In 2018 I wrote a piece about the death of the streaming service Filmstruck, the burgeoning streaming wars, and ways you could support the tried and true models of continuing to watch films not dictated purely by algorithms or a company’s bottom line. It was my attempt at reminding people that there were easy, affordable, and, most importantly, accessible ways to discover the width and breadth of film history without being tethered to a bunch of subpar options.
Alas, the streaming wars have begun, a pandemic has swept the entire globe bringing theater exhibition to its knees, and people’s capacity to keep their eyes on so many bouncing balls has reached its absolute limit. Needless to say, there’s a lot of bad happening in the world right now so the state of “Da Movies” isn’t exactly high up on people’s lists of things to concern themselves with. But nevertheless things are looking, well… a little grim. The continued splintering of the streaming market has given rise to welcome but bittersweet competitors like HBO Max, which houses a large portion of the TCM catalog in addition to media produced and owned by HBO, Warner Brothers, Crunchyroll, Cartoon Network, and Adult Swim. It has also amusingly given us Quibi (which stands for “quick bites,” which is so silly it’s Hudsucker Proxy-esque), a streaming service devoted to TV shows with runtimes of 10 minutes or less but a higher frequency of release. It hasn’t been doing well since its release but at least director Sam Raimi could deliver moments like this with his show 50 States of Fright:
Losing my fucking MIND at this Quibi show where actual Emmy winner Rachel Brosnahan plays a woman obsessed with her golden arm pic.twitter.com/rSfqCv75SG
— Zach Raffio (@zachraffio) April 15, 2020
But within those extremes there’s been so much that I would deem unremarkable. Things like Peacock and Disney+ are too narrow in focus to feel like they’re a necessary expenditure in a cinephile’s tight budget. In addition to this, people are getting more and more anxious as to when it will be possible for them to see new films in a movie theater. Home viewing has its perks but at the end of the day, there’s a large audience of people who want to leave their homes and go watch something outside of the home they have been confined to for seven months (so far), no matter how much a theater is gonna overcharge for a small popcorn, Jolt Cola, and Butterfinger BB’s (I should update my references).
However, a perfect storm has been brewing that may have the future of theatrical exhibition look eerily similar to how the streaming wars have taken shape, except even more constricted. AMC, Regal, and other large to mid-sized chains and venues have been struggling to stay afloat during this pandemic as Hollywood has had to push back all of its guaranteed box-office draws to the winter or even an entire year away or, in some cases, forego theatrical at all (Disney making its live action Mulan its big budget “On Demand” guinea pig feels like an act of desperation). With Hollywood seemingly having no interest in working with exhibition on a long-term plan to keep the status quo once the dust settles and people can meet in indoor spaces in some relatively responsible capacity, it’s sparked conversation as to what will happen to the theatrical infrastructure if chains go under. Well, we may have found an answer to that question in the wide, wonderful world of antitrust law. The fall of the Paramount Decree to be exact.
For those who don’t know, the Paramount Decree was a 1948 antitrust case and decision that had Paramount, the other four big studios (RKO, MGM, Warner Bros., and 20th Century Fox), as well as the three mini-majors (Universal, Columbia, and United Artists), divest themselves of all ownership of theatrical exhibition they had held up to that point. The old Hollywood studio system had essentially vertically integrated itself into an oligopoly, meaning that they controlled the means of production, the talent, the distribution, and the exhibition of all of their films. This meant that a studio could essentially pocket a huge percentage of what it made on a film with no middlemen to speak of and have a theater that only showed its own movies. This also meant that if another studio wanted its movies shown at another theater owned by a competing studio, they would have to comply with absurd stipulations such as jacked-up fees and being forced to show less than desirable motion pictures more than occasionally.
This had lots of repercussions, the most overlooked being a dip in quality in the types of films the public had access to as well as smaller studios and independent theaters being hit with a financial burden that they couldn’t sustain. In other words, the center could not hold and the studio system came to an end once they were relinquished of such control. And for the past 70+ years we’ve enjoyed the fruits of that decision: diversified bookings of films; talent not being beholden to crazy destructive contracts with any one studio; theater chains and venues of different sizes; a thriving independent film scene in just about every era of the late 20th century and early 21st century; a heightening of quality due to direct competition being a factor. Things were good.
But on August 7th of the cursed year of 2020, the court decided to start the two-year process of terminating the Paramount Decree, the reasoning being that most of the defendants in the suits no longer exist (and Paramount itself is on shaky ground these days). Additionally, companies not specifically cited in the ruling, such as Disney, Apple, and Netflix, didn’t exist or weren’t a massive media and studio-devouring juggernaut at the time, the likes of which it may be too late to stop. Other reasoning has included that technologies and modes of distribution have changed so much that applying such laws don’t make sense. Yes, that is true — I’m sure Louis B. Mayer couldn’t have envisioned something as cool as watching Quibi in portrait mode on a tiny little box that constantly dings when your friend likes your post about spaghetti. Louis was too busy juggling directors for The Wizard of Oz. Yet it doesn’t change the idea that this isn’t transparently a play for the last of the giants to regain control over the entire media landscape. Laws can be amended and updated to fit with the times and keep the core intact. That’s been bypassed completely.
While it would be pure speculation for me to sit here and say that Disney may bail out or outright buy something like an AMC or Regal, it wouldn’t be wrong of me to say it. Disney owns a lion’s share of the film market at this point and a deep well of film history with their acquisition of Fox. They potentially have the power to once again vertically integrate themselves and force struggling studios like Paramount or small beloved studios like A24, Neon, and Annapurna to pay hefty prices if they want their films to play on a big screen to a larger audience, instead of being relegated to selling their films to streaming services where they may have a chance to at least generate conversation and notoriety — or worse, be relegated to the anti-word-of-mouth black hole that is “Video on Demand.”
It’s a bleak future, especially when you consider that now that so many of the major studios no longer exist, the types of movies that get made and people have appetites for have shrunk. It’s like my close personal friend and uncle Martin Scorcese says:
“…if you’re going to tell me that it’s simply a matter of supply and demand and giving the people what they want, I’m going to disagree. It’s a chicken-and-egg issue. If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing.”
The slope has become slipperier. With the normalization of viewing mid-budget, indie, and foreign films as things to be watched from home sets in further, less and less of those films will probably be made, and when they are, they’ll be made for less money, which means that something as risky as Jordan Peele’s Us or international sensations like Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Parasite may not have a chance at financial or cultural prosperity as they once did. Not to mention how this all impacts independent and repertory theaters like, oh I don’t know, let’s say a university arthouse rep theater, or a scrappy little pop-up theater. Acquiring rights to back catalogs to movies just got a lot harder and, most likely, much more expensive and restrictive.
“But David,” you say out loud to no one because I’m not actually near you, “theatrical may be hurting and streaming has my options both limited and splintered, but I remember from your last article that you gave me all this great advice about buying and renting physical media when possible. Surely that’s a safe haven for me, a movie pervert.” Well, my friend, things aren’t looking great on that front, either. While it has been denied in some fashion by a spokesperson at Disney, it was reported by the Digital Bits (also on August 7th) that Disney would be pulling out of the 4K market and ceasing production on discs. According to the spokesperson, there are “no plans to discontinue releases in a particular format” and that they “evaluate each release on a case-by-case basis and pursue the best strategy to bring our content into consumer homes across platforms that meet a variety of demands.” Which to me reads like a pretty nebulous statement that implies that they will be selective about what gets a 4K or standard Blu-ray release with an eventual strategy to exit the market completely.
While that’s once again speculation, it doesn’t bode well for the health of the physical home video market and, frankly, film history when a company that owns multiple deep back catalogs can fully control what they make available on what platform in whatever condition they deem acceptable. It’s been remarked upon, but even something as silly as their now-notorious edit to the motion picture Splash has somewhat insidious implications as to how Disney and other companies can decide what the public sees. If there wasn’t a physical media release of Splash, this is what audiences would mostly be stuck with:
But even past the concerns of censorship, availability and access are the real worry here. Like all art of the past, it’s a delicate dance to preserve it and make it so those who want to discover it can in the most cost-effective and accessible way. It’s not uncommon for small and obscure movies to not have a place on streaming. During quarantine I discovered the films of cyberpunk visionary Shinya Tsukamoto, so many of which aren’t available to rent online. If it wasn’t for Arrow Films and Mondo Macabro, I wouldn’t have had any cheap, easy, or legal way to view films like Bullet Ballet or Gemini.
Yes, these are niche titles, but what we define as niche changes as the years pass. Who’s to say that Old Hollywood classics won’t become more niche, or indie darlings like the works of past IU Cinema guest Jim Jarmusch, or even the delightful films of Nora Ephron? Boutiques like Criterion, Kino Lorber, Arrow, and Shout (rest in peace, Twilight Time) are always there to acquire what they can and drive conversation, but the studios who own these movies have to decide how much they want to make available and outsource. Boutiques can only shoulder so much. And as video game consoles and computers shift away from having disc drives, it’s increasingly clear that physical media, outside of a niche market that something like vinyl now occupies, doesn’t have much time left.
So unlike that last article I wrote, I don’t have many clever ways for us to combat this. I’m not saying it’s all hopeless, either. Movie theaters will go on in some capacity and places like the IU Cinema will continue to work hard and bring what they can to the people, but the days of having lots of diversified options is slowly coming to an end. The best advice* I can offer is the same thing I said before: buy what you love and what you want to be saved. Support the venues that are trying to bring an eclectic experience to a bunch of people. Go to libraries. Generate conversation and create new canons among your peers so that lesser-known films and filmmakers (especially those who are marginalized) can see the light of day and not be relegated to the trash heap in a studio’s warehouse. I’ll always keep watching, screening, and talking about movies, even if the future is going to look a little different now. I hope you do, too.
*Look, I know that people bring up piracy as the future of film preservation, but I am not allowed to sit here and say you should get a VPN, a big external hard drive, a plex server, and pirate films for the good of the artform. I simply can’t do it.
Despite these trying times, IU Cinema will continue to provide enriching and and diversified cinematic experiences with loads of exciting events and films in our Virtual Screening Room. This includes tomorrow night’s conversation about film noir between filmmaker Guy Maddin and Indiana University Professor Emeritus James Naremore; documentaries like Represent and Whose Streets?; an upcoming Jorgensen Program with filmmaker Isabel Sandoval, plus a screening of her film Apparition which she will be present for; and more!
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.