The Movie Industry’s Long COVID Problem

How COVID changed movies—and the Oscars—forever.

History was made at the Oscars Sunday night. No, I’m not referring to the “slap heard ’round the world,” or CODA winning Best Picture, or Ariana DeBose winning Best Supporting Actress, although each of these, and more, are worth having textured conversations about. The history I’m specifically referring to is how, on March 27, 2022, CODA became the first film distributed via a streaming service to win Best Picture. It is a feat that Netflix has been fighting mightily to achieve for years, but it was AppleTV+, a service much younger than Netflix, that reached this monumental goal first. With this award and this achievement, there is now no longer any confusion as to whether streamers are here for real, and there is no longer any debating the fact that the way we make and watch movies has forever been changed. This fact prompts some meaningful questions for the future of film as we know them and for all the elements of movies that we have come to know and love, like going to a movie theater and the Oscars themselves. And not all of the answers are ones we want to hear.

Broadway was monumentally affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, as was all of live theater. The pandemic forced live theater to shut down, but when possible, it started to come back, and audiences flooded back to see plays and musicals. Why? Because there is no substitute for the in-person experience of actors performing live in front of real people, where everyone is experiencing the exact same thing at the same time. Live theater cannot be replicated.

Film, however, finds itself in quite a different circumstance. Movie theaters were forced to shut down at the beginning of the pandemic, but the film industry luckily had an option that theaters did not. The widely available existence of streaming services, many already bought by or merged with existing studios, gave creators a way of getting their content to audiences, even during a raging pandemic. While there was the initial nervousness of allowing a movie to be seen on a TV, a laptop, or even a phone, studios quickly realized they had few alternatives, short of accepting a zero-sum profit for an undetermined length of time.

As it turned out, the decision to move theatrical releases to streaming not only allowed the studios to feed a new source of revenue by using new movies to drive audiences to their streaming sites, but audiences were craving content. An entire world was forced back into their homes, with nothing to do but find things inside to occupy themselves, and the easy answer was television. The pandemic fostered a mutual, much-needed inter-dependence between studios and the audience. Studios needed platforms to reach their audience, and the audience needed content, and lots of it, to get through the long days of lockdown. It was a joyous confluence of supply and demand, and everyone was happy. Studios were basking in the knowledge that although the closure of movie theaters did hurt them economically, the film industry was still so much better off than theater. At least studios had a way to get their movies out there to be seen and loved. This was great, right? And, like theater, as soon as possible, people headed back to the multiplexes, because everyone loves the movie-going experience, right? No matter how great it may be to have all the movies available in your living room, there’s no substitute for going out to the cinemas, sitting in a dark room, watching a big screen, and laughing, screaming, and crying with a group of strangers all watching the same thing. Right?

The Genie Is Out Of The Bottle

Be careful what you wish for. When movies gave audiences new ways to watch that didn’t include going to a physical movie theater, they were tempting fate. The pandemic forced them into a corner, and now that audiences have tasted the convenience and the pleasure of getting first-run movies in their living room, it’s a genie that cannot just be forced back into the bottle.

It’s easy to forget that adults were already falling out of love with going to the movies. Long before the pandemic, there had already been a palpable shift in content, a trend that started with the burgeoning and highly sought-after overseas market, driven by China and their taste for big-budget, special effects-laden bonanzas. Add to that the explosion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the rejuvenation of the Star Wars franchise, and the movies were marked by a complete and utter domination by films aimed at younger and foreign audiences. Adult dramas were suffering the most significant effects of studios’ focus to make these cash cow films, and theaters were growing increasingly hesitant to take prime screen real estate away from a blockbuster that would fill every seat in favor of an adult drama that could barely register a blip.

So not only was it harder for a serious, adult movie-going fan to find a film for them, the experience was getting more and more unpleasant. The ubiquitous existence of cell phones, and the addiction of people to them, would cause that perfect, darkened and quiet theater experience to be constantly interrupted by glowing rectangular screens and, even worse, the human’s Pavlovian response to them. Add to that the more pervasive “comforts of home” that theater owners feel are necessary to attract audiences, including reclining seats and much broader food options, didn’t always appeal to the older generation. Niche theater chains, such as Alamo and Arclight, grew in popularity because of their business model targeting older audiences who were willing to pay more in exchange for tough restrictions on distractions during the movie.

The Death Of The Adult Drama

As if the experience of going to the movies wasn’t already getting more and more undesirable for the average forty-plus-year-old moviegoer, the shifting business model of Hollywood pounced on the pandemic as an excuse to kill the adult drama once and for all. Two specific examples speak volumes about the new world that has been created for adult movies in a post-pandemic multiplex world. One is The Last Duel, a big-budget, star-studded, epic period drama from the highly acclaimed Oscar-nominated director Ridley Scott that came out in October 2021, the time that used to be a prime launch month for Oscar contenders. COVID had lessened its grip over the summer, so theaters were back open, but, as October rolled around, infection numbers were rising again, so The Last Duel’s target demographic, namely, adults, were growing more and more hesitant to go to the theater. As a result, The Last Duel barely registered a blip at the box office, and its failure has become fodder for jokes, even during Sunday’s Oscars telecast.

Another film’s fate is even more ominously indicative of what the future may look like. That would be Nightmare Alley, director Guillermo del Toro’s critically-acclaimed neo-noir, starring Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett. It also is a period drama, its target demographic being adults. It had the misfortune of being released into theaters even deeper in the winter of 2021 when infection numbers were still going up. But it not only had COVID to deal with, as Spider-Man: No Way Home, released at the same time, a film whose target demographic (under 30) had zero problems going out to see it in the theater. Spider-Man: No Way Home broke box office records—and it came out when COVID numbers were surging. On the other hand, Nightmare Alley was suffering such poor turnout that there were rumors that some theaters canceled scheduled Nightmare Alley showings to open up more screens to show Spider-Man. Walt Disney Studios, who distributed Nightmare Alley, gave up the fight pretty early, dumping it onto their partner streaming site, Hulu (and HBO MAX), despite awards buzz and having been made to be seen on the big screen.

This is a hard reality to face. No matter how we dream and hope for it, movies will never look the same post-COVID as they did pre-COVID. I have so many friends who don’t even look forward to going to the movies again. The two years of COVID have taught them that there are enough viewing alternatives in the comfort of their own home (without putting out any extra money on tickets, concessions, AND the cost of the gas for driving to the theater), so what’s it worth to go to the theater? I have multiple friends who love the Oscars and love movies who only saw the nominated films that were available to them via streaming platforms. And the ONLY adult friends I know who go to an actual movie theater to watch movies say they only go because they have the AMC A-List membership and want to get their money’s worth. But even they have grown tired of the theater experience. As for Arclight and Alamo? One went out of business, and the other declared bankruptcy.

Are The Oscars Still Relevant?

This brings me to the Oscars themselves. Suppose the movie-going and viewing experience has changed. What does it mean for the Oscars? The ceremony is a dinosaur that has tried to buck progress and stay true to its roots in celebrating the traditional format of cinema and the art of creating it. With the landmark breakthrough of a streaming service winning Best Picture at the Oscars, the lines are now even more blurred between streaming and theatrical. Can there even be a clear separation between the Emmys and the Oscars anymore, when more movies are now seen on television than in the theater?

And how is it even decided what qualifies for Oscar vs. Emmy anymore? Bad Education, a film starring Hugh Jackman and Alison Janney, won the Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie in 2020. In 2013, Behind the Candelabra, a film starring Oscar-winners Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, won eleven Emmy Awards, including Best Miniseries or Movie. They were both only seen on television. CODA won Best Picture at the Oscars, despite being exclusively available to be seen only on television, except for the small theatrical window required by the Oscars to qualify. Let’s be real: everyone who saw CODA saw it on their TV. And those who lamented not seeing it said they didn’t see it because they didn’t have AppleTV+. I don’t know a single person who said they didn’t have Apple and then went to see it in a theater. You saw it at home, or you didn’t see it. So why was CODA an Oscar movie and not an Emmy movie? Because all the previously bright and unchanging lines are now blurred and in constant flux. And we’d better get used to it.

But the hardest reality to try to come to terms with is that the Oscars just might be obsolete. Once an institution for cinephiles, film purists, and admirers of the art of the moving picture, they are now an exercise in commerce. They are no longer a celebration of film. They are a money grab. Decisions are driven by ratings, not artistic merit. And nobody is willing to fight for them, either. Every major film studio is now in bed with a streaming service, so the Oscars mean the same to them as the Emmys. And social media buzz matters more than awards. Generally speaking, the movies that make a ton of money at the box office are often even not nominated for Oscars, so why should studios even care? If the show is driven by ratings and not by honoring merit, and an Oscar win no longer translates to a financial bump at the movie theater because the movie was never in a theater, how do the Oscars differ from being anything more than a fashionable reality show?

The Oscars used to be appointment television, one of those events that we all gathered ’round to watch and then talk about around the water cooler the next day. We all need to stop expecting the Oscars will ever have the interest again that they did back when there were only three networks on television and no way to record anything. Today, the Oscars are not only competing with everything else that’s on at the same time, they are competing with every other option available to viewers, including streaming. I saw so many film fans on Twitter who couldn’t watch the Oscars because they had “cut the cord,” and the Oscars were only available to be seen on ABC. If the Oscars ever hope to hold the same cache and “event television” status that they used to, everything about it needs to adjust, not only to the way we watch them but what they even represent. Or just admit that they are for the true cinephiles, a true and pure celebration of the art form, and stop chasing ratings. If there’s anything we’ve learned about the last two years of Oscar broadcasts, it’s that you clearly can’t do both.

Indeed, we are not entirely past COVID, so there is still a lot to play out as far as audiences feeling fully comfortable returning to the theater. And there’s a chance that the Oscars might find their way back to artistic purity again. The full implications and long-term effects of the pandemic on the industry and our movie-going habits are still unknown. However, CODA’s victory set a precedent that can never be undone, nor can we fully comprehend its significance yet. But let’s hope that it doesn’t signal the beginning of the end of movies and the Oscars as we’ve known them. That would be the worst slap of all.

Written by
Catherine is a senior writer for We Live Entertainment. She has also written for Awards Watch, In Session Film, and Awards Radar. She is Rotten Tomatoes-approved and a proud member of The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, and the Online Association of Female Film Critics. Offline, she loves baseball, World Cup soccer and all things ‘80s.

Your Vote

4 0

Lost Password

Please enter your username or email address. You will receive a link to create a new password via email.