Over the past decade, our media consumption habits have undergone a radical transformation. The pandemic propelled this change into overdrive. Fast forward to 2023, and we find ourselves in a cinematic landscape where the once lengthy theatrical window has dwindled to a mere 30 days on average. To put this in perspective, think back to the early 2000s when a 90-day window was the norm. The speed at which this transformation has unfolded is nothing short of eyewatering.
The shrinking theatrical window is a consequence of the shift in how films are now being distributed. The rise in digital platforms, changing consumer behaviour and the strategic shift in film studios all have profound implications for traditional theatres. But, what does this mean for the cinema and the film industry as a whole?
As in other media sectors, distribution companies in the film industry release their products through different channels. Historically, distribution has followed a sequence: films have first been released in cinemas, followed by DVD/video, pay–per–view, subscription channels, cable and satellite television and finally, free broadcasters. This method was widely accepted in the industry for years by studios, distributors and cinema owners, with the traditional 90-day window being the norm for decades.
Streaming has quickly embedded itself as a household fixture, undoubtedly many of us have multiple active subscriptions. From the familiar realms of Disney+, Amazon Prime, and Netflix, to the newer platforms like Paramount+, there’s no shortage of options. Each of these platforms have taken on the traditional theatrical window, leaving no stone unturned. All of these platforms have challenged the traditional theatrical window in their own way, whether through a split release (streaming & theatrical), early access or exclusivity deals. Take Disney+ for example, Black Widow posed a choice to indulge in the action-packed adventure from our living rooms for a modest fee or venture out to the cinema, embracing a pricier, but undeniably better experience.
The convenience of streaming can not be overlooked. There was no option during the pandemic and although cinemas have begun to see the consumer returning, the desire for convenience and a lower cost point has been a convincing argument. Many of us are now choosing to wait for a film’s release to streaming platforms. (https://variety.com/2021/film/box-office/theatrical-window-dead-1234973333/)
Today we find the traditional distribution strategy has become less critical to a film’s long-term sustainability. With a wider reach and easier access to online distribution channels, a film produced 20 years ago will likely be easy to find, re-promote, and consumed by audiences.
Players such as Netflix disrupted the distribution chain, releasing blockbuster movies such as ‘Look Up’, straight to the platform. By doing this Netflix and the other streamers have been able to disrupt the distribution market by cutting down on cinema release options.
Major players in the industry have begun strategically reducing their theatrical release windows to entice audiences into subscribing to their streaming services. For instance, Disney+ demonstrates this approach with the movie “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” hitting the platform a mere two months after its theatrical release. This urgency stems from the need to continually provide fresh content on streaming platforms to retain subscribers.
The shrinking theatrical window poses a significant problem for cinemas, given that they make the bulk of their income from ticket sales, and used to have 90 days of exclusivity to exhibit a film (Investopedia, 2022). Before the pandemic, many cinemas were not willing to have a conversation about reviewing the traditional 90-day release model. Jump to today, and we are looking at a drastically different landscape with cinemas having lost the majority of their bargaining power.
Theatres have begun to tackle the shorter release windows through a variety of methods: emphasising the experience, offering exclusive screenings, enhanced amenities and flexibility in release strategies (AMC has recently signed new theatrical release deals with two major studios, Universal for 17 days and Warner Bros. for 45).
With the continuing domination of streaming, combined with emerging factors such as AI, Augmented and Virtual Reality, let’s assume that the way we experience films will drastically change as time goes on.
Changing consumer behaviour has thrown a spanner in the works for the planning of the theatrical future. However, there are opportunities for innovation and adaptation in response to changing consumer behaviours.
Firstly, theatres need to live up to the revered institutions they used to be. We have seen the rise of more luxurious cinemas in recent years, such as the well-known Everyman Cinemas, making the cinema a more luxurious activity. Cinemas can elevate their offerings by integrating newer technologies (Augmented and Virtual Reality), offering an experience many will not be able to experience at home, possibly, broadening the appeal of the cinema.
Overall, the future of cinema and theatrical distribution is likely to be shaped by a combination of these and other factors. The industry will need to be innovative and adapt to meet the changing needs and preferences of audiences.
If we want to keep our houses of worship, we’re going to have to bend a bit and change how they’re set up and run.