Thursday 8 September 2022

Blockbuster Stories Have Moved From Cinemas to Streaming

Living room sofas rather than cinema recliners are the new home of blockbuster stories, if the past few months are anything to go by. Is this the new normal going forward, or are cinemas still an integral part of big-budget storytelling?

Aside for a couple of notable exceptions, it's not been a great summer blockbuster season. Sure, we've had the likes of Top Gun: Maverick, Jurassic World: Dominion and Thor: Love and Thunder – dominating cinema screens – $1.4 billion, $996 million and $751 million apiece – but the volume of hits or releases hasn't been there. 

In the United States, Maverick just reclaimed the number one spot at the box office in its fifteenth (!) week. Here in Australia, Thor spent a whole month at the top of the charts, only to be supplanted by Bullet Train for a three-week spell. 

After a strong start to summer, the receipts are starting to trail off – the top ten releases at the Australian box office haven't collected more than $10 million in a week in about two months, since the start of July. Suffice to say, while audiences are ready to flock back to the cinema, the number of new releases to check out is dwindling – and if there's fewer and fewer new films to watch, why bother coming back?

It's because, and nowhere is this more evident than the last month, really big releases are now living out their lives on streaming platforms, rather than in multiplexes. These past three or four months have been absolutely rammed with 'must-see', big-budget television, the kind of stuff you'd normally see in a shorter, cinematic format at your local cinema. 

Strangely enough

Netflix has been sliding out of the spotlight this past year, but briefly bucked the trend from May to June with the release of Stranger Things 4. According to the Wall Street Journal, each episode of the nine-episode season cost around $30 million, which shakes out to a smidgen under $300 million for the whole shebang. That's not just a blockbuster film budget, that's akin to an Avengers or Pirates of the Caribbean movie budget.

The episodes themselves were conflated too; the finale clocked in at a staggering two-and-a-half hours, making it a feature-length farewell all on its own. And let's not look past the big selling point: the production value. Stranger Things has always looked and sounded good, but this season really delivered in the spectacle stakes, with visual effects that wouldn't look out of place on the big screen.

The streamer also splashed the cash for Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, reportedly spending $15 million per episode for the eleven-episode first season, as well as $200 million for The Gray Man, a spy thriller starring Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans. Add that all up, and that's somewhere in the region of $660 million on just three projects released in the space of four months!

Back in May, Disney debuted its $90 million Obi-Wan Kenobi miniseries, starring Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen – it's no secret that this series started life as a film, before Disney switched up its approach and opted to focus on its streaming service, Disney+. And later this month, comes the premiere of Andor, another Star Wars series that ties into the films, as a prequel to a prequel (2016's Rogue One).

Beautiful, dark, twisted fantasies

Meanwhile, HBO has gone all in a prequel of its own with Game of Thrones spin-off, House of the Dragon. The show, helmed by Thrones alum Miguel Sapochnik, cost $20 million per episode, totalling $200 million for the first season. And the gamble appears to have paid off, with the show attracting HBO's largest audience for a new original series in the United States.

Not to be outdone, Prime Video has entered the fray in the last couple of weeks with the grandest and most expensive show of the lot.

The first season of Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (yep, another fantasy prequel) reportedly cost somewhere in the region of $465 million to produce, and that's before you consider the purchase of the IP itself and the marketing spend on this behemoth. 

It's an astoundingly large sum, if you think about it, because we've yet to acclimatise or adjust our expectations in this new streaming era. In 2019, when Avengers: Endgame made a $1.2 billion in a single weekend in cinemas, that was quantifiable justification for Marvel's $356 million budget.

And going off the first two episodes alone (that's all that's aired at the time of writing), every dollar and cent of that extortionate budget has made it's way onto the screen – with glittering production design and visual effects, The Rings of Power looks and sounds incredible. 

Money, money, money

With streaming, there are no ticket stubs to track or dollar amounts that the industry can keep count of. It's hard to know, week to week, if Amazon is somehow recouping that cost with new subscription sign-ups, or at least holding onto existing ones (which is more than can be said for Netflix right now).

All we know, is what we're told – this many million hours watched, this many views in the first 24 hours etcetera etcetera. It's all a bit cloak and dagger, don't you think? 

On face value, which is to say, if we take their word for it, the spend has garnered results. To varying degrees, each of these shows or films have drawn people's attention. Stranger Things sat at the centre of online discourse and discussion for weeks back in June; similarly, House of the Dragon and The Rings of Power are everywhere online at the moment, for better and for worse. 

Whether or not they've actually made back their budget, in the traditional sense, we'll likely never know – but in terms of growing the reach, engagement and exposure of their host platform, it's undeniable that these shows are making waves.

So what does this all mean?

All of this to say (and I realise, it's a lot of numbers to digest), that we're firmly rooted in a new era of blockbuster storytelling. Back in the 1970s, when the likes of Jaws and Star Wars practically invented the meaning of the word 'blockbuster', it would have been inconceivable that one day, you wouldn't even have to leave the house, let alone queue around the block, to see the freshest film or the biggest movie in town. 

Hell, even 10 years ago, the notion that something like The Avengers or Skyfall, the two biggest films that year, would be beamed into your TV after a narrow 45-day theatrical window would have been ludicrous. 

What does all this mean for the industry going forward? Beats me, especially when something like COVID comes along and turbocharges change like never before. But it's becoming increasingly clear that this shift away from theatres isn't just hurting a traditional and cherished revenue stream, it's limiting choices for audiences. 

Fewer films are finding their way into theatres – something like Prey, for example, would have made a killing in cinemas five or 10 years ago. Now it's dumped on Hulu, all part of the ongoing churn and burn of content – and that means there's increasingly less to entice audiences back to cinemas. Say I've got a spare evening, what am I going to do – go and see Maverick for the third, fourth or fifth time? There's little else to choose from. 

Additionally, those mid-budget movies that cater to adults are now being carved up and turned into six-part or eight-part miniseries, like Apple TV's excellent prison drama Black Bird or HBO Max's compelling true crime series The Staircase. Both great shows, don't get me wrong – but five or 10 years ago, these probably would have been a film. Meanwhile, modest mysteries like Where The Crawdads Sing or original sci-fi like Jordan Peele's Nope, increasingly feel like a rarity these days – and down the line, will probably be shafted onto streaming.

I think the real question is, can streamers like Netflix, Prime Video and the rest keep up this pace forever? Surely spending half a billion dollars on three or four properties isn't sustainable, and we're already seeing the first chinks in the armour start to open up, with Netflix looking at their spending and introducing ad breaks on their cheapest subscription tier.

Whatever happens, I think it's safe to say that we haven't levelled out yet, and the industry will continue to bend and flex into all manner of shapes to cater to the audience that's out there. Whether that means pouring money into streaming, or striking a balance between home and cinema formats, only time will tell.

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