Release the Content

At some point, you’ve got to stop hiding the movies

Where are the movies? For film fans, this year has been a study in delayed gratification. Or maybe just delays. Every week, someone pushes back an opening of something, like a jerko extending his hand and then pulling it away to run through his hair. Oh, you thought we were actually going to open a movie? Psych. 

It’s gotten to the point where even mythical projects are appearing before actual ones. Next year, Warner Brothers is releasing the Snyder Cut of the Justice League movie, which many people thought was a meme rather than a reality, on HBO Max. But they’re refusing to screen Wonder Woman 1984, even though we’ve been seeing trailers for it, seemingly, since 1984 itself. Like more or less every studio, they’re holding back their blockbuster, as though the digital prints themselves contain compressed spores of COVID-19 ready to spew over the audience as soon as the opening credits appear.

 

I suppose I understand pulling back the Fast and Furious In Space movie, which will make eleventy billion dollars upon release. After all the FNF movies are about Family, and Family is precious in these uncertain times.  But what about Connected?  Sony pompously announced last week that Connected, a minor-key animation project, would no longer release on October 23, out of virus concerns. Instead it will appear at an indeterminate time next year. Oh noes! How will we live without Connected until next year, especially since we are all connected?

Sony apparently didn’t learn the lesson of Trolls World Tour, which surprisingly appeared in our homes last spring when even the most fervent anti-maskers were huddled Safer At Home with nothing to do. Voila! It made more than $100 million. People with kids are still desperate and bored. I will never watch Connected, just as like I will never watch “Love It Or List It”. But some people will.

It’s not like these are Secret Movies. We know they exist. And the more times studios push them back, the less interested people will be in them. They’re still making new movies. I know, because I’ve seen the set photos. So if they can make them, why can’t we watch them?

Release the content.

The big-screen option

Our more rarified forms of entertainment, like opera and theater, will never happen again because of Aerosol Droplets and Crowds. Apparently live music is off the table too, unless you are personally paying a small band of itinerant musicians to entertain your privileged Coronapod at a distance. But our major entertainment sectors are still lurching forward. TV continues to churn out reality programming and game shows, and Ryan Murphy appears to be able to produce a full season of streaming drama before most of us have a chance to take a post-breakfast poop. Sports is happening without crowds, unless it’s football, and then it’s happening with increasingly enormous crowds. What do movies more resemble? TV, or opera? Right. So why can’t we see them?

The studios cite virus concerns, but I have my doubts. Movies are proving to be surprisingly safe in the pandemic era. Not one case of COVID-19, anywhere in the world, has been traced to a cinematic screening. With distancing protocols, masks, and guys wandering the aisles with backpacks full of sanitary mists, theaters, which were super-gross as of February, have never been cleaner.

So then it’s about money. If Dr. Fauci warned that bloody flux would strike down one out of every three theater-goers, but everyone was willing to go anyway, Black Widow would open tomorrow. Are we supposed to cancel movies forever because New Mutants was a bust? New Mutants would have been a bust regardless! No one wanted to see that movie, virus or no virus, and it’s still made more than $35 million. If someone told me they’d make a movie based on one of my books and that it would earn $35 million at the box office, I’d throw myself a socially-distanced boat parade. So what’s the hold-up?

As with everything, it comes back to Tenet.

People are quick to classify Tenet as a legendary bust, the Heaven’s Gate or Bonfire of the Vanities of the pandemic era. But, as Forbes pointed out, it’s actually done fairly well and will easily clear $300 million in global box office before it’s all over. 

Then you have the strange case of Unhinged, a sleazy grindhouse thriller starring Russell Crowe, that was the first major original movie to appear during the pandemic. It’s made more than $15 million domestically and about $25 million worldwide. That’s a success for a movie that would ordinarily vanish at the bottom of the Video On Demand sludge pile. Anyone I know who’s willing to go to the movies has seen Tenet. No one I know, other than myself, has seen Unhinged. It mostly appeals to a red-meat Red State audience. But those people buy tickets, and many of them live in places that actually allow them to see movies. If MGM holds the line and keeps the James Bond premiere for November, those theaters will be as full as local ordinances allow.

Virtually nothing

The issuers of dire warnings may continue to issue those warnings, but some people are willing to go to the movies. So why not release them? New York Mayor Bill De Blasio is a big part of the problem. He’s a hulking man-obstacle to all that is holy, denying a million New York families a chance to send their kids to school, and refusing to open movie theaters in NYC despite the fact that 98 percent of the city has already had COVID-19 and you could probably throw a naked hugging rave in DUMBO without much spread. Also, you cannot see movies in Los Angeles. Governor Gavin Newsom (or Gavin Belson) forbids it. And L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who seems like a nice man, has turned into a liberal version of the John Lithgow character in Footloose.

And that’s the reason why a movie like Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch is delayed indefinitely, since 75 percent of its audience lives in New York and Los Angeles. Initially, we were supposed to get The French Dispatch in July. Then in October. Now, maybe never. But why couldn’t they release The French Dispatch in October, really? Is it like The Ring? Do characters crawl out of the film and kill people?

These are the kinds of delays that will hurt the most. It’s absurd that the pandemic has pushed the Venom sequel from October to next June, but I suspect it won’t matter, Venom-wise. The smaller artsy movies, on the other hand, will suffer. Virtual screenings do nothing. The Violet Crown, an arthouse in Austin, Texas, where I live, is currently offering “Virtual Cinema” downloads of dozens of very small movies, music documentaries, foreign-language thrillers, and at least one movie whose poster shows a woman holding an axe. These movies need audiences, not downloads. How many people have Virtually Cinemaed “The Last Tree” this week? I bet it’s not 10.

Safer at home

Let’s say, for the sake of accuracy, that I’m a moviegoing crank who doesn’t like the government telling him what to do. It’s highly likely. Maybe COVID-19 fears are keeping the majority of people away from the movies, and that’s not going to change. If that’s the case, then why not release movies to people at home? If me from 30 years ago could emerge in my living room today, I’d stare at my TV in wonder like someone looking at an electric lightbulb at an 1880s world’s fair. Our TVs are incredible. They look and sound great.

As stated earlier in this interminable essay, Trolls World Tour made lots of money. The surprise appearance of Hamilton on Disney+ may not have turned a profit, but people certainly enjoyed and appreciated having it available. Disney’s at-home release of Mulan has been a bit of a disaster, but that’s because the company ran into all kinds of political problems at home and abroad. The lesson of Mulan isn’t: Don’t release movies at home. It’s more: Be careful about Chinese stereotypes. Also, $30 was probably too high a price point for a movie that no one really wanted to see.

So here we are, in an era of endless prevarication and delay, where indie movies are growing moldier by the second and the groaning studio giants continue to play a tiresome game of Hide The Blockbuster. Or, they could, you know, just release the content.

Movies
Florence Pugh wants you to release the content.

As of yesterday, Marvel officially delayed Black Widow from November until May of 2021. May! Of next year! But why? They have all of Disney+ at their disposal, plus a majority of American screens open, and many many worldwide screens as well. What if Marvel decided to simultaneously open Black Widow in theaters and release it on Disney+ the same day, or a week after, for $20 or $25 a pop? Everyone, other than boring snobs who don’t think a Florence Pugh superhero action movie is a good idea, would watch it, in whatever format made them feel most comfortable. It would be great, it will be great.

Alternately, if The French Dispatch suddenly became available for $20 on Amazon Prime, and also showed up at the art houses brave enough to reopen, every New Yorker subscriber who hasn’t yet succumbed to the coronavirus would see it on opening day. It would be quirky and swell.

Trust me, I am an expert. Let us see the damn things already, stop fucking around. Movies continue to be absurdly vilified in the pandemic age, as though someone hatched COVID-19 on purpose on a back lot in Burbank.

Delays are for the weak. They who hesitate, are lost.

You’ve released the Snyder Cut.

Now release the content.

 

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 11 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. He's written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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