economic boom has consequently been experienced by streaming services like Netflix (because of both the pandemic and Tiger King). For a college student who would rather spend $8 a month on two bags of Fritos than a subscription fee, the internet also provides many entertainments for free.
Late-night comedy shows have also been creating comedy content remotely. Many celebrities also collaborated and held live concerts for their stay-at-home fans while raising money for the organizations that are actively combating this pandemic.
Even as U.S. President Donald Trump has encouraged individual states to reopen, most people probably won’t regain their confidence for in-person movie-going for a while. This transition to online entertainment may fundamentally change the way that we view content forever.
This pandemic has sharply dented the cinema industry. Consequently, it has accelerated the shift from in-person movie-going to online streaming. However, nobody can conclude what truly will await us in the future. As Anthony Fauci said, reopening the economy and returning to pre-COVID life can be long progress. Can we go see a Marvel movie with our significant other in six months, holding hands? Or will we have to wear masks and goggles just to enter a movie theater, with a temperature check at the entrance beside the old-fashioned ticket check? Personally, I hope this is a comeback opportunity for drive-in theaters.
Realistically, this pandemic will pass, and cinemas will reopen eventually. But due to the inherent unpredictability of the virus and underlying socioeconomic complexity, the progress of returning to normalcy will be long and possibly painful. Therefore, during the interval of recovery, the rise of streaming services will likely be the major revenue generator for the movie industry, and this trend may continue to dominate, even after theaters slowly go back into the business. Personally, though, I’d be content simply going with the flow and adjusting to the inevitable transition to online entertainment.