It truly feels quaint at this point to look back at the theatrical distribution model for films as it existed prior to March 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has had such a deep and transformative effect on how and where we watch new films that it has effectively accelerated the course of this industry’s evolution by years, if not decades. Who could have imagined, in the spring of 2020, how different this landscape would be today? From the incredibly wide access to new titles via streaming, to the influx of “streaming” content into those old theater bastions, we’re making our way through an era of rapid change the likes of which the moviemaking world has rarely seen before.
Much of the attention in the course of this rapid evolution has been on the shortening of the traditional theatrical window, which began in earnest via the tiff between AMC Theatres and Universal Pictures in mid-2020, and the subsequent deal the two companies made to allow a streaming debut after only a few weeks in cinemas. Other theater chains then made deals of their own, including the likes of Cinemark, who initially criticized the plan before eventually signing deals of their own with various studios.
At the same time, however, as films have rushed to streaming services faster than ever, or premiered directly on streamers in the case of deals such as the Warner Bros./HBO Max simultaneous releases, content the public thought of as “streaming only” has increasingly made its way in the opposite direction, toward movie theaters. Netflix, the world’s largest streamer, now owns some theaters of its own, in fact, and the 2018 theatrical release of Roma kicked off a period of increasing interest within the company in theatrical releases. Initially, these releases simply served to qualify the films for year-end awards shows such as the Academy Awards. But the company is now exploring theatrical releases for its more blockbuster-y fare, which included screening Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead in more than 600 mostly independent theaters back in May. Vapid action comedy Red Notice, meanwhile, was just released in more than 750 theaters nationwide a week before its streaming debut, and that’s largely in thanks to a partnership with Cinemark.
Unfortunately, there are no good box office data or metrics to know just how well Red Notice performed in theaters, but Cinemark noted that it was the most successful Netflix title they’ve carried to date. The question becomes, with one of the country’s major theater chains talking up their partnership with Netflix, how long will the two largest—AMC Theatres and Regal Cinemas—remain content to sit on the sidelines?
“We love when we have the opportunity to create a cultural moment and comprehensive entertainment experience around a film,” said Cinemark chief marketing and content officer Wanda Gierhart Fearing in a statement. “In the past year, Cinemark has shown more than 10 Netflix films in our immersive environment, and we look forward to testing financially viable models for both parties that have an exclusive theatrical window to eventize key films.”
Looking beyond the gag-inducing marketing language of phrases like “eventize,” it is significant to see a major U.S. theater chain talking up the value of their partnership with Netflix, an entity that before the pandemic would likely have been treated as one of the primary existential threats to the movie exhibition industry. At a time when the theater industry is facing more of those threats than ever before, it may be that companies such as Cinemark will simply be willing to play ball when it comes to having the chance to exhibit anything that crowds want to see—and Red Notice definitely qualifies despite weak reviews, banking as it does on a $200 million budget and the A-list drawing power of Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot. If movie theaters are starved for content, how many of them can really turn down something like Red Notice?
According to a report from The Hollywood Reporter, unnamed sources speculate that the likes of AMC and Regal are indeed interested in Netflix content such as Red Notice, but may be holding out in an effort to get the streamer to commit to larger marketing budgets for their films in theatrical distribution, comparable to the advertising the likes of Warner Bros. is doing for its films that premiere both in theaters and on HBO Max. If you ask us, though, this seems like a relatively modest hurdle to overcome for the likes of Netflix, and just one more indication that “streaming” films could soon be seen in nationwide theatrical releases in thousands rather than hundreds of theaters.
And of course, in the process, the boundaries between “theatrical” and “streaming” content simply blur that much more.