In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past month, it may surprise you that we’re living through a modern pandemic – COVID-19. Naturally, the world is in lockdown, businesses have shut, governments are enforcing self-isolation. Here in Britain, we’re keeping two metres apart and have supermarket rationing as a result. It’s not too bad though, plenty of time to catch up on video games, reading … work.
This is going down as a defining moment for Gen Z, and something that will shape our economy, social engagements, and our relationship to technology for years to come.
Now, I’m not going to go into the medical details of the virus, the symptoms, or anything like that – there are plenty of sites out there for that. Instead, I want to explore the economic impacts of global self-isolation, and what it means for the film and media industries, and why productions must consider different ways to distribute and develop IPs.
STATE OF THE FILM INDUSTRY
There’s no doubt that theatrical releases are the most heavily hit, or anything involving mass audience viewing – whether it’s a cinema, a theatre, or even the Olympics. Due to social distancing these months have been the hardest for anything even resembling a theatrical viewing experience.
Unsurprisingly, theatrical releases have been delayed; most notably 007’s No Time To Die which has been pushed for a November release. Nothing major has come out of this franchise delay, with the exception of a now-mistimed SNL appearance by Daniel Craig and out-of-sync marketing tie-ins, but it’s simply the way of the industry at the moment.
Further implications come for Marvel and DC in particular. Unlike something like the 007 franchise, these films run like a factory. With roughly two or three films released a year, a delay for one of these has a knock-on effect for the entire cinematic universe.
This isn’t so much a storytelling issue but delaying films like Wonder Woman 84 and Black Widow could potentially jeopardise the box office returns for these studios. Imagine a six-month delay pitting Black Widow against The Eternals, splitting the box office in the process – likely something Marvel wants to avoid.
Of course, we’ve seen a greater rise in streaming services as everyone’s home and bored. Netflix, Disney+, and Amazon have accommodated early digital releases for films like Sonic the Hedgehog, Birds of Prey, and Bloodshot. It’s a new age of media, and studios need to adapt to connect with audiences.
GAMES, SOCIAL, AND BEYOND
It should go without saying that the rise in video gaming isn’t unsurprising. In a world where you can just download and play games, it’s one of the most accessible forms of media for anyone staying at home. Countries have seen a jump in sales of over 60% amidst the pandemic. I don’t feel there’s much to say here on this topic, other than there are more gamers out there than you might realise.
Instead I find it more interesting how effectively companies can update games to make them more playable in unseen circumstances. Pokémon Go is a prime example of this, with updates making the game more accessible for anyone stuck at home – increased wild Pokémon appearances, making locations more accessible from further away … standard stuff. I bring this up as an example as (unlike film) it’s much easier to update and adjust to these unforeseen circumstances.
Social media has also played a unique role in this crisis. Celebrities and movie stars have tried directly connecting with their fans, and many are using this as an opportunity to build up their online presence. Most impressively, we’ve even seen virtual influencers succeed in adapting to the pandemic. Gorillaz had a coronavirus-related post with 2D telling us to stay home, and on Instagram Janky and Guggimon have also partnered with brands like Purell and posted stuff on disinfecting Amazon packages.
It’s clever, and although it’s still early days for the virtual influencer, the rapid response that fictional characters can have to ongoing real-world effects demonstrates potential. After all, it can at least flesh out a character having them “react” to the same thing you’re reacting to … whilst selling products as well of course.
Sadly, I feel like VR hasn’t taken full advantage of this historical moment. Not that it doesn’t have potential, but simply because it hasn’t quite reached that critical mass usage. Compare it to something like the recently released Animal Crossing: New Horizons – a 2nd life Nintendo game where you can design your own city and engage with virtual players and characters online. It has a critical mass audience to make it a worthwhile play – especially with players uploading their island creations on YouTube and Twitch.
VR certainly has immense potential, and companies have attracted notice if we’re preparing to move into a post-COVID world, but I don’t think its impact has been as widely felt as other mediums. But there is speculation about the impact going forward, like having headsets for virtual business meetings, and a possible rise in demand for at-home VR.
A POST-VIRUS FUTURE
I read an article about the potential to open re-open drive-in theatres, to maintain a viewing experience whilst still social distancing. Whilst it’s a cute idea, I’m not sure how it would fare in a Post-Covid world.
When it comes to developing IP, multiple platforms look now to be essential. If some unforeseen event prevents your film from being shown, that’s a chunk of your revenue gone, and potentially detrimental to franchise engagement. If your theme park attraction shuts down due to some other strange viral outbreak, you need to have backup revenue streams, and you need to find ways to engage with your audiences more directly and more creatively.
There are of course questions about the future of theatrical releases. Just this week Trolls: ‘World Tour’ broke the record for biggest digital debut ever and could have implications for the industry moving forward – most likely a heightened increase of straight-to-digital media. Of course, this will raise the question of what “merits” a theatrical release, and how production budgets will shift. I imagine we’ll know more in the coming months.
For now, even if it’s just a YouTube video of 2D wearing a face mask and talking to the camera, companies and studios are still finding innovative ways to engage with fans; something box-office reliant films like Black Widow are unable to do. Now is the chance to really integrate IP through films, video games, and online media; build up more concrete and sustainable franchises.