The movie theater business has always been resistant to change, and most national exhibition chains can’t wait to reopen their doors after three punishing months of COVID-19 darkened screens. With Disney’s live-action “Mulan” slated to be released on July 24 and Christopher Nolan’s mind-expanding thriller “Tenet” on July 31, the big studio blockbusters are finally returning. Theater owners are praying that audiences will, too.
They’re so desperate to get back to the past, in fact, that when one company does something forward-thinking, it looks radical. On June 22, Showcase Cinemas, the movie-theater chain owned by Norwood-based National Amusements, will officially launch ShowcaseNOW (showcasenow.showcasecinemas.com/), the first video-on-demand service to be run by a major brick-and-mortar exhibitor.
Is it OK to wonder what took so long? As streaming devices, platforms, and services proliferate like kudzu, and audiences have abandoned movie theaters for all but the most bulletproof franchise properties, you’d think that the major chains might start to place digital side bets. And with the coronavirus throwing the entire entertainment industry into disarray, that option has looked more enticing than ever. Back in March, independent theaters set about hosting “virtual screenings” of arthouse releases like “Emma.” and “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” with a portion of the online ticket sales going to the house. It’s a thin cash flow but it’s a cash flow.
By contrast, the major studios log-jammed their big movies into the fall and 2021, while the multiplex chains threatened fire, brimstone, and boycotts against any company, like NBCUniversal, with “Trolls World Tour,” that dared to go straight to the streaming market. But anyone with eyes understood that COVID-19 only set fire to a barn that most of the horses had already left. Why not explore other options?
To be sure, ShowcaseNOW is not intended as a replacement for the theatrical experience, and the new service won’t be streaming new studio films. Launching as an a la carte rental/purchase site with an initial 150-200 titles — new product to be added monthly, with rental prices starting at $3.99 — ShowcaseNOW is envisioned by National Amusements executives as an extension of the company’s existing Event Cinema programming, with a mix of smaller independent movies like the ones already shown “virtually” by arthouses, “Bring Back films” (recent classics from the 1970s through 2000s), documentaries, arena concerts, stage musicals, and museum tours.
Brick-and-mortar “event programming,” through institutions like England’s National Theatre Live and content providers like Fathom Events, has been an additional content and revenue stream that many theaters and chains have availed themselves of in recent years, as profit margins have become tighter and audiences smaller. ShowcaseNOW is just the first to take the concept online. (The service will be available on apps for iOS and Android phones as well.) In a video conference call leading a reporter through the new website, Showcase vice president of global marketing Mark Malinowski said, “Offering another premium video platform just makes no sense to us. This does make sense, because we know who the audience is. … We know [the event cinema] audience really well; it’s been growing tremendously. It made sense to follow everything we’ve been doing in theaters, take it to VOD, and have our own voice in this area.”
ShowcaseNOW arrives as the exhibition industry is at a cruel crossroads. As of mid-June, all but 13 states had allowed their movie theaters to reopen, with theater capacity capped at various percentages, depending on the state. The films being shown have been a mix of golden oldies like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and new releases from smaller distributors. That changes with the arrival of “Mulan” and “Tenet” in late July, followed later in the year by “A Quiet Place Part II,” a new James Bond film, and “Top Gun: Maverick,” among others. Chains like AMC and Cinemark plan to reopen with “enhanced cleaning and sanitizing protocols” such as staggered showtimes, limited seating, online ticketing, and new air-purification systems. Cinemark will require staff and “strongly encourage” customers to wear masks. Showcase will require everyone to wear masks. (“They can take them off once they’re in their seats,” says Malinowski.) Will audiences come? With the virus spiking once more in states that have relaxed social-distancing regulations, it’s hardly clear. Is seeing the new “Mulan” something you’re really willing to risk your life for?
So ShowcaseNOW looks like a smart idea for the time being and a smarter hedge against an uncertain future for movie theaters, with or without the coronavirus. It doesn’t hurt that going online expands the company’s Northeast footprint into a potential national market. At the same time, it’s clear that the new service isn’t designed to compete with Showcase’s theatrical business, at least for now. Would an increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths, or a large second wave of infections, or another government-mandated shutdown change plans for ShowcaseNOW? “We want to stay true to the heart and soul of what this is about, which is event cinema,” says Malinowski. “But if there are some smaller films on VOD that wouldn’t be [there] otherwise, we’ll look at them, I’m sure.”
In other words, the new service definitely won’t be virtually streaming major new release movies. But, you know, it could. And that’s a sea change in an industry increasingly struggling to keep its head above water.