Here’s a piece of Hollywood trivia for next game night: What created the Hollywood studio system? Answer: The Spanish Flu.
As every town in America opened their own art deco Main Street movie house with neon lights in the early 20th century, just as the Spanish Flu coronavirus pandemic was taking hold, small independent movie-makers like Sam Goldwyn and Louis B Mayer were forced to consolidate their interests with networks of movie theater chain owners like Marcus Loew, who owned Metro Theaters, to ensure an audience for their product. The result was Metro Goldwyn Mayer, which along with United Artists and Warner Brothers produced the Hollywood studio system. The studios’ influence ebbed in the 60’s, but the cooperation between the people who make the movies and those who showed them continues, even after technological advances in the 70’s and 80’s brought video into the mix, cable television by the 90’s, and streaming services like Netflix in the aughts. Mr. DeMille is no longer shooting close ups and what is left of Hollywood studios and their business model as the third decade of the 21st century approaches is showing its age, crumbling.
The Holy Grail of Hollywood has been “the window,” the contracted time between theatrical releases in movie houses and the date when the picture is released for wider audiences by other means. For decades, the people who make the movies have wanted to shorten that window, but potential blockbuster profit and revenue have remained dependent on those dark theaters where lighted images reflect off silver screens. Theater owners have refused to budge, and though negotiations have nipped at the edges and reduced the window to 90 days, there the window has remained, to be fought over every time a contract comes up for negotiations. Until now. Wonder Woman is almost single-handedly changing Hollywood, probably irrevocably.
It wasn’t her plan. Wonder Woman 1984, directed by Patty Jenkins, the sequel to 2017’s international mega hit Wonder Woman starring Gal Gadot, was originally scheduled to be released in December of 2019, but the premiere was moved to November of last year before being re-scheduled for June of 2020. Enter a novel coronavirus stage left. Dates were moved and changed and rearranged and negotiations for releases continued until contracts were signed to put the movie in theater houses beginning on December 25, and streaming on HBO’s new subscription service, HOB Max, beginning on December 25.
Holy crap, Batman, the window just disappeared, and Hollywood is holding its collective breath. Wonder Woman is arriving in theaters and streaming the same day.
Covid has forced some movies to make the jump to light speed without ever making it into the darkened theater, “Greyhound” with Tom Hanks a case in point. The WWII film was a starring attraction on Apple TV Plus instead of in a theater. “Tenet” tried the theatrical release route during the late summer, avoiding streaming, but found audiences reticent to gather with crowds of strangers indoors and bombed, deemed a failure though it brought in more than $200 million internationally. Streaming services like the one introduced by Apple, joined by Disney, dominated by Netflix, now including HBO, have jumped tall buildings faster than a speeding bullet in a single bound in the age of Covid. Blockbusters like “Top Gun” and “Fast and Furious” have been caught in the lyrics of a Rocky Horror Picture Show, singing “Let’s do the time warp again,” as movie theater release dates are pushed forward to 2021 time and again, off into a murky unknown future with eventual Covid vaccines. Hollywood, which loves nothing more than a good formula and a franchise, is roaming rudderless at the moment without even so much as a cliché to hang on to.
Will the movie industry make the final separation from theaters? Only time will tell. Hollywood is on new ground, audiences not settled on their answers yet, and the only sure thing is that the show must go on, not even Hollywood knowing how this story ends. Fade to black. Run credits.
photo: Getty Images