A woman wearing a face mask walks past the closed Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse movie theater amid the coronavirus pandemic on May 14, 2020, in Arlington, Virginia.

How 2020 Is Changing the Movie Industry for Good: A Conversation With Film Critic Alison Willmore

'To run a theater is already a difficult business ... To just close up shop for that long is going to close a lot of theaters. A lot of theaters are going to never come back.'

During the pandemic, catching a flick has either meant showing up to a drive-in movie theater or getting comfy on the couch with a plethora of content from streaming services. With the majority of U.S. movie theaters still closed, studios have been forced to turn billion-dollar box office hits instead to VOD or streaming releases, while other major blockbusters faced delays – most notably Disney’s remake of Mulan and the highly-hyped Christopher Nolan film, Tenet.

Both films cost over $200 million each to make, and now their respective studios are hoping to at least recoup some of those costs at the box office – be it through virtual ticket sales or physical moviegoers. Tenet took the latter approach, opening in select markets and Canada at the end of August, earning $53 million at the box office during its international opening weekend, while Disney announced that the company would release Mulan on Disney+ for $30 – a separate cost from a subscription and toted as “premier access.”

Both films have become the poster children, of sorts, of the massive hit the pandemic has had on the movie industry worldwide this year.

LX’s Ngozi Ekeledo talked to Alison Willmore, a film critic at Vulture and New York Magazine, about the effects the pandemic has had on the movie industry, what types of films might be destined for VOD in the future and whether or not certain movie theaters will make it through 2020.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

NGOZI: As a film critic, how have you seen things change in the movie industry over the last few months?

ALISON: I feel like the pandemic has ended up being framed for me by Mulan. The week that we all started shutting down in New York, I was supposed to see a press screening of Mulan that Friday. That’s the movie that also, of all the big releases that all got taken off the schedule, that was the one that actually had a big Hollywood premiere. It had the glitzy premiere, it had the red carpet, a bunch of people saw it in LA, and then it kind of was just put on hold.

When Newark, N.J.-based filmmaker Ayana Stafford-Morris decided to start a pop-up drive-in movie theater, she realized that only a tiny number of the movies available for drive-in venues featured Black directors or casts. So she decided to change that.

That movie and Tenet became two movies that were always right on the edge of whenever they kind of thought maybe theaters would reopen, so they kept kind of pushing the date and pushing the date and pushing the date, and I think the fact that Disney announced recently that they were giving up on theaters in the U.S. – they were going to release Mulan on Disney+ for a thirty dollar rental fee extra – I think that was just a sign to me of how much this year in theatrical releases had just basically been scrapped.

That was Disney’s way of just being like, “We can’t keep waiting for the U.S. to kind of get the pandemic under control, so we’re just going to release it on premium VOD,” as they call it, in the U.S. so that they can open it internationally – which is where it was going to make most of its money anyway.

Otherwise, there have been no big summer movies, at least in theaters.

I think it’s interesting to see which movies of these big releases the studios are holding, [or] pushed to next year, and which ones they’re kind of like, “It’s fine. We’ll just sell it to Netflix or we’ll just release it on VOD,” and that’s mostly been comedies. King of Staten Island, that Judd Apatow movie; or American Pickle, the Seth Rogen movie; The Lovebirds – those were all movies that had originally been slated for theaters and then either got sold to a streaming service or just put on VOD. So it’s been interesting to see studios just kind of be like, “We’ve been having a tough time making comedies work in theaters anyway, we’ll just let you watch them at home for various reasons through various different outlets.”

NGOZI: How much money have these studios lost during this pandemic?

ALISON: Impossible to know. I mean, it’s really hard to know, also, because you have to guess at how much something would have made. Something like The Lovebirds? I have no idea how much that would have made in theaters because it’s been hard to guess with comedies these days. You have Issa Rae, you have Kumail Nanjiani – these are people who have big followings, but we’ve been kind of trained to not feel urgent about showing up to comedies in theaters, so it’s hard to say. That movie was obviously cheaper to make; I think it’s budget was like $15 and $16 million. It was cheaper to make than a Marvel movie, which costs like over $100 million, so I’m sure the math there is more careful. Maybe it makes more sense, but with something like a giant studio blockbuster, it’s hard to even begin to guess.

NGOZI: Movie theaters, at least in the U.S., have pretty much been closed since late March. How will they recover when this is all said and done?

ALISON: Movie theaters have just been devastated by this [pandemic]. For a giant chain like [AMC], you have a lot more protections put in place just because you’re a large corporation. If you’re a little arthouse theater? What I’ve seen happening online is people doing GoFundMe’s or different fundraising, getting donations both for small theaters but also for the workers of those theaters. It’s been nice to see people take initiative to help out these small businesses and these employees who have gotten all laid off and just been out of work during this time. It’s still kind of a stop gap measure, you know? It’s really hard to be something you can count on long term. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t look like there’s a plan in place for help from the government. It’s going to hurt a lot of those small theaters and privately-owned theaters a lot.

To run a theater is already a difficult business. You make most of your money from selling snacks and concessions. To just close up shop for that long is going to close a lot of theaters. A lot of theaters are going to never come back.

NGOZI: Do you see the pandemic altering the types of films being made?

ALISON: I don’t know if it’s the pandemic so much as maybe the kind of uprising and the conversations that have come from it. It’s hard to separate that out from the pandemic because I do feel like those two things happened – energy from one kind of helped fuel the other – but I do think that they, at least for a while, will start changing the types of movies that are made or changing how people think about who’s getting to make movies.

I am very curious about what this will all mean for the giant blockbuster because for a while, we’ve been heading in a direction where if you’re making a big movie, it counts on international success, right? If you’re making a movie for a global audience, international markets are a huge part of that. Your movie costs $200 million plus, double that maybe in marketing – you have to go so big to make that kind of movie to even break even.

I do feel like the pandemic has made me wonder if there will be a reconsideration of that. You can’t release that kind of movie right now. You can’t release a giant blockbuster when still huge parts of the world are only now just kind of letting people back into going to movie theaters or [the U.S.] is not.

NGOZI: Are there any films that you’ve seen either reach a bigger audience or benefit from this VOD model during the pandemic?

ALISON: It’s really hard because those VOD numbers aren’t made public. One that I think ended up [doing well], I think because of the timing, [was] Selah and the Spades. It was released on Amazon Prime streaming. It would have gotten a theatrical release. It came out in April, so it was right in the middle of things, and I think in a weird way, that release actually did focus a lot more attention on it. Especially something on Amazon streaming, it’s not like Netflix where there’s a constant attention on there – you have to let people know that something’s on Amazon streaming, but I do feel like I saw a lot more attention to that movie than you would necessarily get for an indie release like that. I talked to [director] Tayarisha Poe, and she said she saw people were doing the monologue from one of the characters. She saw that going big on TikTok and saw it getting memed. Again, social media is an imperfect gauge on how many people are watching, but that’s certainly filtered through to an audience that maybe in a normal summer where everyone was just kind of turned toward big releases, it maybe wouldn’t have gotten that kind of room to breathe.

NGOZI: When it comes to the competition between theatrical releases vs. streaming services, financially, who comes out as the winner, in the end?

ALISON:  I would assume in the short term, Netflix. I think streaming services. We’re obviously going to run out soon. Production is not happening right now. It’s only slowly starting back, like, Jurassic World: Dominion has started shooting again. But [most] production has been shut down, so there’s going to be this weird drought of content in the next few months in terms of streaming content, but what is better for a streaming service than having everyone being at home with nothing to do? So I think that has been the big winner by default.

It’s really difficult. It’s a whole revenue stream that’s gone for a lot of these movies. Like, Trolls World Tour – Universal released it on premium VOD, I think they were charging $19.99 for it, and they made a big deal out of talking up how much money it made on VOD (according to the Wall Street Journal, the Trolls sequel earned over $100 million domestically in rentals), but the truth is, it still missed a whole window of money it normally would have made by being in theaters (LX is a part of NBCUniversal). Maybe it made more on VOD than it would have in the expected release, but I still don’t think it made anywhere near as much as they had originally planned. And I think that’s one of the reasons why people are like, “Why don’t we just put Black Widow on VOD?” And the truth is, these big movies aren’t going to make back their money that way. The whole profit model, especially for giant blockbusters, is set on having theaters, and that’s a huge part of it.

Netflix released a few movies that they kind of presented as blockbusters this summer – one of which, The Old Guard, I thought was really good. I would have loved to see The Old Guard in theaters. But then the other one was Project Power, which just came out and Extraction – that action movie that Netflix said was one of their most watched original movies ever. I just don’t feel like people receive them as events in the same way. They’re just the kind of latest thing to be on Netflix, which is a service that we either pay for or borrow passwords from someone we know, and I do think there is a kind of mental divide there that I think studios are very invested in holding on to, and I don’t think they’re wrong.

I do think that’s why when Disney has been like, “We’re going to put Mulan [out], and you can rent it, and it’s going to cost thirty dollars, and we’re never going to do this again if we can help it,” they wanted to make it very clear that this was not going to be business as usual from here on out. They wanted to kind of draw a line between whatever regular Disney+ content is and this big event movie. I do understand that, and I think the whole quarantine has made that more obvious to me that there is a lot riding on being able to make things a bigger deal, and theaters are part of that.

For a long time since I’ve been doing this job, the feeling has always been like, “Oh, theaters are kind of slowly fading away. We can just watch anything on Netflix. People want to stay home,” but actually, I’ve been coming out of this [pandemic] feeling like it’s kind of reaffirmed the importance of theaters for me – both in terms of, I would do anything to get out of the house. I miss leaving the house.