Indie cinemas were enjoying the success of awards frontrunner The Banshees Of Inisherin – until Disney decided to fast-track it to its streaming service.
Before the pandemic hit in early 2020, the cinema industry was already going through something of an existential crisis. Said dark night of the soul was thanks to the inexorable rise of streaming, that cheeky upstart armed with an infinity loop menu, autoplay trailers and a brainy algorithm.
Not that cinemas haven’t had to cope with the threat of home viewing before, but this situation was different, thanks largely to the fact that the long treasured theatrical window (the time between a film opening in cinemas and being available at home) was being squeezed even smaller as streamers looked for more exclusive ‘content’ to entice subscribers.
Still, nothing that couldn’t be worked out, right? Give it some time to let the choppy waters settle and a new landscape would ultimately emerge.
Then the pandemic arrived, and the entire world of entertainment was swiftly thrown into utter chaos. Slow changes became instantaneous and a gradual shift in how people watch films was thrust into warp speed. And absolutely nobody was ready for it.
As a cinema programmer, I’ve written before on this site about the effects the pandemic have had on the cinema industry, but within the last year, it’s become ever more apparent just how much panic and complete guesswork has been informing decisions about how and when films are being released. Long term strategies are few and far between as new streamers pop up every few weeks, each of them desperate to get a foothold before the market is entirely saturated.
Nowhere is that lack of long-term thinking more apparent than with the recent release of The Banshees Of Inisherin.
From a UK perspective, Martin McDonagh’s Oscar tipped dark comedy opened in cinemas on October 21st and was a clear hit with audiences, especially within the independent sector. Here at the Midlands Arts Centre in Birmingham, it was our busiest film for months. With awards season picking up at the start of 2023, it was a sure-fire bet to run and run, with inevitable nominations helping to bolster an already admirable box office.
And then it suddenly got thrown onto Disney+ in mid-December, in what seemed to be a desperate bid to shore up subscribers for a streaming service that’s still not remotely profitable.
It’s common knowledge that Disney+ is running at a big loss for the Mouse House and isn’t expected to be profitable for another couple of years, but this is one of those projects that’s just ‘too big to fail’. Disney+ must succeed, because how would it look if the world’s biggest entertainment conglomerate had a failing streaming service? They have aspirations to be number one, and number one they must be. No ifs, no buts.
And so a film like The Banshees Of Inisherin, instead of being given time to organically grow and continue to bring audiences into cinemas, is released onto Disney+ (a service that isn’t exactly the first place you’d look for a dark dissection of grief and masculine anger) because they need ‘content’. They need it right now. And so all the potential benefits of a theatrical release are cast aside in favour of sacrificing any and all films to the streaming wars.
Obviously, I myself have an inherent bias in this debate, and as such will always be on the side of cinemas. But I’m not some zealot who demands that we return to the days of films staying in cinemas for six months before home release and only ever being shown on 35mm. All industries must adapt with the times, and I’ve always believed that streaming and cinemas can co-exist. It’s just the decisions being made right now are often bafflingly short-sighted and often the result of higher-ups panicking about how shareholders might react to the fact that the streaming bubble has very loudly burst.
In an alternate reality, there was a far better option for The Banshees Of Inisherin in terms of when and where it got released, one which likely would have benefited both cinema operators and Disney+. Starting with an autumn release off the back of its positive reception at various festivals across the globe, McDonagh’s beautifully realised film would have started as before with a strong opening week, and been left to run over the coming weeks as word of mouth brought a steady stream of audiences into cinemas up to the Christmas period.
Then the early months of 2023 would have focused on the numerous BAFTA and Oscar nominations sure to come its way, with marketing now mentioning both its continued run on the big screen and its upcoming release on Disney+. Time the streaming release around March – the month when Banshees is sure to win a few gongs at the aforementioned Academy Awards – and the on-demand launch is instantly bolstered by the organic publicity that the Oscars provide. A win win for both cinemas and Disney+.
It’s not a perfect plan, but it’s better than the messy one that has unfolded. The decision makers saw that Banshees wasn’t going to be some multi-million dollar instant hit and overlooked the film’s slow-burn potential in favour of hoping it can provide some kind of small bump in numbers in the bloody battle for dominance over Netflix and Amazon Prime.
No patience, no plan. That’s what we’re seeing a lot of right now. The pressure is on to deliver profit in a market that’s suddenly proving very tricky to make profitable, and shit is being thrown against walls.
And sometimes said, shit is missing the wall entirely.
Not from everyone, mind. Look at the huge success Paramount had with mid-range horror flick Smile. Initially pegged as a direct-to-streaming release via Paramount+, hugely positive test screenings saw executives move the film to a theatrical release that – coupled with an innovative marketing campaign – resulted in a box office haul of well over $200 million.
And thus, alongside the even more successful Top Gun: Maverick, Paramount now had two big hits to use in the battle to entice people to sign up for Paramount+. They’re the rare studio playing the slow and steady game, and they’re reaping the benefits.
Cinema releases can add huge value to a film. Instead of being released into the sluice of titles flashing across a menu screen, theatrical runs give a sense of import and prestige to any number of films, and then the visibility of those titles is much higher when they’re eventually released to a streaming service.
It’s important to state that this isn’t a cry for number counters and financial analysts to recognise and genuflect to the romance and history of an enduring art form. It’s the movie business, after all. It’s merely pointing out that a cinema release can still be a very important (and, yes, profitable) part of a film’s life in the public sphere. The race to sit atop the streaming pyramid has led a number of distributors to make decisions that just don’t make any kind of sense in the long-term.
Think back to the organic success of Todd Phillips’ all-conquering origin story Joker in 2019. Here was a film that screened for months on end in cinemas, racking up huge audience numbers until it crossed the billion dollar mark, a feat nobody had seen coming. If that film was released now, you wonder whether Warner would just give it a few weeks in cinemas before it was released directly onto HBO Max.
Perhaps we’ll get our answer when the sequel Joker: Folie à Deux is released in 2024. Will longer term strategies be in place by then, will lessons have been learned? Or will multimedia behemoths still be making rash decisions, hoping something sticks eventually?
A famous saying declares that ‘man plans and God laughs’. Maybe true, but sometimes a little planning goes a long way.
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