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The Russo Brothers Are Wrong About Cinema. Here’s Why.

Calling the cinema-going experience “elitist” speaks to a larger problem at hand for the future of entertainment distribution

The Russo Brothers. Source: Netflix Tudum.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, director-and-producer duo Anthony and Joe Russo had some honest opinions about film distribution in the current media landscape.

The Russo Brothers are best known for their directing work on the cinematic giants of Avengers: Infinity War, Endgame, and Captain America: Civil War.

After producing some of the highest-grossing movies of all time, they shortly moved over to producing movies for streaming services with Cherry (Apple TV film starring Tom Holland) and more recently, The Gray Man (Netflix film with Chris Evans and Ryan Gosling).

Needless to say, their unbelievable success with theatrical releases make them a force to be reckoned with in the industry. Throughout the article, they discuss a variety of subjects including Disney’s future with IP projects, the production of The Gray Man, and financing the underground hit Everything Everywhere All At Once.

But perhaps what caught people’s attention the most was in regards to their comment around the distribution model between streaming services and theatrical releases:

“…It’s an elitist notion to be able to go to a theater. It’s very f*cking expensive. So, this idea that was created — that we hang on to — that the theater is a sacred space, is bullsh*t. Where digital distribution is valuable…they can get 40 stories for the cost of one story.” — Joe Russo

To summarise, the Russo Brothers argued that theatrical distribution is elitist because the cost of admissions act as a gatekeeper for people to access more stories. Whereas on the other hand, streaming services allows greater access with more content for a single monthly price.

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash.

While there is some factual truth to this comparison, it is unfortunate that the Russo Brothers themselves have failed to see the value of the cinema-going experience; especially when you consider the fact that they hold some of the highest grossing films of all time.

In truth, the rising costs of going to the cinemas is only further reinforced by these perspectives that fail to see the bigger picture (pun not intended).

The rise of the nickelodeon

Cinemas were first built to be a cheap and accessible form of entertainment that catered to the middle working class.

Not long after the Lumiere Brothers publicly screened their invention of film, many budding entrepreneurs caught onto the craze by setting up their own projection rooms and charging visitors a nickel to enter (hence ‘nickelodeon’). Seeing the profitable success of these projection houses inspired others to set up their own, which meant projection houses began to be crop up across the country.

Photo by Jeremy Yap on Unsplash.

The history of cinema as art is often marked by profit and financial gain.

When Edison sought to register a patent for all motion picture cameras, filmmakers fled across the country to California where they could make films without paying Edison’s license.

Hence, Hollywood was born.

Even classic cinema snacks like popcorn were traditionally an inexpensive snack sold at shows and fairs.

The Paramount Decree

With new movie studios being set up across Hollywood, theatre establishments were also created that would only show movies from their respective studios.

The Paramount Decree was therefore instrumental in breaking up the oligopoly that film studios had over film distribution. This would also be the first, and most distinct, separation between film producers and distributors.

Over time, cinema chains like AMC or Village would come in to help distribute the newest films to an audience. But when it comes to major studios like Disney or Universal, it is generally expected that film studios will always get a significant cut of the box office revenue sold. After all, that is how they make their money.

Pushing cinemas out of ticket sales meant doubling down on the cinema experience to guarantee a profit. This is how concession stands become as costly as they are, despite snacks like popcorn or soft drinks being incredibly cheap to make.

Photo by Meg Boulden on Unsplash.

In recent years, Australian cinema chains have raised prices on their tickets by 15–20%, citing a better quality experience like reclining seats or surround sound systems.

And then they fell…

Cinema chains have precariously survived under changing conditions. They survived the threat of online piracy. They survived the initial boom in streaming services.

But they really struggled in the past two years. Without any movies to screen, and audiences physically unable to enjoy the experience, cinemas struggled to stay afloat. One only needs to look at AMC to realise how dire the situation would have been.

This is only made worse by the proliferation of direct-to-streaming movies that have cut out the middle man entirely and allowed studios to distribute directly to audiences. In 2020, Warner Bros. faced significant backlash from cinema chains when they announced that they would be releasing some of their biggest films direct-to-streaming on HBO Max.

Cinemas can’t operate if movies go straight to home releases.

The gap widens

In 2019, director Martin Scorsese expressed his concern for the future of cinema when he discusses the cultural impacts of blockbusters like the Marvel films. After the wildly successful film Endgame rocked theatre admissions, no one could have foreseen its impact.

But he was right to be concerned.

With ticket prices rising, the convenience of streaming services, and the continuous health hazards, people are less likely to attend cinema screenings unless they absolutely have to. If it’s not an Avengers movie that needs to be watched ASAP, they could probably wait until it comes out on streaming.

Photo by Karen Zhao on Unsplash.

Studios respond to this by widening the gap between the projects they produce and distribute. Is it a fun, action romp with plenty of quips? Or is it a slow arthouse drama?

There is no longer a middle ground, because there is no comfortable profit to be made when there isn’t a definitive market.

Supporting cinema

When Everything Everywhere All At Once came to cinemas a few months ago, I was enamoured by the film’s audacious and often unhinged narrative. Anchored by an emotional and deeply existential core, the film’s exploration into generational trauma was also an unexpected surprise.

Movies like EEAO demonstrate the dynamic expressionism that cinema is capable of, the stories they can show on the big screen, and the lengths creators will go to for something they’re passionate about.

The Russo Brothers understood this better than nobody else. They helped produce it after all.

And while I made attempts to get everyone I knew into the cinema to support films like these, it’s often hard for these kinds of movies to gain any traction against the Doctor Strange’s and Spider-Man’s of movies.

It is true that going to the cinema has never been more expensive and inconvenient. But it is only responding to a series of challenges that have forced cinema chains to react in a certain way.

Photo by Myke Simon on Unsplash.

To me, the cinema-going experience is still very much so a sacred experience. The dimmed lights, the bright projector, the soft seats. It is an opportunity to put away all distractions for two hours, to actively reject the noise of everyday life and enjoy a good story.

If that’s elitist to you, I apologise.

The internet has frequently challenged the media industry by proposing for more accessibility, more content, more everything. That in itself isn’t an inherently bad thing.

But as people get more conditioned into the competitive attention economy, traditional businesses chains like cinemas run the risk of going extinct.

I am concerned for the future of film where stories have to be adapted for small screens, rather than being enjoyed on the big screen the way they intended.

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Lost In Translation

Lost In Translation

Exploring culture through pop-culture.