Big Screen Or Stream? Lessons From ‘Hamilton’, ‘Greyhound’, and ‘Tenet’
It’s a tough time to run a movie theater or a movie studio. With the coronavirus pandemic continuing to destabilize countries and their economies around the world, few are eager to sit in a movie theater surrounded by strangers, while studios are reluctant to release films in theaters — especially potential blockbusters — when there are no audiences to buy tickets. But due to smart TVs, streaming channels, and video-on-demand, there are more ways than ever to get a movie in front of viewers, though they all have their pros and cons.
So I thought I would look at three films — Hamilton, Greyhound, and Tenet — and the different strategies their studios employed to try to get eyes on their movies and a return on their investment, with thoughts on movie distribution both now and in the post-pandemic world as well as Disney’s recent announcement about Mulan.
‘Hamilton’: Embracing the Moment
The live recording of Hamilton with its original cast had the least to lose from abandoning its scheduled theatrical run in October 2021 since it likely wouldn’t have been a major blockbuster. But by allowing Disney+ to stream it close to a year early on July 3, 2020 in the midst of the pandemic — and in time for Independence Day — the producers of Hamilton turned a bad situation into an incredible opportunity that not only delighted millions of viewers and Disney executives, but may see Hamilton become an annual, essential American tradition.
ESPN, which is owned by Disney, scored a huge win earlier in the quarantine by moving up its release of the Last Dance, its documentary series about Michael Jordan’s tenure with the Chicago Bulls and the team’s quest for a sixth championship. With every sports league around the world shut down because of coronavirus, the Last Dance improbably became the biggest story in all of sports, with starved sports shows across every medium covering and debating every episode’s new revelations as if they were breaking news, while fans dissected every aspect of the series on social media from the players’ fashion crimes to the color of Jordan’s eyeballs. And by putting the Last Dance in ESPN’s subscription streaming service ESPN+ after the episodes aired, ESPN could lure people into subscribing who had missed the Last Dance during its original run.
The lessons learned from the Last Dance were surely not lost on Disney’s executives as they made their decision to stream Hamilton over a year earlier than planned. Disney+, which not coincidentally ended its 7-day free trial offer a month before Hamilton debuted, saw a huge spike of new subscribers who wanted to watch Hamilton over 4th of July weekend, especially with no fireworks displays or barbecues to (responsibly) go to. As importantly, Disney’s new CEO Bob Chapek later disclosed in an all-hands meeting that many of these new subscribers were “a different target audience, a different demographic” than the 54.5 million households who were already paying for Disney+, who one can assume are predominantly families with younger children. Some percentage of these new subscribers, given a month to see what else is on Disney+, may decide that there is enough compelling content there to make Disney+ worth adding to their permament video streaming roster.
Then there are all of the intangible, emotional aspects of Disney streaming Hamilton at this moment in history in time for Independence Day. With the coronavirus still raging across America and a (now surpassed) death toll heading towards 150,000 due to Donald Trump’s bewildering refusal to lead, treat the pandemic seriously, and unite the country against a common enemy, there was precious little to feel hopeful or patriotic about as July 4, 2020 neared. With large celebrations and family get togethers canceled, people couldn’t even look forward to something as simple as enjoying time with friends and relatives. And with protests against police brutality across the country leading to even more police brutality in response, America felt more divided, backwards, and hobbled than it has in recent memory.
In this climate of fear, anger, isolation, and hopelessness, Hamilton was a true ray of light. With its all-minority cast and dynamic, thoroughly modern hip-hop take on America’s birth and its most underappreciated Founding Father, Hamilton reminded us what makes America great — in all its idealism, messiness, courage, and humanity — both now and at its inception. Millions of people — and especially children, who improbably make up the musical’s biggest fanbase — were able to experience a show many of their families could never afford tickets to, as well as an opportunity to see it performed by the original cast who only several thousand lucky and affluent theatergoers had seen.
By recognizing the opportunity provided by moving quickly to streaming, Disney and the makers of Hamilton brought an incredible amount of joy and inspiration to millions of Americans, while Disney both profited handsomely from the surge of new subscribers and completely owned Independence Day 2020. In the process, I believe that watching Hamilton will become a new 4th of July tradition that will continue for years to come. And whenever someone wants to be a part of that tradition, they’ll have to subscribe to Disney+.
‘Greyhound’: Resigned to Smaller Victories
Despite him being a world-famous and beloved multimillionaire, you have to feel kind of bad for Tom Hanks. His World War II naval siege movie Greyhound — which Hanks wrote, produced, and stars in — has been a passion project that he had been trying to get made for close to a decade. Its story of inexperienced Navy commander Captain Krause (Hanks) attempting to protect a supply convoy of ships crossing the Atlantic from Nazi U-boats very much deserves to be seen on a big screen with great sound. But when theaters around the world closed up due to the pandemic, Sony Pictures decided to put Greyhound’s streaming rights up for auction, and Apple TV+ was the highest bidder. While doing press for Greyhound, Hanks couldn’t hide his disappointment for what had happened to his beloved film, calling the move to streaming “an absolute heartbreak”, lamenting the degradation of picture quality from big screen to TV and chafing at the micromanaging of “the cruel whipmasters at Apple” over details like requesting that Hanks do remote interviews against a blank wall so viewers wouldn’t be distracted by what was in his bookcase.
But the move to streaming yielded some significant victories. It was a big score for Apple TV+ in particular, which replicated Disney+’s success with Hamilton by adding a boatload (sorry) of new subscribers eager to see Greyhound, which scored the biggest opening weekend in Apple TV+’s short history. And while far from Hanks’ ideal scenario, Deadline reports that the number of people who watched Greyhound in its opening weekend were “commensurate with a summer theatrical box office big hit”. In a non-pandemic summer, I’d be surprised if Greyhound would’ve had such a big opening, especially since it’s not a film younger moviegoers would probably be excited for and older audiences typically don’t rush out to see movies on opening weekend. I’d also guess that Greyhound’s compact 91-minute running time, which some might consider too short to be worth an expensive movie ticket, worked to the film’s advantage on streaming, where all of the distractions of home might make a +2-hour film seem like more of a slog.
And again, there are the emotional, intangible benefits of streaming Greyhound at this moment in time. For just $4.99 — or free with Apple TV+’s 7-day trial or the free year given with purchase of Apple hardware — millions of Americans were treated to a high-quality, uplifting, inspiring, patriotic movie starring America’s favorite actor as a common man overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, which surely resonates with people who may be feeling hopeless in the midst of what feels like a never-ending crisis. As much as Hanks is correctly disappointed that his film isn’t being viewed as he intended, I’m sure the fact that more people got to see Greyhound than would have otherwise and are sharing Hanks’ admiration for one of World War II’s little-known heroes is surely something he should feel happy about. In addition, Greyhound is both a popular and critical success (Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes with a 79% score), which may give the film some heat during awards season and will probably make it easier for Hanks to secure funding for the next World War II project he wants to make.
‘Tenet’: Fighting the Present, and the Future
By staying fully committed to a theatrical release, which has already required Tenet’s release date to be pushed back three times, I feel like Warner Bros.’ refusal to move Tenet to streaming has been the worst strategy so far, and will most likely end in failure. The current plan is for Tenet to premiere in 70 international territories on August 26 and open on a city-by-city basis across the US starting September 3.
Now I’m a fan of Christopher Nolan — Inception is one of my top three movies of the 2010s — and I think his movies make the most of the big-screen experience. I understand his desire to have people see his movie the way he made it to be seen, as well as his hope that Tenet could help save the movie theaters he loves that are struggling to avoid bankruptcy. I also get that Warner Bros. is desperate to make back Tenet’s $200 million budget in addition to what they spent on the huge international ad campaign to make Tenet the biggest movie of summer 2020. I’m as excited as anyone to see Tenet, and recently rewatched Inception (which Tenet seems similar to) so I could get my Nolan fix in the meantime.
But let’s get real. With coronavirus spreading uncontrolled in many countries and resurging in countries that previously seemed to have beaten it, going to the movie theater is simply not a safe activity in most parts of the world no matter what precautions a theater might take. By insisting that Tenet only show in theaters as soon as possible during a rapidly-shifting pandemic, it certainly feels like Nolan and Warner Bros. are saying that Tenet is a movie that’s worth risking not only the lives and long-term health of moviegoers, but also their families, theater staff, and anyone they come in close contact with. That’s psychotic. In case it needs to be said, seeing a movie, no matter how mind-blowing it may be, is not worth the life or long-term health of even a single person.
How will Nolan and Warner Bros. respond if a cluster of infections is linked to a screening of Tenet? Blame moviegoers who may not even know they’re infected? Throw the theaters they’re trying to save under the bus, which will be forced to temporarily close anyway? Keep in mind that the demographics most likely to see Tenet in theaters now would be young people who think they’re invulnerable, people who think there’s nothing to worry about because the coronavirus is a hoax or isn’t dangerous, or people who think a movie is worth risking the health of themselves and their loved ones. In essence, it would be a cross-section of the most irresponsible, ignorant, selfish people on the planet. Do you really want to be sitting in a theater full of these people — many of whom would be maskless either out of defiance or simply to munch on popcorn — for over two and a half hours? According to a New York Times survey, republican voters — surely influenced by the misinformation and delusions of Donald Trump, republican leaders, and right-wing media — are over five times more likely than democrats to believe that going to a movie theater is a safe activity.
The more I think about it, I don’t see how Tenet’s theater-only strategy has any viable path to success. With most theaters that are open only allowing a fraction of their seats to be filled in order to maintain social distancing, Tenet would need several “full” screenings to make up for just one truly sold-out show, and there are only so many hours in the day for screenings. When low box office numbers start being reported when Tenet opens, people will intellectually understand that the pandemic is to blame, but the fact that Tenet isn’t making much money will inevitably create the impression that the movie isn’t very good, which might make viewers less interested in seeing it either in theaters or at home. With so few people able to see Tenet as it opens, there will be little word of mouth on social media, unlike what happened with both Hamilton and Hulu’s Andy Samberg Sundance acquisition Palm Springs, which was the most-watched movie on Hulu in its opening weekend. I also feel that Warner Bros. repeatedly pushing the release date effectively squandered all the free publicity Tenet was getting, with initial excitement and anticipation turning more to frustration and fatigue, especially for Nolan’s fans.
As far as I can tell, there are only two ways for Tenet to succeed. The first is that a 100% safe, effective, long-lasting vaccine is discovered tomorrow and is able to be quickly and cheaply distributed to everyone on the planet, allowing every nation to fully and safely reopen and crowds to joyously return to movie theaters. I think we all know how likely that is to happen, especially in the all-important US market. The other scenario would be that, with a dearth of new blockbusters being released, multiplexes that are able to open put Tenet on as many screens as they can and give the film an extremely long theatrical run extending into the holiday season. But for this to work, interest in Tenet would have to remain high for a long time, necessitating a long-running, expensive ad campaign. There would also need to be a big supply of viewers willing to risk their health and safety to see a movie, and there could be no clusters of infections linked to screenings during all those months.
In essence, Warner Bros. has chained the success of Tenet to the speed of science and the ability of nations to defeat the coronavirus, while simultaneously encouraging the kind of behavior — large, prolonged indoor gatherings without masks — that spreads coronavirus.
Instead of this foolhardy approach, Warner Bros. should be using this opportunity to get creative and run some experiments. Even before the pandemic, studios were toying with different release models like simultaneous theatrical and video-on-demand debuts, straight-to-streaming premieres, and shortening theatrical windows. With the increasing dominance of streaming, higher movie ticket prices, and home entertainment systems increasing in quality while plummeting in price, this is clearly where the industry is headed. The coronavirus didn’t just accelerate this trend — it’s forcing studios to adopt it.
With a movie like Tenet, WB could have tested the limits on PVOD pricing — according to data from Hub Entertainment Research, 57% of 18–34 year olds would be open to paying as much as $50 to stream a new release. While this may sound crazy, a lot of people are willing to spend more than that for pay per view events like UFC matches, professional wrestling, or boxing. If you’re talking about a family of four seeing a movie at a theater for $15/ticket plus expensive snacks, you’d actually be saving money by paying $50 to watch Tenet at home. Besides, there are plenty of affluent bored people for whom $50 isn’t that much to spend, as well as non-wealthy parents desperate to give their moody, restless kids something to be happy about. WB could’ve tested the waters by making Tenet available for a high price, but for only a short amount of time — perhaps over a three-day holiday weekend — which would create big numbers like a theatrical opening weekend, then could be extended if the haul was good. Maybe WB could charge an even more inflated price but include two discounted tickets for when Tenet eventually opens in theaters once it’s safe to do so, keeping both big-screen absolutists like Nolan and movie theater owners happy.
At such an unprecedented moment in history, it’s totally appropriate to throw out the rule book and try something different (just check out AMC’s recent deal with Universal to shorten theatrical screenings in exchange for a cut of VOD earnings). But by doggedly (and dogmatically) sticking to the old way, I think Warner Bros. and Nolan are going to get the worst result that makes no one happy. WB will make little money during the theatrical run, few people will get to see the movie, and it will end up on streaming anyway, possibly with the stink of failure. Oh, and people could die.
As I was writing this post, Disney announced that it had given in to reality and would stream Mulan, its big summer tentpole, on Disney+ starting on Sept. 4 — but with some catches. Even if you’re already a subscriber, you’ll still have to pay $30, but you’ll be able to watch Mulan as many times as you want whenever you want for as long as you keep your current Disney+ subscription. If you cancel your subscription and resubscribe later, you’ll no longer be able to watch the movie. Mulan will also be opening in theaters in territories where Disney+ is not available.
I think Disney is absolutely making the right decision to allow people to watch Mulan at home, and the sort of hybrid PVOD rental/purchase approach they’re trying is exactly the kind of experimentation I was talking about. And by making it so viewers lose the movie if they cancel their subscription, Disney is smartly attempting to prevent “churn”, the common practice of viewers frequently turning subscriptions on and off so they are only paying when there is something in particular they want to watch. The only thing I would’ve changed is to also make the movie available to non-subscribers for a higher price — maybe $40 for a 48-hr rental — so non-subscribers wouldn’t feel like they are being forced to sign up for another subscription they may not want, while current subscribers would feel like they are getting a special deal. But I don’t think it’s a glaring or potentially damaging omission. I’ll be very curious to see how this pans out, especially since Mulan is not one of Disney’s most beloved films, and people may decide not to pay for Mulan with the assumption that it will eventually be available on Disney+ for “free” (that’s the question I’ve been asking myself). Then again, I may just break down and pay for it so I can be the hero to my nieces and nephews in my quarantine bubble.
But by finally deciding to stream Mulan after months of pushing back theatrical release dates, Disney is acknowledging something important that Warner Bros. has so far failed to grasp. There have been a lot of articles about whether Mulan and Tenet, the biggest tentpoles of summer 2020, would “save” the summer movie season by opening in theaters. But that’s only looking at it from the perspective of theater owners and the studios relying on the traditional model of seeing summer blockbusters in theaters. What may be more true for movie watchers, particularly in the midst of a pandemic, is that the summer movie season is defined by watching big-budget summer blockbusters on any screen that’s available. And right now, the TV screen at home is the safest option.