It’s weird so much time is spent arguing about the theatrical release of movies – or, in other words, any particular movie’s infancy. Movies have a long life, and any given film’s theatrical window is just a fraction of how that film will be consumed for the rest of eternity. Okay, so here’s an example: let’s go back 20 years and pick Notting Hill. People love Notting Hill! Notting Hill was in theaters From May 28th, 1999 until October 7th, 1999 – so just over 130 days. Notting Hill has now existed for public consumption for just over 7350 days. So, this grand argument about a movie’s theatrical release accounts for 1.8 percent of Notting Hill’s entire lifespan. (And in 1999 movies stayed in theaters for a much longer duration than they do now.) For that other 98.2 percent of the time we’ve been watching Notting Hill, we’ve watched it either on many different incarnations of home video, or, most likely, when it just happens to be on cable.
So, I’d argue (in fact, I am arguing as you read this) that a movie’s post-theatrical life is more important than its, in comparison, very short and getting even shorter theatrical run window. Admittedly, a strong theatrical opening helps propel a movie to have a long post-theater life. But, on the other side, think how many movies became popular just because they played on a nonstop everlasting HBO loop. (Innerspace was not a huge hit, but if you watched HBO in 1988, you’ve seen Innerspace roughly 75 times. Or, for a more “important” movie, I’ve never seen The Godfather in a movie theater. Its legacy and constant standing in the zeitgeist was maintained on cable and home video releases.)
Anyway, my point here isn’t about theatrical releases. I’ll let someone else figure out where that’s all going. My main point is that a film’s theatrical release is such a minuscule part of the life of a movie. And, yes, the Netflixs of the world are slowly killing theatrical movies, but another thing it’s doing, that no one is really talking about, is it’s also kind of killing the rest of a movie’s life, too.
For instance, this past weekend I was running late to a social event. As I stepped out the door, a coat rack, with approximately 150 pieces of garments/umbrellas/bags collapsed onto the kitchen floor. By the time I fixed the broken coat rack leg, I was hot, sweaty, annoyed, and now so incredibly late that I just decided to watch TV instead. I wound up watching the 1989 Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell vehicle, Tango & Cash.
Now, I bring this all up because there’s no way I’d ever decide to just watch Tango & Cash, but now I, and many other people, have seen Tango & Cash in the last week because it happened to be on cable. Say what you want about Tango & Cash (and, honestly, there’s a lot to say; I could probably write 2000 words about Tango & Cash), but it’s a movie that’s had a pretty long run because of its propensity for popping up on cable. But now, as streaming services are distributing and owning their own movies, this era will be coming to an end because those movies won’t have significant cable runs or get special anniversary Blu-ray releases because they only exist on that specific platform.
(As an aside, people have been predicting the end of cable and satellite for years. But as more and more streaming services are announced, fracturing the content ever more dramatically, the demise of cable looks less and less likely and, crazily, like the less expensive option.)
I love The Big Sick. I was thinking about The Big Sick the other day and wondering why I hadn’t seen it since its 2017 Sundance debut. And then I remembered, oh right, it’s owned by Amazon. If The Big Sick were owned by a traditional studio, it would be playing on TBS on a neverending loop. I’d get home after being out, turn on the television, see that The Big Sick happens to be on, and get sucked in every time. And, yes, I know I can turn on Amazon, but I’m just not going to do that. Plus, the point is, even if I did, it’s not a communal event. It would just be me. If it were on TBS, thousands of people would all be watching The Big Sick at that moment. The same goes for Roma, a movie I adore. If it were on HBO I’d have seen it three or four times by now, but I’m not going to fire up Netflix and click on Roma. If I open Netflix, I’m going to try to catch up on the literally dozens of television series I was supposed to have watched by now.
Anyway, as we move forward, more and more movies are just going to be lost to specific streaming services as opposed to being “out in the world.” And look, I know what you’re thinking, a lot of people have Netflix and this isn’t that big of a deal. And sure, for now. (Though, Netflix just reported its first net subscriber loss, so this is starting to happen.) But these will eventually be considered the halcyon days of streaming. As we go forward, more and more conglomerates will be releasing their own streaming platforms and keeping their exclusive properties to themselves. More and more movies will never see the light of day other than on one specific streaming platform that, out of the dozen that will be available, you may or may not have. In other words, there will be no random nights like the one I had with Tango & Cash.
A few years ago I wrote about the death of the television rerun. In the 1980s, even though TV shows like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie and The Andy Griffith Show and My Three Sons all ended their original runs long before I was born, I have still seen every episode because they would still be broadcast nonstop and, frankly, there wasn’t much else to watch. Today, we have almost unlimited access to these shows, yet no one born in 1990 is going to sit down and decide to watch a few episodes of Night Court. Let me be clear: the way it is now is much, much better! But the consequences are pretty much every older television series that isn’t Seinfeld, Friends, or The Office is pretty much just gone.
But with movies, as opposed to TV, I’m not sure where this is going is “better.” Yes, cinephiles will argue that, with services like the Criterion Channel, access to older films has never been better. But that’s a niche service that most people do not have. (And, as more and more streaming services become available, it will become less and less likely.) But this isn’t about access. It’s about movies that play so often on cable they become a communal reference point. It’s something that helps keep movies alive long, long after their theatrical run. And as we all grow further and further apart from each other, losing these reference points are a bad thing. So we will never be flipping through channels and run into The Big Sick or Roma, but at least we’ll always have (at least for now) Tango & Cash.
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