In case you don't know already, the failure of Tenet is being described as foreshadowing the death of cinema itself. For now, the big American production houses have decided against going for a theatrical release for big-budget projects that were expected to rake in the moolah. It may be unfair to blame it all on Tenet, but the high hopes pinned on one film also suggest anxiety about the future of the medium.
The months-long partial/total shutdown of normal activities owing to the COVID-19 pandemic has led to much speculation on the behavioural repercussions of the shutdown. And one industry for which the outcome on the other side of the tunnel matters a lot is the movie industry.
The beauty of the theatrical model is the opening weekend phenomenon. When tickets are priced at their highest and when it's too soon for negative word-of-mouth to dampen the prospects of a film is when it can pull in crowds in good numbers purely on its buzz. Which means big budget films have a huge advantage. Combined with the ability to carpet-bomb thousands of screens with digital prints, the opening weekend marketing blitzkrieg is usually enough to at least get the big budget movie to break-even point. With even moderately favourable reviews, it can get back at least 3-4 times its budget. The most successful MCU films or Disney remakes like The Jungle Book or The Lion King make up to 10 times the budget.
Now let's see how this played out in the case of Mulan. It could not be released in the US. The English version was released in nine countries and a Chinese version was also released in China. All told, the pure box office gross was only $69 million. Realistic estimates put revenues from streaming the movie on Disney's own and other streaming platforms in the first couple of weeks since release at around $100 million. Add in recurring revenue over the life of the film and it probably just about gets to break-even. At best. The mighty Disney, which survived World War II and the meltdown, now finds itself at a loss.
The questions facing the industry are now two-fold. (a) When will it be safe again to watch movies sitting cheek-by-jowl in the cinema halls? (b) Will the audience also come back to the movies?
The former depends on whether COVID-19 mutates into a less malignant/less contagious form and/or the availability of vaccines. The latter is the more worrisome part of the equation.
Let's take my own case to evaluate possible consumer behaviour. I am an avid cinephile and have been one for many years. Am I in a can-hardly-wait-to-go-to-the-movies frame of mind? Honestly, no. There are bigger priorities at hand to deal with now. I am sure not all cinephiles feel likewise. But if the industry depends on the ones fanatical enough about movies to brave concerns about COVID-19 for survival, that sounds like a risky bet even for an industry that swims in risk day in and day out. I am an even bigger music freak than I am a fan of cinema and I do badly miss watching live music. But am I going to feel comfortable right away with the prospect of inadvertently rubbing shoulders with others in the audience in crowded pubs? I'm afraid not.
In the beginning, the only way to watch movies was to go to cinema halls. It is a blessing in the short run for production houses that that is no longer the case or we would see them all go bankrupt in the absence of other revenue streams. But the availability of other means to watch movies is also a double-edged sword because it offers the option to the audience to stop going to theatres altogether. It hasn't happened to date because going to the movies was a deeply ingrained habit. But even if old habits die hard, they may die in the end.
Further, none of these other means of watching movies, be they television rights or streaming, are yet as lucrative as good ol' box office receipts. There is no way yet to make a billion dollars from TV rights and streaming even off the most loved movie products. Now what happens when you can only manage a limited theatrical release for a big-budget film (as was the case with Mulan)? Or if people just don't come back in the same numbers?
And here, we come to an issue more specific to the Indian film industry. In metropolitan centres, the movie viewing experience is comfortable, clean and pleasurable but also expensive. Add to that the cost of popcorn and a trip for two costs a cool thousand bucks. Juxtapose that with the almost funereal mood on LinkedIn, with many who lost good jobs during the pandemic pleading with people to take a look at their CV. A thousand bucks on a movie is a lot of discretionary spend to ask for … especially if you already have the requisite OTT subscriptions and can watch the movie on those platforms without spending a single extra penny.
Have moviegoers discovered over these last few months that they don't really need to go to the movies to watch movies? It's a question that holds enormous import for the film industry.