Watching the coming attraction for “Blue Beetle,” the next movie adaptation of a DC comic, a thought emerged almost reflexively: “There’s one to stream.”
After a weekend that saw a twin bloodbath in terms of major film releases that fell well short of box-office expectations, “The Flash” and “Elemental,” it’s difficult to overstate how corrosive that mentality has become for the theatrical business – fueled, admittedly, by a wide variety of factors, but with the shift toward streaming having clearly contributed to the problem.
“Elemental,” Disney’s latest Pixar movie to hit theaters after several of its brethren went directly to streaming, and “The Flash,” a superhero from the DC/Warner Bros. stable (like CNN, units of Warner Bros. Discovery), earned roughly $30 million and $55 million during their opening weekends, respectively, evoking descriptions like “flop” and “disappointing” – despite mostly positive reaction from moviegoers who did see the films.
Given the high costs associated with producing and marketing those films, each studio faces the prospect of sizable financial losses, although these projects will continue to provide revenue down the pipeline in harder-to-measure ways, including, yes, the value they bring to the studios’ respective streaming services.
For theater owners, there’s small consolation in that. And for Hollywood talent – beginning with the Writers Guild of America, which is well into the second month of a strike against the major studios and streamers – the lack of transparency about streaming revenue and how it’s calculated has represented a major sticking point in those contract negotiations.
As the Los Angeles Times reported, writers have taken to calling this “the Netflix strike,” a reference to the way streaming – as exemplified by the streaming giant and emulation of its practices – has upended the existing business model and clouded the future.
Whether that’s an entirely fair assessment, what seems clear is the one-two punch dealt to movies going by the push toward streaming in 2019, and the pandemic that began the following year, has shifted consumer habits, despite some encouraging signs of a rebound. For every “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Avatar: The Way of Water” or “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” there appear to be two or three high-profile titles that look destined to leave their corporate parent awash in red ink.
Perhaps no once-reliable hit maker has experienced a more sweeping setback than Pixar, which saw Disney move films like “Turning Red” and “Soul” directly to streaming during the pandemic, and “Lightyear” – a spinoff from the mighty “Toy Story” franchise – underperform at the box office. The prevailing sense is part of the audience that once dutifully flocked to Pixar fare as family-friendly outings have been reprogrammed to wait and consume those items in the comfort of their homes.
Similarly, “The Flash” follows a string of box-office disappointments for DC with what amount to second-tier superheroes, following “Black Adam” and “Shazam! Fury of the Gods.” Even Marvel hasn’t been immune to such issues, as “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” failed to deliver much of a “wow” factor commercially (or creatively) speaking, though the latest “Guardians of the Galaxy” sequel fared considerably better.
The main challenge, to borrow screenwriter William Goldman’s famous line about Hollywood that “Nobody knows anything,” is the lack of hard and fast rules about what might work, and the aforementioned bright spots indicating that there’s still life in traditional movie exhibition, including the occasional happy surprise.
For now, though, Hollywood is engaged in the usual second guessing and finger pointing, hoping “The Flash” and “Elemental” represent specific examples as opposed to further evidence of systemic erosion that bodes ill for the big summer releases yet to come. While it’s tempting to blame the movies themselves, that’s a harder case to make when people didn’t see and reject them but rather didn’t show up in the first place.
With apologies to Goldman, we do know at least this much: Streaming is fundamentally changing things. How much remains harder to pinpoint, but compared to the movie business as we knew it even five years ago, the warning signs are flashing.