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This is as good as movies are going to get

Today you can see superheroes in the theaters and lots of everything else at home. But in the future ...

Warner Bros.’ The Batman is the highest-grossing movie of the year so far — and just about the only kind of movie that succeeds in theaters now.
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Are you one of the people who hates Hollywood because Hollywood only serves up superhero movies and sequels … most of which are sequels to superhero movies?

Well, here’s some encouraging news: Two of the highest-grossing movies of 2022 are romantic comedies: The Lost City, starring Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum, and a family film about a guy and his dog. That would be Dog, which … also stars Channing Tatum.

Aha! You say: But I like serious dramas. Or heartwarming dramas I can see with my family that don’t star Channing Tatum. Well, Hollywood has you covered here, too: Netflix’s The Power of the Dog — a moody kinda-Western — was a leading Best Picture contender in last month’s Academy Awards. And, of course, Apple’s Coda, an uplifting story about a Massachusetts fishing family, won the Oscar. Zero Tatums there.

Still not convinced about the health and breadth of the movie industry? Here’s the truth: You shouldn’t be.

While some people who are invested in the movie business insist there’s a future where lots of people see all kinds of movies in theaters, most sober observers think that ship has sailed, with the odd exception. Channing Tatum can only be in so many movies per year.

Which means movies in theaters are niche programming now. Supersize niches, to be sure. But the era where everyone went to the movies has ended.

“Outside of horror, superheroes, and family, it’s going to have to feel like the most spectacular, special event” to get people to see a movie in a theater, says producer Jason Blum. That’s fine for Blum, whose Blumhouse Productions specializes in horror movies people still leave their houses to see, like Get Out and The Purge.

Okay. But what about the great streaming future, currently showing on our giant, cheap TVs at home? Beyond all the Oscar-nominated movies they offer, there’s more great stuff there than ever before — from traditional TV networks like AMC (Better Call Saul returns next week) and streamers like Apple (I’m really interested in Severance) and hybrids like HBO Max (at first I wasn’t into Winning Time, but now I am).

But there’s a problem there, too: This glut of great streaming stuff is literally a glut, and no one in the business thinks that it’s going to last forever. The giant tech and media companies funding the production boom have no intention of doing it in perpetuity. Right now, they are telling themselves they’re in land-grab mode as they try to compete with each other and attract paying subscribers. But once the frontier is settled, they plan on returning to something like a normal mode, where they’re not tossing money at anyone with a script.

So. We’re looking at a future where 1) most movies that show in movie theaters will be made for an audience that goes to movie theaters — that means young people who like superheroes, young people who like being scared, and families with kids who need to get out of the house, and 2) everything else is meant to be watched at home. But, eventually, there won’t be as much of that stuff as there is now.

How should you feel about that? You should feel pretty good, Jason Kilar, the ex-boss of WarnerMedia, told me during his exit tour earlier this month: “I think it’s a very positive development, for two reasons,” he said. “[One] it’s a model that allows for more aggressive investment in romantic comedies and dramas and [two] giving the consumer the choice I think is ultimately a good thing.”

And, I kind of agree with Kilar? Yes, I treasure my memories of going to movies with my family and friends, and taking my kids is still fun. But the main thing I like about movies is movies. And, for now at least, I have access to more great movies than ever before, available with a click of a button. For not much money at all. Who cares how I see them? (And if that glut of stuff goes away, someone’s still going to make cool stuff, right? I mean, Steven Soderbergh’s playing around with Web3?)

But also, this fills me with despair. Going to the movies — with friends, with strangers — and enjoying something together in the dark for a couple of hours is a very specific experience, and it’s getting taken away from me. And from us: We are a country that does a lot of the same stuff, but we don’t do it much together anymore. We’re asynchronous and alone. Movies were an exception to that.

How did we get here? Slowly, then all at once: Yes, the pandemic forced movie studios, out of desperation, to stream movies they might have once tried to put into theaters. More importantly, the pandemic gave studios the ability to do something they had wanted to do forever: shrink the “window” of time between when movies debut in theaters and when you can see them at home.

In the old days, you used to have to wait three months to watch a movie at home. Even then, you had to buy it on DVD or pay to download it. Now the industry standard is a 45-day delay — at which point you can watch them on a streaming service you probably already subscribe to, like Disney+ or HBO Max. Not exactly free, but close enough — and, as Rich Greenfield, an analyst at Lightspeed Partners, notes, enough to create a very powerful cycle: If it’s not a movie you’re dying to see in a theater, you can be rewarded for your inaction and get it at home weeks later. Which makes studios even less likely to try to get anything but a slam dunk in the theater to begin with.

But the big entertainment conglomerates had been moving us this way long before we’d ever heard of Covid. As journalist Ben Fritz explained in his book The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies, you can lay a lot of this at the feet of former Disney CEO Bob Iger.

After taking over in 2005, Iger decreed that Disney, which used to make all kinds of movies from its various studios (Pretty Woman was a Disney movie; so was Rushmore) would only make would-be franchise films connected to properties Disney owned: Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar. That strategy worked spectacularly and forced most of Iger’s competitors to try to emulate him, with event films tied to characters and stories people had already heard of. Which is why Sony, which resisted the Iger way for years, has caved and is pretty much the Spider-Man Studio now. And why Warner Bros.’ future depends on whether you want to see yet another Batman movie. (Turns out, you do.)

Around the same time, cable TV networks, led by HBO but followed by the likes of FX and AMC, leaned heavily into sophisticated, daring dramas and comedies, delivered at home. It became a cliche to say that TV shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad were actually feature films that happened to be dozens of hours long, but it was true. Also true: You didn’t leave your couch to watch them.

In the last few years, the conglomerates have been doing even more to make sure you didn’t have to leave your house. They’ve launched new streaming services and jammed them full of … stuff: Serialized dramas, teen rom-coms, and feature films you might have seen in a theater in an earlier era. Netflix, which all the big media companies are furiously trying to emulate, is rolling out at least one new movie per week.

But remember: There’s no way all the streaming services you can pick from today will be around down the line. Now that Discovery, Inc. has acquired WarnerMedia, for instance, industry observers expect Discovery to merge its own streaming service with Warner’s HBO Max, and we are certain to see more consolidation eventually, particularly among sub-scale companies like Paramount and AMC. As the number of competitors shrinks, so will the spending. “It’s definitely going to happen,” says Blum. “The level of spending right now is not sustainable long-term.”

Which is a version of the future I’m not excited about at all: A theater economy that only supports very specific kinds of movies and a lot less choice than I have right now.

And even that version isn’t a given. The audience for those movies has so many competing ways to kill time, starting with the computer in their pocket, offering them unlimited TikToks and other diversions for zero dollars. So enjoy it while it lasts, however you like to do that. And for Channing Tatum? He’s making another movie — the third installment of his Magic Mike stripper series — but you won’t be able to see this one in theaters. It’s supposed to stream exclusively on HBO Max.

Thanks again for reading this column, for telling other folks about it, and for taking me up on my request for tips and feedback. Like this reader, who has insight into the inner workings of the New York Times, wants to remain anonymous (to you), and has a critique of last week’s piece about the inner workings of the New York Times. Specifically, my assertion that the Times’s acquisition and subsequent fire sale of the Boston Globe was … not good:

When you say the Globe purchase was a “disaster” you lose me. Now, I had nothing to do with the Globe purchase in 93 or its sale. I’m just pretty sure it was purchased for around 12x [Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization, a key Wall Street measurement that’s supposed to highlight a company’s true profitability] and it was profitable for at least 15 and maybe 18 years of ownership. So, how is something that generated, I dunno, somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.6b in profit on a $1.1b purchase a disaster? Did it return in excess of the company’s cost of capital (ie, the only real measure of M&A success)? I dunno, maybe not. But it had to be close. It also resulted in the Globe being a much stronger journalistic entity for much longer than had it stayed independent (see almost every other paper in markets 5-20). The bigger picture, though, is a deal that was right for the strategy at the time and that strategy changed and not one that has anything to do with the current deal.

Noted! If you’d like to weigh on this week’s column or anything else, please @ me on Twitter or send me an email: