by Don Groves & Lori Flekser — August 20, 2020
To the relief of product-starved cinemas, Christopher Nolan’s international espionage thriller Tenet will be the first major blockbuster film released since COVID-19 erupted when it launches in Australia on August 27, a week before a limited release in the US.
But, the release strategy for the film is highly unusual for a major title: the film will not be released in what, for many years, has been the pattern of opening a film on the same day/date globally – known as ‘day-and-date release’. Instead, it will release in some territories where sufficient cinemas are trading, after which it will roll out to other countries over time.
Assisted by the shift from 35mm film to digital cinemas, the last decade has seen a notable shift in cinema release patterns. And, as online film forums and social media channels grew, audiences called for the expansion of day-and-date releasing to avoid “spoilers”. To illustrate this, in Australia last year, 55 of the top grossing 100 films opened in cinemas before or at the same time as the US, compared to only 15 films in 2002.
Distributors generally favour global day-and-date releases to amortize the hefty marketing costs and to capitalise on world-wide publicity, reviews and word-of-mouth – particularly via social media.
But the greatest risk Warner Bros. is taking in this staggered global rollout of Tenet is digital piracy. Camcording in cinemas, which is not a criminal offence in Australia, is very sophisticated nowadays and poses a significant danger to the film’s revenue after a cinema release. The success of Warner Bros. release strategy will not be based on successful box office in countries where the film opens, but the risk to future revenue in those countries where the film is delayed.
With Australian cinemas decimated by COVID-19 – shuttered for many months and now hampered by limited capacity, closures in Victoria and consumer fears – the need for blockbuster films that draw audiences back to cinemas is more than vital: it’s the key to their survival.
Industry publication Variety quoted an anonymous anti-piracy veteran saying “In some ways Tenet is a perfect storm for piracy, in that it has raised expectations, both about the film itself and the cinema experience. Also, it has limited availability and suffers from a staggered release…. We see piracy can occur everywhere. It happens even in the three hours between East and West coast U.S. releases,”
Patrick Frater, author of the Variety article, suggests people might be more inclined to watch an illegal version of the film than they would otherwise have been because they feel unsafe attending a cinema.
Piracy is often claimed to be the result of resentment that a particular film is available in some territories and not others. Access and availability has long been one of the key reasons used to justify content piracy. It’s ironic that, having solved that perception with global day-and-date releases, distributors are facing this dammed-if-you-do/dammed-if-you-don’t conundrum of releasing films in the COVID-19 era.
While the rationale for accessing illegal versions of a film online may be more complex than any of this suggests, the impact is nonetheless significant.
A study by UK content research and protection company MUSO highlights the spike in piracy after high quality copies are available online by citing the example of Sony’s action film Bloodshot. After its cinema run was cut short by COVID-19, the PVOD release resulted in a 1,600% increase in pirate streams in the following week.
Elizabeth Trotman, Studiocanal CEO for Australia and New Zealand, believes the timing of upcoming releases will depend on how key territories including the US, China, Germany, France and the UK manage to control the pandemic.
“I would be surprised if we returned to normal release patterns this year and I think we will increasingly see studios reassess the day-and-date requirement while they build on territory-by-territory flexibility,” she said.
Exhibitors are expecting a long and profitable run for Nolan’s Tenet, despite the Victorian lockdown and capacity limits on cinemas, and hope it will herald an upturn in ticket sales and a return to more normal release patterns.
If piracy does not substantially impact the economics, Warner Bros. bold gamble to release the film in a staggered global rollout will give hope to distributors cinema operators and movie lovers alike that, while every country can take the time it needs to recover from the pandemic, those that are “open for business” can get down to the business of providing great content on the big screen.