Has the Lockdown Changed How We Watch Films Forever?

Now that the UK is slowly emerging from lockdown, I have been thinking of late whether our increasing reliance for on-demand streaming platforms and a general antipathy to returning to public spaces will change how we watch films in this country for the years ahead.

For example, a recent YouGov survey undertaken before lockdown asked the public whether they would prefer to watch a film in a cinema or wait for said film to be released on streaming service or disc: 41% went opted for the streaming option, 17% preferred physical media and only 36% stated that they preferred to see a film in the cinema. Now in July, I think if the same survey were done again, the results would be even more clear-cut in favour of the streaming option.  

Since the lockdown measures were implemented in the UK, 4.6 million people have signed up to subscription video-on-demand services (The Guardian). Though Netflix was the market leader, newcomer Disney+ saw an estimated 1.6 million UK users sign up within the first month of launch, no doubt aided by Disney’s prestigious library and a new Star Wars series.

The void left by the closures of the cinemas, both the multiplex and the independent, have been filled by the on-demand market. The titans of the streaming world, chiefly Netfix and Amazon, have a large, diverse, and ever-increasing library of films to cater to most interests and demographics, with both also having a succession of exclusive in-house titles not available elsewhere. However, even those not wholly satisfied by such a library can also find solace in less mainstream platforms as the BFI Player, MUBI and The Criterion Channel (US & Canada only). In recent years, we have even seen the rise of genre-specific platforms like Shudder (Horror/Thrillers) and CuriosityStream (Documentaries).

The success of on-demand streaming has not just changed what we watch but also how we watch. Films can be streamed, rented, or purchased directly from a wide range of media outlets, then played on whatever device the consumer prefers, whether it’s an 80-inch 4K TV with Dolby Atmos Surround or just the 6-inch screen of the latest iPhone.

The consumer has total control of the environment in which the film is watched; the opposite of what you can expect from a showing at a cinema. Whether you think this a good or bad decision is a personal preference; my personal feeling is that the cinema experience cannot be replicated at home, no matter how good your set-up is. It is as much a shared communal experience as it is a way of watching a film in its intended format and environment.  

Though having said that, how good your cinema experience is depends on factors such as how well behaved the audience is, the state of the cinema and, obviously, the cost. Factors such as travel costs, time constraints and childcare may decide whether a trip to the cinema is as cost-effective as a digital rental/purchase at home. To give an example, a single adult cinema admission for Odeon cinemas (the largest cinema chain in the UK) ranges from £6-£11 (with no concessions), whereas most new home releases can be rented from approximately £3.99 to £5.99 depending on which platform.

It’s also worth making the point that cinemas tickets are getting more expensive: according to a 2015 report from the British Film Institute, cinema admission in the UK has risen from £4.87 in 2006 to £7.17 in 2015. Still, despite an increase in price, recent figures from trade association CinemaUK, state that cinemas admission have been increasing year on year. Although cinema attendance has never returned to the heights of the post-war years (1946 saw a record high of 1.64 billion), 2018 saw the best attendance level since 1970 at 177,001,48). The increasing levels of cinema attendance seem positive but still cannot refute the trend that levels of attendance have dropped sharply decade after decade (1984 saw the lowest at 54 million).

Though personally I think it’s unfair to compare the on-demand experience with the cinema, there is no denying that the way we watch films is changing at an alarming rate. For example, since the closure of cinemas worldwide, Universal has made current cinema titles such as The Invisible Man, Trolls World Tour, The Hunt and Never Rarely Sometimes Always available on-demand – much to chagrin of the cinemas chains worldwide.

In fact, Trolls World Tour proved a surprising success having made the studio $100 million in rental fees in three weeks since its release in April (The Wrap). Though not matching the box office of the first Trolls film, Trolls World Tour saw Universal benefitting from the increased profit margin that came with the digital release, which is charged at the premium rate of $20/£15.99. As you can imagine, Universal are very happy with the on-demand success of Trolls World Tour and have expressed interest in simultaneously releasing future films for home release and cinemas.

It is my belief that the success of the on-demand model seen with Trolls World Tour will see only more films released in this way. Though the Trolls franchise is popular, it will be if massive blockbuster franchises follow suit by this same model that will seriously change how we see films going forward. Major studios like Disney knows there is a massive in-built audience for these big franchises like Star Wars and the Marvel movies, in fact, the popularity of these films have given the studios an increasing stranglehold over cinemas by demanding a bigger cut of box office receipts and giving stringent financial penalties if  their terms aren’t met. Time will tell whether the big studios are brave enough to gamble on their ‘hot’ properties, but I won’t be surprised if Disney+ or Amazon Prime adapt to this model in due course.

It is my conclusion that there will always be cinemas for as long as there are people willing to pay for admission; going to the cinema has too long been ingrained into our social rituals and culture for it to be entirely disappear. The lockdown hasn’t killed cinema, nor will it ever do, but it has happened at a pivotal time when we as a society are changing the ways in which we view media, certainly it’s ramifications will be felt for decades.