Streaming, Theaters and COVID: Three Cinephiles Weigh In

My film tastes tend to gravitate towards the more mindless blockbusters. While I do enjoy the occasional Lawrence of Arabia and operatic films, I’m far from a film expert. To gain some insight into the future of films post-COVID, I turned to three cinephiles. Will Mann is a movie critic who has a B.A. in English from William and Mary and an M.F.A. in creative writing from George Mason University. David Ferguson (@fergusontx) is a prolific film reviewer who sees hundreds of films a year and currently lives in Dallas, Texas. I finally turned to Tim Hodgin (@tim_hodgin), a screenwriter living in Los Angeles, California.

These interviews were conducted via email and can be found below.

With theaters starting to reopen depending on the state, any films you’re willing to risk COVID to see? Do you envision theater chains of doing a good job of enforcing social distancing and cleaning the theaters after each showing? Or like everywhere else will it be haphazard?

David Ferguson: I personally fall on the “cautious” end of the spectrum when it comes to the virus and social distancing. In a typical year, I will see more than 200 movies in a theatre. As much as I love the theatre experience, and as much of a champion of theatres that I am, unfortunately, there has been no data at this point to suggest it’s safe to head back. Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is the next “must-see in a theatre” movie that I’m most excited about, however, my preference for health overrides my passion for his cinematic artistry. The premiere date has been pushed back a few times on Tenet, so it appears the studio is trying to do the right thing. In regards to the steps taken by theatres, I do believe their intentions are good in providing a safe atmosphere. I simply doubt that it’s enough when dealing with the public.

Tim Hodgin: The only thing I’d be tempted to see in theaters is Christopher Nolan’s new film since I don’t have any way of replicating the theater experience (sound design, scale, etc) at home. But that said, I don’t trust the theaters to enforce proper protocol, and I definitely don’t believe theater workers should work under these conditions. No moviegoing experience is worth that! We have to protect our projectionists, ushers, etc. Christopher Nolan can wait!

Will Mann: I miss going to the movies a lot, so I’m very much anticipating that I will go after they reopen and there’s something worth seeing, while still taking precautions like a facemask and social distancing. I do worry about the bigger theater chains being able to enforce their promises, a lot of them have been so wishy-washy about their reopening strategy that I’m not sure I’d be willing to take the risk of going to one of them. However, this is truly the moment to shine for specialty movie theaters. Easily my favorite movie theater, Alamo Drafthouse, posted on their website what they are doing and what precautions they are taking, and I have to say, it’s pretty comprehensive and impressive. They seem much more willing to go the extra mile for the sake of their customers’ safety. The founder of Alamo Drafthouse, Tim League, even went so far as to claim that going to a Drafthouse location would be safer than going to the grocery store. I think many customers will see that level of commitment from a theater and feel like they’re in safe hands. I know I do.

Can you touch on what you miss about seeing a movie on the big screen?

David Ferguson: From my very first movie theatre experience at age 5, I have been enchanted by the whole process – the smell of popcorn, an audience of strangers, previews of upcoming attractions, a massive screen, teeth-rattling sound systems, and the ability to be whisked away in a dark room by larger than life characters. I’m very fortunate to have a wonderful set-up at home to watch movies, and while I appreciate the convenience, I certainly miss the feeling of awe that only occurs in a theatre setting.

Will Mann: I think you react differently when watching something with a group. You laugh more, you cheer, it is a communal experience. It’s also just the immersion aspect of it: the lights go down, nothing to distract you, just you, maybe some friends/family, and the big screen. It’s mesmerizing, and that experience simply can’t be replicated at home.

Tim Hodgin: There’s so much I miss! I miss the feeling of being transported by that dark room, I miss the LOUD sound systems, I miss the communal nature of sharing an experience with a room full of strangers.

With movies streaming online, any particular gems readers should seek out?

Will Mann: I abide by the motto of the American Genre Film Archive: “watch more movies.” If it looks interesting and/or you’ve heard good things about it, go and check it out. That being said, Parasite is on Hulu, Knives Out is on Amazon Prime, Shazam! is on HBO and Uncut Gems, The Disaster Artist, and Batman: Mask of the Phantasm are all on Netflix if you haven’t already checked those out.

Tim Hodgin: The incredibly stressful masterpiece Uncut Gems is one of my favorite films in recent years, and it’s streaming on Netflix. After, rewatch Walk Hard to lighten the mood. A film on Amazon Prime that really moved me last year was The Farewell. And if you don’t subscribe to the Criterion Channel (you really should! It’s the best!), they’ve made a great selection of films by Black filmmakers, and films about the Black experience, available for free for a time.

Dave Ferguson: As frustrating and inconvenient and disconcerting as the pandemic has been, it has provided movie geeks the opportunity to dig a little deeper and explore some independent and foreign language films that might have been previously only shown at festivals or special screenings. While the tentpoles and big-budget films are in a holding pattern, the indies and documentaries are having a moment. Since the first of March, I’ve watched 91 movies, and my guess is I would have missed at least a third of those in “normal” times. A few that I would recommend folks track down include: The Vast of Night, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, and Bull. For documentaries, I would suggest The Booksellers, Human Nature, 2040, Waldo On Weed, and Return to Hardwick. This is also a great time to push the boundaries with some offbeat films like Swallow, Saint Frances, and Shirley. Of course, there’s never a bad time to check out classic films (the oldies) that you’ve always meant to watch, but never managed to work them in. Now is the time to cure one’s aversion to subtitles, true stories on unfamiliar topics, and bizarre stories that you might have previously overlooked. You may not like them all, but you’ll surely find some hidden gems.

There is a glut of content available for streaming. How do you decide what to devote an evening to watching?

David Ferguson: A big chunk of my movie-watching time is devoted to the list of films I have scheduled to review. When I do have a free evening, I go straight to the running list I keep of streaming or recorded movies and series. We have to accept that it’s physically impossible to get to everything worth watching, so keep track of the recommendations you get or reviews that spark an interest. The best advice I can offer is, don’t waste your downtime searching for something…know what’s “up next” on your wish list, and watch it.

Will Mann: A lot of it depends on buzz, what I hear is worth checking out from critics or people online or friends. I usually have to hear a lot of positive things before I make the commitment, but there are also things I check out spur of the moment or because it’s associated with a franchise or filmmaker that I like. Recently during the quarantine, I was checking out movies that I had always meant to see but never had, as well as reexamining some favorites or classics that I had only seen once or twice before.

Tim Hodgin: One of my new year’s resolutions was to watch a movie a day, and I wish I could say that I’m branching out and deepening my film knowledge from the well of great cinema on The Criterion Channel, but…in these uncertain times I find myself comforted by familiar classics so I just rewatch Alien and Aliens over and over on HBOMax.

There are some really good quality films available for streaming. Whether it is Apple TV, Amazon Plus, or Hulu, have the streaming services done a good job in filling our time with quality films?

Tim Hodgin: There’s so much quality out there, and also Tiger King.

Will Mann: I think it’s getting there, but it still feels like there needs to be a watershed moment or movie that shifts everyone’s thinking about direct-to-streaming movies. Critically, it feels like we’re more or less there after the success of direct-to-Netflix films like Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, and Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. But I think there’s still a perception that movies released direct-to-streaming are lesser tier. There hasn’t really been a breakout movie akin to the success that movies like the Marvel movies enjoy, and even what “big” direct-to-streaming movies exist out there are misfires (like Netflix’s Bright, starring Will Smith) or there was an ironic assessment, not so much general enthusiasm (such as everything surrounding Birdbox). Netflix claims these movies are gigantic successes, but I never saw the conversation around Birdbox be as robust as the one around a theatrically-released movie with a similar premise like A Quiet Place, for example. Amazon is also on the bandwagon, releasing really great indie titles theatrically before they end up on Prime, switching it up from Netflix and creating buzz for their catalogue. But honestly, streaming movies seem to be waiting for their Jaws moment, their Star Wars moment: a movie that validates their ambitions and that the general public can’t seem to get enough of. Just like in filmmaking in the 1970s pre-Jaws, with Netflix and Amazon, you have a lot of auteurs doing really interesting, creative work that’s getting attention, but isn’t yet at blockbuster levels. But I believe that movie, that watershed moment is imminent. We’ll get it sooner rather than later, but in the here and now, we’re in this sort of awkward limbo before that transformative moment.

David Ferguson: The only possible answer is “Yes, absolutely!” One could also add to that: “and they’ve also provided a bunch of stuff that’s not so great.” Distinguishing between “good” and “bad” often comes down to one’s tastes. I happen to have an affinity for independent films – both domestic and foreign. The passion that most of these filmmakers have for their work is often quite apparent, while a few big-budget Hollywood films can sometimes give the impression that the stars and filmmakers are just going through the motions…or are out to make a buck, rather than a statement. That said, I’m just as likely as the next person to sit wide-eyed and mouth agape at the latest and greatest special effects event.

What are some streaming services you gravitate towards and why?

Will Mann: I subscribe to HBOGo (or whatever it’s about to be called or become), Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime. As someone who likes and watches a lot of different kinds of movies, I look for services that offer a lot of different titles from different eras and genres, bingeable classic and contemporary TV shows, and buzz-worthy exclusive shows and movies. On the other hand, I’m not particularly interested in a service like Disney+. Now that I have it for a month in order to watch the filmed performance of Hamilton on the Fourth of July (it was fantastic, BTW!), I notice it has a lot of nostalgic Disney titles. But I gravitated more towards Nickelodeon when I was a kid, so that doesn’t really appeal to me. Having all the Marvel or Star Wars movies to binge is fine, but I’ve owned my favorite entries in those respective franchises for years now. Even the fact that Disney+ has every episode of my favorite TV show, The Simpsons, didn’t interest me due to the fact that the service was showing the episodes in a weird aspect ratio that literally cuts jokes out of the frame. This was resolved a few weeks ago, but it still mostly feels like Disney+ caters mostly to families with young children. With the exception of The Mandalorian and Hamilton, it also has no exclusive titles that I would watch, something all four services I subscribe to do. Increasingly, it feels like a lot of what I watch are YouTube content creators, so I also incorporate that into my streaming pop-culture diet.

David Ferguson: Over the past few months, every movie I’ve reviewed has been watched via a link, often directly to a streaming service. Because of this, my need for multiple streaming services is somewhat limited, and I only subscribe to Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Criterion Channel. If I wasn’t offered so many other options, I would surely be one of those who added every other available streaming service.

Tim Hodgin: The Criterion Channel is a must-have for me. HBOMax has a nice mix of old, new, foreign, art films, and blockbusters (including all-timers Alien and Aliens!).

(Twentieth Century Fox)

Will Hollywood use the shutdown to productions to reevaluate how and what films they pump out? With pre-COVID, they tended to release film after film hoping to fill seats in theaters. It doesn’t seem to be a winning strategy going forward.

Tim Hodgin: The goal is still to get people to pay to see their films, and that will always be the goal, whether it’s via their individual streaming platforms or butts in seats in theaters.

Will Mann: I don’t think it will change too much, many films were already in production when the lockdowns began. I do think that there’s a chance that studios will play it even safer than they already have, which is saying a lot. But given the economic and overall uncertainty of the moment, they might decide to double-down on what’s already been proven to be successful when there’s a much narrower margin of error post-COVID. I think in terms of the types of movies that get made going forward, I think of the impact 9/11 had on the movie industry. At first, no one wanted to see depictions of the Twin Towers, there was even a scene featuring them cut out of the first Spider-Man. But slowly, adult dramas like World Trade Center and even big superhero movies like The Dark Knight began to broach the stories, themes and questions of the moment. Eventually, whether it was the Avengers coming together to save New York or Superman crashing through buildings in Metropolis, the imagery associated with 9/11 eventually became a common cultural touchstone. Along those lines, I think moviegoers will be reluctant to see things that are bleak, dystopian or post-apocalyptic for a while, so the optimism of things like the Marvel movies will allow them to continue to thrive. I’m also curious about how the imagery related to protest will show itself in a post-George Floyd/Black Lives Matter world.

David Ferguson: This is the biggest unknown in the industry, and theories abound. For those of us who love movies, our hope is that the industry doesn’t just play it “safe.” We don’t want a movie system that only cranks out sequels, remakes, and re-boots. Our hope is that creative story-telling doesn’t get pushed aside as studios limit their pursuit to mega-hits – those that produce hundreds of millions in box office receipts. It seems clear that a new day is dawning. One where theaters and streaming services can co-exist…a system that allows for capitalizing on jaw-dropping technology and special effects, as well as creative writing and filmmaking. It will require some difficult discussions amongst the parties involved, but their survival depends on it.

Do you see any studios shutting down permanently due to the financial hit from the economic shutdown? Will the bigger studios like Disney gain a larger footprint? Will there be a further consolidation of the industry like with Fox and Disney?

David Ferguson: I’d be hard-pressed to name an industry that won’t experience severe financial ramifications directly related to the virus. It’s inevitable that some studios will be unable to sustain through this unfortunate chain of events. Consolidation is assured, but I don’t even want to think about Disney gaining a larger footprint!

Will Mann: It’s possible, but I don’t think we’re going to get anything on the scale of the Fox/Disney merger for a while. Paramount is owned by Viacom, Universal by Comcast, Warner Bros. by AT&T, Columbia by Sony. Disney is obviously its own thing. I think movies have become these sort of little proxy wars where the big companies basically battle it out at the multiplex. The industry was already in a weird place where, as one friend put it, everything costs either $1 million or $100 million, and nothing in between. I think there’s a good chance that trend will accelerate, with indie studios, as well as streamers like Amazon and Netflix, continuing to put out innovative, experimental fare with small budgets, and the larger studio blockbusters. This means that fewer movies from those mid-budget genres, such as adult-oriented dramas, comedies, and rom-coms, will get made. I would’ve added horror to that, but the success that Jason Blum’s productions have enjoyed proves that he is the savior of the modern horror genre. Additionally, having just read Ben Fritz’s book The Big Picture, about the shifts in the movie industry the past 10 years, another big factor is the Chinese market. They have an appetite for large-scale Hollywood blockbusters, there’s a desire for ones that resonate with them more so than the domestic American market. So I think in the next few years, Chinese financing and investing in Hollywood blockbusters will increase, and you will see studios specifically pivot some of their bigger tentpole projects for Chinese sensibilities. Uber-patriotic blockbusters that succeeded in past decades, like Top Gun or Independence Day, may not survive in a world where so many movies depend on China to do good business.

Tim Hodgin: Unfortunately, that seems to be the way things are going. My hope is that once Disney inevitably owns all the screens, they’ll throw auteur filmmakers and indie filmmakers a screen or two to progress the art form. We’ll probably end up with David Lynch’s Fantastic Four.

Finally, are U.S. and global audiences going to abandon theaters in the long term and stick with streaming films online?

Tim Hodgin: It’s always nice to watch a movie on the couch at home, but the theater experience offers so much that not even the best home theater can replace. As soon as it’s safe, I’m gonna marathon whatever’s showing at my local theater. But until then Sigourney-Weaver-in-Aliens voice “stay away from her, you bitch!”

David Ferguson: My hope is that theaters and studios can work together to ensure the viability of the theatre experience. That feeling of wonderment I experienced as a 5-year-old has never left me, and I truly hope every kid gets that chance to fall in love with movies at the theatre. As I say, that’s my hope. It’s been interesting to see how Drive-In Theaters have experienced a resurgence in some parts of the U.S. This could be further proof that people are missing the communal experience of movie-watching. The practical side of me thinks that if social distancing remains necessary for a few more months, streaming might become the only method of watching movies. That’s a bit of downer to end on, so here’s hoping a vaccine is discovered, and studios and theaters and streaming services work together to re-imagine the movie industry with multiple options, while maintaining the “wow” factor.

Will Mann: Not in the slightest. There will always be a market for the big-screen experience. Theatrical distribution of movies has survived every threat, from television to home video to economic recession/depression, and are still going strong. There might be a downturn in attendance, but I also think any entertainment-related business will struggle with that. I think that what will change is that there will be innovative thinking about how to lure audiences back, while still maintaining social distancing until a COVID vaccine is developed. 3D was a huge trend 10 years ago after the success of Avatar, and you saw other films trying to replicate that to mixed results. I think that’s what you’re going to see: studios banking on whatever the next trend will be, maybe experimenting to see what gimmicks audiences gravitate towards.