Big studios are gobbling each other up as smaller movies struggle and even name-brand titles tank at the box office. Netflix is revolutionizing the way people watch films, while major new streaming services from Apple, Disney, Warner Bros. and other deep-pocketed studios are coming soon. And every aspect of the movie industry — from the diversity of its storytellers to the spoils of Oscar season — is being called into question.
“This is the biggest shift in the content business in the history of Hollywood,” producer Jason Blum recently said.
But what will it all look like when the dust settles? To find out, I convened a virtual think tank of key Hollywood figures, and their message to the movie industry was clear: Adapt or die.
“The more that you talk about how to uphold these old systems,” director Ava DuVernay said, “the more you will lose when it all slips away. It’s going to be traumatic for you, but it’s inevitable — it’s going to happen.”
Q: Is there a future in theaters for anything besides blockbusters?
J.J. ABRAMS: For a long time, people have been saying the business is changing, but that’s undeniable now. It’s on.
JASON BLUM: I’ve never felt the nervous energy in Hollywood that I’ve felt over the last 12 months, and it increases every day. There’s an uncertainty about the future, because the change is happening in an incredibly dramatic way.
JOE RUSSO: You’ve got so many options for viewing content that there has to be a need for you to leave your home. What is going to drive you to do that?
ANTHONY RUSSO: There were 350 more movies released theatrically in the United States last year than there were when Avatar came out in 2009. The same thing’s happening on television. There just used to be fewer of everything — fewer movie stars, too — and when the numbers start to get up this high, you start to lose the trees for the forest.
ABRAMS: When you have a movie that’s as entertaining, well-made and well-received as Booksmart not doing the business it should have [the teen comedy underperformed at the box office despite critics’ raves], it really makes you realize that the typical Darwinian fight to survive is completely lopsided now. Everyone’s trying to figure out how we protect the smaller films that aren’t four-quadrant mega-releases. Can they exist in the cinemas?
KUMAIL NANJIANI: I read a stat somewhere that the average person goes to the movie theater around four times a year, and these huge movies come out and kind of suck up all the air. You look at comedy especially, and it’s been pretty tough going at the box office for the last couple years. I think it’s because there’s this sense that only certain movies are worthy of watching at the movie theater.
JESSICA CHASTAIN: What happens to these beautiful, small, dramatic stories? Are other studios going to make them so that we don’t lose part of our art form?
JORDAN HOROWITZ: I don’t feel particularly optimistic about the traditional theatrical experience, especially for independent films.
JOE RUSSO: When you talk about making character movies like Cherry [after four Marvel sequels, the Russos will next direct this mid-budget drama], even we are finding that is becoming increasingly difficult as the months pass — not as the years pass, as the months pass. It is a tough market, even for us coming off Endgame, to make a darker, character-driven movie. It’s not what the market was even two years ago.
ABRAMS: We have to find ways to get people into theaters for movies other than the giant event movies. Not that those are a given either, by the way!
MICHAEL BARKER: I don’t think there’s a death knell — I think it’s a wake-up call.
TOM ROTHMAN: The word we use here is “theatricality.” What movie is going to get people to go out to a theater to see it? There now has to be something about it that gives it that theatrical urgency, and it’s true whether it’s a small-budget horror film, a gigantic event film or a mid-budget original drama.
NANCY UTLEY: We have to be even more selective, because if the audience perceives that it’s something similar to what they have seen on a streaming service or a cable service, it may not rise to the level of theatricality for them.
AMY PASCAL: I just don’t want us to self-impose rules where we say, “This can’t be put in a movie theater because nobody will go see it.” If we decide that, then it will happen, and that will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Q: Is a theatrical release still important?
PAUL FEIG: I’ll be honest: There are times when I go, “God, we should have done ‘A Simple Favor’ for streaming” [that studio thriller, which grossed 53 million dollars domestically, broke Feig’s streak of 100 million dollars-plus movies] because that’s the kind of movie you want to watch when you’re ready to have fun, but is it necessarily the kind of movie where you rush out to the theater, park your car and pull out your wallet just to see it?
HOROWITZ: I’m dealing with it right now with Fast Color [a film Julia Hart, his wife, directed], which had a lot of trouble finding distribution and is ultimately going theatrical, even though I wish I could make the movie available to people much faster than I am. Five years from now, I think it would be very different. That movie would be made by one of those streamers, or sold to one of them.
BLUM: [Whiplash] was a disaster theatrically! A disaster! What I wanted for that movie was for students and kids to see it, and they eventually saw it on TV, but they didn’t come to the movie theater to see Whiplash. The people who paid to see Whiplash were like me: too old. [He’s 50.] All things being equal, would I much prefer the experience of seeing Whiplash in a movie theater? Absolutely. But I would also prefer the experience of driving through Los Angeles with no traffic. And that’s not realistic, either.
OCTAVIA SPENCER: Here’s what I don’t want, and I’m going to be real honest about it: I don’t want people to not show their movies in a movie theater first. I like the idea of movies showing there and then going to streaming and devices. I’m a loyalist to that degree.
ROTHMAN: In a world where everything is on demand, I think that’s what makes movies special: Exactly because it’s harder is why it’s a more significant leisure choice. Guess what? You can’t see [the upcoming Quentin Tarantino film] Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood on your phone right now. If you want to see Leo and Brad together on the screen — the biggest star pairing since Butch and Sundance — you gotta get a babysitter.
JON M. CHU: If you had asked me two years ago where the film industry would be in 10 years, I might have had a different answer. But after what I’ve experienced with Crazy Rich Asians, seeing the audience show up, it’s sort of reinvigorated the idea of going to the movies. That social aspect of sharing a movie with friends and strangers and family, that’s such a strong part of our tradition. The success we had would not have been possible any other way.
LENA WAITHE: I know there are people who can’t afford to go to big movies. Some people live in small towns where the theater doesn’t play Moonlight or An Oversimplification of Her Beauty.
DuVERNAY: I’m trying to urge people to realize that their privilege-preferred presentation of cinema is outdated. You might want to watch a movie on 35-millimeter in a cinema that’s climate-controlled in your preferred part of town, but that is not the reality of most people’s experience, and that is not sustainable any longer. Some people are going to be stunned and shocked that their preferences aren’t shared and really don’t matter anymore.
BARRY JENKINS: In the same way that social media approximates the experience of being in a community, I think the way we now watch these things — whether on our flat screens or laptops or phones — is also an approximation of what the original foundations of this medium always were. It’s bittersweet. Five years ago, you couldn’t just get on your laptop and find Claire Denis films. Now you can, which is a really awesome thing and better for the world, for sure. But there’s a trade-off.
FEIG: In Lawrence of Arabia, one of the greatest shots of all time is when he comes over the vast landscape as this tiny little dot on a camel. There are moments when you want to do a cool shot like that, but you go, “When people end up watching this on their phone, they’re not going to see anything.” It’s a terrible way to have to think, but you’ve got to keep it in your brain. Even when we’re doing an insert shot of writing on a computer screen, I’m like, “You’ve got to make that bigger, because when that’s on somebody’s phone, they’re not going to be able to read that.”
DuVERNAY: There is a privilege embedded in [a theatrical release] because I’ve had it, I’ve seen it and I know what it is: It’s a lot of ego. I’m told by the system that this is what matters, but then people aren’t seeing your movies. Take the number of people who saw Selma, a Christmas release with an Oscar campaign about Dr. Martin Luther King. Well, more than a quadruple amount of people saw 13th, [her Netflix documentary] about the prison-industrial complex. If I’m telling these stories to reach a mass audience, then really, nothing else matters.
Q: If theaters wane, what will the streaming era look like?
ELIZABETH BANKS: For someone like me who grew up on romantic comedies, watching them come back on streamers has been really gratifying. People actually like this stuff that the studios stopped giving them, and the streamers picked up the slack. So that’s one example of how streamers can make these sorts of midrange movies that the big corporate studios are not as interested in putting out theatrically.
JENNIFER SALKE: There’s a huge opportunity for other kinds of movies, like those sexy date-night movies that have been left by the side of the road in the movie business, like No Way Out and Basic Instinct.
CHASTAIN: I’ve seen a lot of female filmmakers get opportunities at Netflix and Amazon that they haven’t gotten through the studio system. So I’m very, very happy about the new shape our industry is taking.
SCOTT STUBER: I think the trick is recognizing that there’s a giant global audience and everyone’s taste in L.A. and New York is not necessarily everyone’s taste in France or in South Africa.
ROTHMAN: With the streaming services, it’s the difference between a strategy to obliterate and a strategy to curate. At Sony, we make only 20 films a year, and every one of those films must make cultural impact. It’s really hard to have both enormous volume and significant cultural impact. It’s never been done.
NANJIANI: This is very cynical, but I think the standard of quality for people who watch stuff at home is not the same. If you go see Avengers in the theater, it better be great, but if you’re just watching stuff at home, it doesn’t matter so much. I don’t want to diss on Netflix too much, because they make amazing stuff, and they’re giving shots to people who would not have been given shots 10 years ago, but I also think Netflix would rather have five things that people kind of like than one thing people really love.
STEVE GILULA: Take Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, Lenny Abrahamson’s Room or Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, I do not believe those films would have ever found a significant audience if they had premiered on streaming, because they did not have either the stars or the established directors that could have gotten them attention. I believe there’s still an incredibly vital role that festivals and movie theaters play in giving those films time to be discovered.
SALKE: We can pivot to a theatrical release if we need to, but the goal is really audience-focused. They don’t want to wait it out at the theater for three months or longer.
ABRAMS: You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. It seems like leaving money on the table if there are people who might pay a premium to see a movie but they can’t get out of the house.
BLUM: I do think the kind of movie that gets that window [the amount of time a film remains in theaters before home release] is going to narrow even further. Not only are mid-budget movies going to go, but I think most dramas are not going to have a traditional theatrical window.
HOROWITZ: I do think [independent] movies will be distributed with limited theatrical or no theatrical at all. As more and more streaming services are making features, I think we’ll start to see festivals be the theatrical experience for a lot of these movies. The movie will premiere at Sundance or Toronto, and then premiere on streaming that week or the week after.
Q: Will the streaming era force us to rethink the Oscars?
JENKINS: We have to find ways to protect some of these traditions. So I do think that screening in a theater will always be a qualification for the Academy Awards, I truly do. Part of that is going to be to ensure that we always share a communal experience watching movies in a theater. But hey, maybe I’m a dinosaur.
FRANKLIN LEONARD: I’m an associate member of the academy, and it’s my belief that the Oscars and the academy, generally, should be about celebrating exceptional motion pictures wherever they exist. The notion that the Oscars should be limited to films that get an exclusive theatrical window is, to me, limiting the number of films that can be considered based on their artistic merit.
TOM BERNARD: What’s a movie supposed to be? Is it supposed to be on television or the movie theater? That’s for the people at the academy to decide. I think we have to be aware of the artistic aspect of the film and how the artist made it to be viewed.
CHASTAIN: It’s a complicated thing, because a lot of the people who’ve spoken up about this were very active making films in the 1970s, and when I look at the kinds of films that not only won best picture but were the top box-office hits of that time, it’s a very different landscape than what is happening now.
DuVERNAY: The patterns are already going in the opposite direction, and this is why you have people clinging to old systems that do not work anymore. I’ve been in some of these rooms, I’ve read some of this stuff that people are saying, and I say you are contributing to your own destruction. When you say that you care about the future of this medium, this legacy, then you have to think about what happens next, and I just don’t think enough people are doing that.
Q: Will young people still care about movies?
NANJIANI: I was at a bar with a friend who directs big movies, and while we were in line for the bathroom, he was saying that movie theaters were going to go away. He was like, “Kids don’t watch movies, they watch YouTube.” Which I thought was crazy. So he goes, “Watch this.” There was a girl in front of us in line, and he said, “Hey, excuse me, what’s your favorite movie?” And she said, “I don’t watch movies.” Just randomly, he picked someone — and she was like 25, she wasn’t a child or anything. We were like, “Well, do any of your friends watch movies?” And she said, “Not really.”
ROTHMAN: Young people don’t go to “the” movies, they go to “a” movie.
NANJIANI: I don’t want to sound like an old idiot, because I try to keep up with what’s happening on YouTube, and it’s a lot of people talking to camera, very personality-driven. I grew up watching Ghostbusters and Gremlins and Indiana Jones. If I had grown up watching YouTube, I don’t know if I would like movies.
BLUM: What I find striking is how much they’re watching pieces of things: “I saw some of that movie.” They’re multitasking while they’re watching the things that we’re making. That’s not what we want, but by the same token, I don’t subscribe to the notion that you should mandate how young people watch what you’re doing. That’s an arrogant position. If they watch half of my horror movie, I’m glad they watched half as opposed to not watching any of it!
SALKE: When we saw Guava Island [the Donald Glover movie released on Amazon in tandem with his Coachella appearance], I don’t think there was like one conversation like, “Oh my God, you guys, it’s only 55 minutes. How does that fit in our thinking?” It was more about what kind of effect we thought Guava Island will have on a global audience of Prime members. I thought, “Oh, it’ll absolutely be a huge attractor for a young, diverse, relevant audience that we’re not servicing regularly.” And in fact, it was.
JOE RUSSO: With this audience, when they binge-watch a season of Stranger Things, that is training them to expect a greater payoff from their commitment than they might get from something that’s two hours. We’re not sure that the two-hour, closed-ended film is going to be the dominant narrative moving forward for this next generation. They are craving a different kind of thing.
JEFFREY KATZENBERG: What Quibi [his upcoming streaming service for mobile] is trying to do is get to the next generation of film narrative. The first generation was movies, and they were principally two-hour stories that were designed to be watched in a single sitting in a movie theater. The next generation of film narrative was television, principally designed to be watched in one-hour chapters in front of a television set. I believe the third generation of film narrative will be a merging of those two ideas, which is to tell two-hour stories in chapters that are seven to ten minutes in length. We are actually doing long-form in bite-size.
DuVERNAY: My nieces and nephews don’t really care about produced content in the way that we do traditionally — my niece can sit there and watch IGTV for hours, which is on her phone, on Instagram, and it’s basically little clips of nothing. That’s why, when I hear people being so rigid and so strict about certain forms and presentations, it just reminds me of that Simpsons cartoon, “Old Man Yells at Cloud.”
Q: Is there a way to make this work financially?
ABRAMS: As uncertain as everything is, there’s probably never been a better time to be a creative person in this business, just because of the near-term demand for programming. It’s going to require great stories for these platforms to survive and get attention.
BANKS: It’s interesting, because there’s a lot more work, but it’s a lot harder to make money on anything.
JENKINS: The problem is that making films is as expensive as it’s ever been. There’s no big budget-department store, 1.99 dollars white-T-shirt version of making films — every film is some version of a really fancy 300 dollars T-shirt from Calvin Klein. That’s just how much this kind of art takes to make! I don’t know how you offset that cost, and that’s why there’s so much tension between theatrical and digital distribution.
BLUM: I make a show for Apple. They sell a million more phones — how are you ever going to connect those two things? With Amazon and Apple, they don’t ever have to be just in a profitable business on movies and TV shows. That’s crazy! And it makes people go nuts, because people have worked so hard to put a business model around content, and now they’re competing with people who don’t need to make that profit.
Q: Can greater opportunities for women and people of color save an industry in turmoil?
LEONARD: If you’re not making movies like Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther and Searching and Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman and Beale Street and Moonlight in 2019, good luck. I challenge anyone to build a company around narratives and stories that are totally driven by the people they’ve historically been driven by, and expect to deliver better for their investors than a company who has a more representative portrayal of the world in which we live.
WAITHE: I’m not trying to gas Jordan Peele up more than he needs to be gassed, but Get Out changed things. It just did! It was a surprise, a shock to the system. And the industry couldn’t ignore the numbers for that.
NANJIANI: Emily [V. Gordon, his writing partner and wife] and I wrote a movie, and a really huge studio told us, “Hey, a woman of color should be the lead of this movie.” And we went, “Great!” I don’t think we would have heard that five years ago from a major studio.
FEIG: That’s great because at least it opens the gate, but it’s really up to us as filmmakers to change the default setting of who we could cast in these roles. Before we go to the regular people we always go to, why couldn’t it be a woman? Why couldn’t it be a person of color?
SPENCER: The fact that people are calling me, a woman of a certain age and demographic, to sit down on studio films — which have not been my bread and butter — there’s definitely a paradigm shift.
WAITHE: I think black people in this industry are making art that is so specific and unique and good that the studio heads [are] saying, “How can we support you and stand next to you?” The tricky part is they also want to make money.
LEONARD: What happens when you have a generation with the sort of education that we had long deified people like Quentin Tarantino for having because they worked in a video store, or lived close to a movie theater where indie films were playing? For a very long time, Hollywood functioned as a choke point. Now that people have access to that education, paired with the shifts in the industry that are opening up more opportunities, I think we are on the brink of a remarkable period in film and television that’s going to be unlike anything we’ve seen before.
CHASTAIN: It’s going to bring to the top some very interesting creative talent who would not have had the opportunity to work in the system of old. Look at Russian Doll. People love this show, and Leslye [Headland, who helped create it] is being recognized. In the past, in the studio system, they would say, “Oh, the only female filmmaker we know is Kathryn Bigelow.”
BANKS: The good news is that there’s more than just Kathryn Bigelow, although there always has been more than Kathryn Bigelow. I encourage female filmmakers to reach for bigger movies. We work in an industry where we’re second-class citizens on many levels, and it takes a lot of courage and confidence to say, “Give it to me.” But I meet those women all the time. They just need the opportunity.
FEIG: Someone Great [the Gina Rodriguez Netflix comedy that he produced] is the kind of movie we just knew a studio probably wasn’t going to make, and Netflix was a place I knew I could get [Jennifer Kaytin] Robinson behind the camera as a first-time feature director. I’m a studio guy, and I love studio movies, but it’s harder to get a studio to invest in new voices because the stakes are higher. That’s why they’re generally going to play it safe and say, “Well, at least this director has a track record.” Streamers just need content that is good, not necessarily content that is so undeniable that people will uproot their entire evening. I think they’re more able to say, “Let’s take a chance.”
SPENCER: There are very few people who are still box-office draws, so the studios are going to have to play an outside game and look at the demographics that are undeserved, then bring the stories that they want to see to the theaters.
CHU: With In the Heights, I knew we wanted to go theatrical because it’s a musical, and we wanted people to experience it in the dark with a focus on the screen. And, similarly to Crazy Rich Asians, this is a moment to make a statement about what the audience is willing to go see. Seeing Latinx faces in the museum of cinema is important right now.
JENKINS: You’ll love this. We had a screening of Beale Street in Washington, D.C., at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and a fire broke out. So, irony of ironies, we had to go across the street to the Air and Space Museum, where there’s an Imax theater. To see Regina King as a black mom trying to save her family on that larger-than-life screen, in the Air and Space Museum — where, when you walk out, all you see are images of white men going into space — I thought, “O.K., this is what it was like when people sat in a movie chair and thought a train was coming toward them.” I can’t get that feeling on my flat screen at home, so we’ve got to figure something out.