Covid-19 has changed so much about our world, and the film industry is no exception. From where we watch movies to the meteoric rise of streaming networks to forever-transformed Hollywood sets, entertainment looks different than the pre-pandemic days. Here’s what you need to know.

Studios Strike Deals
Movie theaters around the country first started shutting down on March 17, 2020 as gatherings of more than 10 people were restricted in response to lockdown measures. A few days later, Universal Pictures announced a then-shocking decision: Their new kid-friendly blockbuster, Trolls World Tour, would go straight to premium video on-demand (PVOD) rather than premiering as a theatrical release. AMC Theaters instantly fired back by threatening to ban all Universal titles from their screens, before striking a deal in late July that allowed the studio to release PVOD films after 17 days of theater exclusivity in exchange for a portion of PVOD sales. That perhaps heralded the halt of the traditional 90-day new-release screening window cinemas have long held dear. Consumers have now “had the luxury of an entire year of getting titles at home pretty much when they want them,” said Disney CEO Bob Chapek at a recent media conference. “So, I’m not sure there’s going back.”

In a pandemic-changed world, every studio has a different formula for how to release movies—and that plan may even shift from film to film. Recently, Warner Brothers moved its 2021 lineup to a hybrid model whereby titles appear in both theaters and on HBO Max simultaneously. Paramount is allowing slightly more lag time. Case in point: The studio recently made two of its most highly anticipated films, Mission: Impossible 7 and A Quiet Place: Part II, available for streaming after 45 days in theaters. Smaller-budget releases will head to Paramount Plus, the company’s subscriber video on-demand (SVOD) platform, after only 30 days. As for Disney, animated hits like Soul and Luca skipped theaters altogether and became available to Disney Plus subscribers at no extra charge on the same day as their intended theatrical debuts, while Black Widow and Cruella are dropping simultaneously on streamers and in cinemas. “There’s a real chance that we could see studios handle a mid-budget comedy or a $20 million drama much differently than they handle a Jurassic World or a Top Gun film,” said Comscore analyst Paul Dergarabedian. The ultimate fate of theaters remains to be seen, which means studios are still working out plans for how to operate in 2022.

Streaming Skyrockets
There’s no doubt streaming platforms altered the television business model due to Covid-19 shutdowns. Disney Plus, for example, couldn’t have anticipated hitting 100 million subscribers a mere 16 months after launching—years ahead of schedule and beyond any exec’s wildest hope. “The pivot to streaming and increasing investments by traditional media companies to put their best content on their own services is one clear lasting impact,” said MoffettNathanson analyst Michael Nathanson. Theater closures likewise got viewers excited about the new experience of watching films from the comfort of a living room. As a result, blockbuster movies like Wonder Woman 1984, Borat and Coming to America shifted course from their original cinema-release plans to premiere instead on streaming networks. It will surprise no one that giants like Netflix are pleased with this perhaps permanent turn of events. “We’re enthusiastic to see sort of a shift, and maybe enabling more and more of that for both us and for other entertainment options out there,” said Netflix COO Greg Peters. “It’s what consumers want.”

Ongoing Pandemic Protocols
By now, we’re all used to masked faces and Covid tests, but what will happen on Hollywood sets as vaccinations continue their rollout? “My guess is that we will see masks and other protocols in place until there is true herd immunity,” said ICM agent Janet Carol Norton. Hefty craft-services tables and intimate group lunches are gone, having been replaced by strict safety protocols and a new set job called the Covid Compliance Officer. Productions also learned to pivot, sometimes cutting scripts due to lost shooting days or temporarily shutting down when crewmembers or actors tested positive. Where the entertainment industry goes next is slightly uncertain, in part because the situation is fluid. Covid continues to evolve, along with our responses and measures. The future of film may depend on consumers’ willingness to return to pre-pandemic days—or blaze the way forward into an unknown future.

Caitlin Armstrong
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