The Argument Against Streaming Movies At Home Is Tired & Dangerous

Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures.
The jokes started flooding Twitter mere seconds after Warner Bros. announced it would be releasing its entire 2021 film slate on HBOMax simultaneously with theatrical release: Boy, was Christopher Nolan going to be pissed. 
And much like the seasons, or the sun rising in the East, so too did Nolan’s ire deliver with shocking predictability. In a statement sent to the Hollywood Reporter just four days later, the acclaimed director, who has a longstanding relationship with Warners, railed against the decision, and proclaimed the death of cinema. 
“Some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service,” Nolan said. “Warner Bros. had an incredible machine for getting a filmmaker’s work out everywhere, both in theaters and in the home, and they are dismantling it as we speak. They don’t even understand what they’re losing. Their decision makes no economic sense, and even the most casual Wall Street investor can see the difference between disruption and dysfunction.”
Nothing in this statement was particularly surprising. Nolan has become the poster boy for theatrical die-hards in quarantine, with the complex pirouettes of Tenet’s ever-changing release dates forming one of spring’s most entertaining ballets. Two more weeks? Oh, you meant three more? A month? What about now? Finally, the time travel blockbuster did hit the big screen — and instead of saving U.S. movie theaters, it flopped. As of September, Tenet had grossed a paltry $30 million domestically, a fraction of the $207 million global box office. In the months immediately following, Regal, the second-largest theater chain in the country, announced that it would be closing all of its theaters indefinitely.  
It’s painfully ironic that it was in part Nolan’s determined push for theatrical release that then caused studios to decide that VOD might be the answer. Not to mention that...we are still in the middle of a global pandemic, with no clear end in sight. Even if a vaccine becomes widely available by summer, 2021 is very likely to be another theaterless year, which may spell the death knell for the medium as we know it.
As someone who writes about movies, it’s a devastating development — of course nothing can match watching a movie in theaters. That requires community, the one thing we are not allowed to have right now. And yet, what other solutions do we have to keep people safe, and prevent a backlog of films that would likely overwhelm viewers, essentially ensuring none of them get seen when they do get released?
The Independent Cinema Alliance made a fair point in their statement criticizing Warner Bros' decision: "theatrical exclusivity is what drives that value—not streaming." But I also think people are drawn to theaters not just for the thrill of seeing a release before others, but because it's an experience unlike any other. If that's true, then theaters may well survive (and I will fight off my natural pessimism here to believe that they will), even if they will also almost certainly look different. For now, streaming ensures that more people will see more movies, and isn’t that a worthy goal? Let's not forget that for many, theater-going isn't a realistic or accessible experience in the best of times. On the flip side, with great power comes great responsibility: If streaming is to be a priority, then platforms will have to start taking their content more seriously, and invest in distribution and awards show promotion, rather than movies seemingly designed to go viral.  
But even beyond the logistics, what’s most infuriating about Nolan’s argument is that it reeks of privilege. The mere fact that he feels comfortable enough in his job security to rail against the studio that he has been working with for years, is proof. He is the one who has benefitted from the status quo system. It has given him fame and respect, a special platform as one of our premier auteur filmmakers. But that system was flawed, and the current upheaval may present an opportunity to rebuild it in a more equitable way. 
It’s no coincidence that so many of the films released in 2020 have been by or about women or people of color. Streaming is a medium that welcomes new work, and nurtures upcoming talent. Just look at Ava Duvernay’s ARRAY, which, in partnership with Netflix, has launched work by Numa Perrier, Isabel Sandoval, and Deepa Mehta, whose film, Funny Boy, is Canada’s official submission for the 2021 Best International Film Oscar. Or Steve McQueen’s five-part Small Axe Anthology, which premiered at the New York Film Festival before landing on Amazon Prime Video. 
VOD distribution has also proven to be a lifeline for independent film, without which many of the films now appearing on “Best Of” end of year lists — Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Natalie Erika James’ Relic, Channing Godfrey Peoples’ Miss Juneteenth, Autumn de Wilde’s Emma., to name a few — would never have gained an audience. They would have played to a handful of theaters, praised to the skies by critics, and disappeared. Even Birds of Prey, Cathy Yan’s jaw-dropping Harley Quinn spinoff, released in theaters in February, only really gained visibility once it was released early on VOD in March. In a system that prioritizes too-big-to-fail movies, opportunities for women and people of color are still too few and far between to provide the kind of tsunami of creative and dynamic work we’ve seen pour onto our screens this year. 
It’s noteworthy, however, that the major test cases for this new strategy have been woman-helmed blockbusters. In September, Disney released Nikki Carro’s Mulan on Disney+, and on Christmas Day, Warner Bros. will premiere Patty Jenkins’ highly anticipated sequel, Wonder Woman 1984, on HBO Max. Even in this brave new world, women’s work is sent out as a tentative question mark, a way to gage whether we’re ready to bring in the men. 

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