Silver screen fills with action as Netflix stumbles

After sitting in the can for more than two years, Top Gun: Maverick finally got a screening in front of a big audience in a darkened theater this week. The crowd was all-in from the first scene, cheering Tom Cruise’s one-liners, oooh-ing at the allusions to the original 1986 film and applauding the action-packed flight sequences in which certain death was averted.

Granted, this Las Vegas audience was heavily populated with cinema owners, who no doubt had images of long queues of movie-goers and skyrocketing popcorn sales dancing in their heads. This, after all, was CinemaCon, the movie theater industry’s annual conference, where cinema owners are treated to exclusive sneak previews presented by A-list stars, big-name directors and studio suits seeking the widest possible distribution for their films.

It was a decidedly gloomy affair last year, thanks to the twin pandemic scourges of the global and the exploding popularity of streaming video services. Yet this time the mood was almost giddy, thanks to optimism that the worst of the pandemic is over — and the prospect of blockbusters such as Avatar: The Way of Water, the sequel to the highest-grossing film of all time, arriving on their screens later this year.

But there was something else lifting the mood: a sense that streaming’s blitzkrieg takeover of their industry had finally met some resistance. A week before, Netflix stunned the entertainment industry by saying it was actually losing subscribers — about 2mn this quarter — ending a decade-long streak of uninterrupted growth.

The Netflix news unleashed what one Hollywood producer dubbed “an orgasm of schadenfreude”, according to a Puck News report. Over lunches and drinks last week in Las Vegas, Netflix’s woes and alleged missteps were gleefully dissected by studio veterans. Pent-up resentment spilled out about its big movie budgets and lavish spending on Oscar marketing campaigns.

More publicly, however, the discussion centered on the belief that “movies are back” — specifically, back on silver screens. Jerry Bruckheimer, who produced the original Top Gun and its sequel, was among those who emphasized that their work was made to be seen in theatres, not at home on a streaming service — hence the long wait for its release.

“I always thought, and so did Tom, that this was a movie for theaters,” Bruckheimer said. “You felt it today [at the screening] — it’s a communal experience.”

Fifteen years after Netflix launched its pioneering service, Hollywood has found itself needing to prove that the cinema is still the lifeblood of the industry. This was stated as gospel repeatedly in Las Vegas, which may not seem too surprising given both the messengers and the audience. But it amounted to a rejection of the streaming first doctrine that Disney and WarnerBros, and until recently Wall Street, have been loudly advocating.

Disney chief executive Bob Chapek reorganised the company’s entertainment division to ensure that cinema-centric executives could no longer make decisions about how and when their movies were released. “If I left it to the individual creative groups in the company, everything would be going to the legacy platforms”, such as movie theaters and linear TV, Chapek told the FT in December.

But as the streaming wars intensify, studios are starting to remember the joys of box office revenue. In Las Vegas last week, Disney’s studios emphasized the importance of theatrical release. Kevin Feige, who as head of Marvel Studios sits atop billion-dollar franchises such as Spider Man and The Avengers, said his team was in the process of charting its animated releases for the next decade. “They are unique and special — and they are meant for your theaters,” he said of the planned films.

Jon Landau, who produced the new Avatar film for Disney’s 20th Century Fox division, said the decision to film it in 3D guaranteed that cinemagoers would have a superior experience to those streaming the movie at home. “We need to make sure [audiences] have an experience they can’t get anywhere else, and that needs to be exclusively in theaters,” Landau said.

Disney, according to longtime attendees, put on its biggest display at CinemaCon in years. Many in the industry are still angry about the company’s decision to release films such as Black Widow for streaming on Disney Plus on the same day they debuted in theatres. Such “day and date” releases, also championed by Warner Bros, remain highly contentious in Hollywood and among cinema owners. “I am pleased to announce that simultaneous release is dead as a serious business model,” said John Fithian, president and CEO of the National Association of Theater Owners.

Yet for all the praise for the cinema owners this week, some studio executives privately say that their failure to improve the moviegoing experience is one of the reasons attendance has been falling for years. Worse, most exhibitors are too strapped after the pandemic to make changes, even if they wanted to.

But such concerns seemed to be put off for another day. With Netflix retrenching, summer looming and popcorn movies at the ready, Hollywood is saving the moment. For now, at least, the movies are back.

christopher.grimes@ft.com

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