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Ten years ago, Netflix was little more than a glorified rental company, Now it is distributing Martin Scorsese’s latest film, The Irishman.
D-Box seats in a movie theatre. Most moviegoers still choose to watch movies in 2D, in regular seats.
Disney’s 21st-century buying spree helps explain why the mega-studio led the box office last year.
It’s Jan. 1, 2010. Happy New Year! You’ve already seen Avatar, The Young Victoria and Sherlock Holmes in theatres, and if you’d like to watch a movie at home as you shake off your hangover, just visit your local Blockbuster; there are 443 locations to choose from.
If that’s too much work, Netflix will mail you a DVD, though there are rumours the company will soon start a “streaming” service in Canada, not unlike the year-old Rogers on demand, available to all cable subscribers; in other words, almost everyone.
Apple is about to release a new product, variously dubbed the iTablet, iSlate, iGuide or maybe iPad, which might connect with Netflix. And Disney, which has just purchased Marvel, plans a summer sequel to Iron Man. It’ll probably be in 3D and D-Box, because that’s the future of movies. And 2010 is the future.
Ten years may not seem like a long time, but in the entertainment world, it’s an eternity. Netflix started its streaming service in Canada in September of 2010, the same week that Blockbuster in the U.S. declared bankruptcy. Blockbuster Canada said it would close 5% of its stores; by the end of 2011, all were shuttered.
Amazon Prime streaming came to Canada in 2016, while Apple TV Plus and Disney Plus (in case you hadn’t noticed) launched in November. Disney had followed up its Marvel purchase with Lucasfilm (2012) and 20th Century Fox (2019). And while roughly three-quarters of Canadians still subscribe to cable, a recent survey found one in five planning to cut the cord in the next year.
Disney’s 21st-century buying spree (it absorbed Pixar in 2006) helps explain why the mega-studio led the box office last year with more than $3-billion in domestic ticket sales, and is poised to do so again. Meanwhile, Warner Bros., the leader in 2009 thanks in part to The Hangover and Harry Potter, slipped to No. 2 in 2018 and actually made less at home that year than it did ten years earlier.
But domestic receipts are a smaller piece of an ever-growing pie. In 2009, North American tickets sales made up 42% of the box office for top 20 movies; by last year, that number was down to 28%, due in large part to growing theatre attendance in China. This is also why we’re likely to see more Chinese-American co-productions, and international-friendly genres like action movies, in the decade to come.
Some aspects of moviegoing haven’t changed, however. In spite of the wow factor of Avatar in 3D in 2009, we’re back to watching most new releases in 2D, even when a 3D option exists. We’re also still waiting on the first Avatar sequel, due out at Christmas. (No, not this Christmas. Or next Christmas. 2021.) D-Box (shaky seats) and their souped-up cousin 4DX (shaky seats plus wind and water effects) remain expensive niche options.
But the biggest change in the past 10 years is the collapse of the DVD market and the ascendance of streaming services, which generally cost little more than the price of two or three rentals per month, and offer oodles of content, some of it not otherwise available on TV or cinema screens.
But while streaming has replaced DVDs as the way to watch movies at a time of your choosing, the two could not be more different in reputation. “Direct-to-DVD” always carried the unmistakable stench of desperation, a sweaty Steven Seagal, or both. Direct to streaming brings to mind Disney’s hit The Mandalorian, Netflix’s Stranger Things and Amazon’s Fleabag.
The next decade will no doubt involve a shakeout of cinema-versus-streaming, but don’t expect big screens to disappear, any more than radio did after the advent of television. Do expect changes, however. Big screens will remain the first stop for big movies – Disney’s Marvel, Star Wars and Pixar blockbusters – and for prestige flicks that desire Academy validation. Smaller movies may go straight to streaming.
And expect filmmakers to pledge allegiance to one form or another. When I spoke to Denis Villeneuve at Cannes in 2018, the Quebec director said he was “traumatized” by the fact that Netflix had decided not to bring Alfonso Cuaron’s new film, Roma, to the festival, after disagreements about release windows. And he wasn’t keen to work for a streaming service himself.
The biggest change in the past 10 years is the collapse of the DVD market and the ascendance of streaming services
“All my movies are made for the big screen,” he said. “If I make a movie for Netflix … I have to transform the language. It doesn’t mean it’s not cinema. It just means there’s a transformation. The way you read an image does not have the same impact.”
Compare that to Scottish director David Mackenzie, whose Netflix film Outlaw King was the opening night offering at the decidedly more streaming-friendly Toronto festival that year. He told me he never considered a small-screen look: “The aesthetics are exactly the same, the width of vision is exactly the same, the aspiration and ambition is the same as far as I’m concerned.”
It’s a debate moviegoers could scarcely have imagined 10 years ago, when Martin Scorsese’s latest, Shutter Island, was opening in almost 3,000 cinemas, and Netflix was little more than a glorified rental company, several years away from its first original programming.
Now we have Netflix distributing Scorsese’s The Irishman, while the director declares that the Marvel movies the crowd the multiplex aren’t really cinema. And yes, he’s aware of the irony, after The Irishman opened on just eight screens in New York and L.A., with a handful more to follow. “Would I like the picture to play on more big screens for longer periods of time?” he wrote in a recent op-ed for the New York Times. “Of course I would.”
When the National Post looks back at the 2020s in film, it will no doubt chronicle changes we in 2019 could not have foreseen, any more than the hung-over critic of Jan. 1, 2010, could have predicted the rise (2011) and fall (this year) of the cloud-based digital streaming system known as UltraViolet. (Sometimes if you ignore a trend long enough it goes away on its own.)
Alas, one fairly safe bet is the increase in sequels and remakes. Sure, they’ve always been with us, but in 1989 only five of the top 15 box-office hits were in that category. In 1999, a time of cinematic creativity, only four were remakes or sequels, and one of those was The Mummy, which barely counts. But in 2009 it was seven, and this year, assuming (!) Star Wars opens big, the single original non-franchise movie in the top 15 will be Us.
So let’s go out on a limb here and predict the release of director Andy Serkis’ motion-capture computer-animated re-imagined Woke Song of the South, opening Christmas 2029 on Netflix, a division of Disney.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019