Adapting to Change: The Cinema Case Study

I recently had what might well be the single most modern cinematic moment of my life: I rented The Batman on YouTube, and watched it all three hours of it from my couch.  Somewhere in the middle of it all, I realized how distracting and bizarre it was to be watching a blockbuster, of this length, through an online platform running through my television, and quickly encountered two (mostly) unrelated thoughts: I am getting old, and cinema is changing at lightspeed.

An Industry Already Under Siege

If I’ve used it once, I’ve used this Charlie Kaufman quote a million times: “Adaptation is a profound process.”  Ask the biggest movie studios if they agree.  As ticket sales have steadily sunk between 1995 and 2020 (and certainly not rebounded in the previous two years to any significant extent), one of cinema’s most important organs seemed to be on the brink of shutdown.

With an 82% collapse in 2020 in already abysmal ticket sales, the pandemic was poised to be the death blow to the American movie theater—and it almost was. 

Pre-pandemic attempts to shore up theater attendance by hearkening back to the picture palaces of the 1930’s and 1940’s (when Americans commonly went to the movies twice a week) couldn’t keep compete with a lethal virus.  Theaters were going to take another hit, this time with very little they could do but wait.

Sea Change upon Sea Change

Studios could work immediately to maintain viewership.  Their reaction to the pandemic was to take even more steps away from dependence on the theater/box office model, and focus more on streaming services.

While bad news for theater proprietors, it made good sense for studios to take the approach.  They still had to overcome at least one large obstacle, however—how do you charge movie theater prices for an experience that doesn’t happen in a movie theater?

Certainly part of that answer comes from trusting your consumer to understand that movies are not cheap, and that they must submit to some higher prices for a rental than they might in safer times.  The other part of that answer had to come in the actual writing and production of the films offered.

Here, we see that cinematic content’s evolution began long before the pandemic became a dominant issue.  Marvel movies, of pre-and-mid-pandemic years, have been basically unstoppable since 2008, and they’re a great collective case study for the modern, theater-crisis-aware film.

Familiarity Brings Comfort

What are Marvel movies, at their core?  I’d argue three things, simply put: familiar, effects-heavy, and long.  The common thread between all of these characteristics?  Value, by specific metrics.  Let’s examine this value assessment in a little more detail.

Familiarity is a definite sign of value.  Brand identity exists for a reason, as do genres of film; they provide expectations to consumers.  Audiences know Captain America, as he’s been in popular culture since 1941.  They know what they’re getting from a movie that features him, and they know what they’re not getting.  Captain America is low-risk, and intended for all ages.

Effects Show Value

I probably don’t need to convince you that Marvel is effects-heavy.  I will, however, try to convince you that this is an outward-facing value indicator.  In short, it’s proof of financial effort.  Effects are one of the easiest places to see a film’s budget reflected.  Dated as this reference may be, it’s not My Dinner with Andre that you’re paying $25 to rent while the film would normally be in theaters.  It’s The Batman, with special effects that justify the price of admission the second you see them.

Runtime Justifies Costs

I’ll keep The Batman as my example for my last point: the value added through length.  Some people hate long films, to be sure, but to many (arguably, many more), length is an indicator of bang for one’s buck.  It’s a hard sell to pay $25 to rent/stream a 75-minute movie.  This is not the case with The Batman, at just shy of three hours.

Theaters might still be in a dark place, but as the pandemic starts to lessen its grip on the US, it’s entirely possible that its efforts to recall the golden age of theater-going might have success going forward.  Studios, for their part, are working a value proposal that’s still young, but at least partly successful in maintaining audience viewership.

Evolution (However Halting)

It’s worth noting one final (coincidentally also Marvel) development in the modern cinematic landscape: the Johansson v. Disney lawsuit of 2021.  Substantively focused on Disney’s alleged breach of contract with the actor over theatrical vs. streaming rights to Black Widow, the highly-publicized suit was eventually resolved amicably before 2021 ended.

That doesn’t mean it didn’t matter.  CNN called it “a flashpoint in an evolving Hollywood,” and wrote that it “came at a pivotal moment as the industry faces questions about how audiences will consume entertainment in the future.”  It’s proof positive that these questions are far from resolved.

It’s also proof of something more far-reaching: no matter the industry, your offering needs to fit the moment.  When the market shifts, the correct response is rarely to dig in your heels.  Instead, it’s time to evolve.

Cinema has changed distribution, content, and form to survive recent upsets in the market.  The case study matters because the movies seem future-proof.  After over 100 years of dominance, we can’t imagine a world without them.

Universal Issues

The lesson is that no industry is future-proof, and when threatened, all industries have to change pace, quickly.  And if an industry as time-tested as cinema has seemed lost—numerous times—in recent years, other industries without such deep cultural roots will almost certainly go through as much change, if not more. 

Supply chain issues are not just occurring in the places we’d expect.  The great resignation has affected more sectors than we imagined.  So, as these and many, many other issues assail your business, remember that it’s not your fault.

Control what you can control, and adapt.  If it happened to movies, it can happen to anyone; fortunately, movies have shown the attitude necessary to survive even the most threatening changes.