Streaming Took Over Hollywood. Will It Take Best Picture, Too?

The pandemic accelerated the disruption. Traditional studios like Paramount, Universal, Sony, Warner Bros. and Disney rerouted dozens of theatrical films to streaming services or released them simultaneously in theaters and online. For the second year in a row, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, citing the coronavirus threat, allowed films to skip a theatrical release entirely and still be eligible for Oscars. The academy had previously required at least a perfunctory theatrical release of at least a week in Los Angeles.

This is about more than Hollywood egotism. The worry is that, as streaming services proliferate — more than 300 now operate in the United States, according to the consulting firm Parks Associates — theaters could become exclusively the land of superheroes, sequels and remakes. The venerable Warner Bros. has slashed annual theatrical output by almost half and built a direct-to-streaming film assembly line. Last week, Amazon boosted its Prime Video service by acquiring Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the old-line studio behind “Licorice Pizza,” which is nominated for three Academy Awards, including best picture.

In a year when Hollywood largely failed to jump-start theatrical moviegoing, streaming services solidified their hold on viewers. Global ticket sales totaled $21.3 billion in 2021, down from $42.3 billion in 2019, according to the Motion Picture Association. (Theaters were closed for much of 2020.) Some theater companies have gone out of business, others have merged; the world’s biggest theater chain, AMC Entertainment, racked up $6 billion in losses over the past two years and its stock has dropped 66 percent since June. At the same time, the number of subscriptions to online video services around the world grew to 1.3 billion, up from 864 million in 2019, the group said.

One film that struggled at the box office was Mr. Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” which received an exclusive run in theaters (per his wishes) of about three months. It collected about $75 million worldwide (against a production budget of $100 million and global marketing costs of roughly $50 million). “West Side Story” is now available on not one but two streaming services, Disney+ and HBO Max, where it has almost assuredly been viewed more widely than in theaters. But the film was never able to recover — among Oscar voters — from being branded a box office misfire. It received seven nominations, and is poised to win in one category, for Ariana DeBose as best supporting actress.

Mr. Spielberg’s also-ran presence in the current Oscar race makes the ascendance of streaming contenders all the more striking: a lion in the fight to keep the Academy Awards focused on theatrical films is pushed aside.

However unlikely, it is possible that “West Side Story” could come from behind and win the best picture trophy. So could Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast,” for that matter. Such an outcome would be a bit like 2019, when academy voters, turned off by an over-the-top campaign by Netflix to push “Roma” to best picture glory, instead gave the prize to “Green Book,” a traditional film from Universal Pictures.

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Without Box Office or Streaming Numbers, Hollywood Finds It Tough to Plan

“The Suicide Squad” should have been a big hit for Warner Bros. last month. It had superheroes, a marquee director (James Gunn), a huge production budget ($185 million) and received terrific reviews. But instead of delivering a box office ka-pow, it went ker-thud: Ticket sales total $156 million (split roughly 50-50 with theaters), compared with $747 million for the first “Suicide Squad” in 2016.

Of course, the latest one had to battle a pandemic. And it was also made available free on HBO Max in lock step with its theatrical debut. On that platform, it was a relative success — at least according to HBO Max, which heralded “The Suicide Squad” as the service’s second-most-viewed movie debut of the year.

But it offered no numbers.

“Paw Patrol: The Movie” (Paramount) was released simultaneously in theaters and on Paramount+ late last month. It took in $13 million over its first weekend, enough for second place behind “Free Guy,” a holdover. But the actual demand for “Paw Patrol” was shrouded. Regal Cinemas, the second-largest multiplex chain in the United States behind AMC Entertainment, refused to play the animated adventure because of its streaming availability. Paramount+ said on Aug. 25 that the movie “ranked as one of the service’s most-watched originals.”

But it offered no numbers.

In contrast, Disney-Marvel released “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” exclusively in theaters on Friday. Disney’s chief executive had called the old-fashioned release an “experiment.” Would the coronavirus keep people at home?

In surveys in late August of American moviegoers by the National Research Group, a film industry consultant, about 67 percent of respondents said they felt comfortable (“very or somewhat”) sitting in a theater. Disney has cited coronavirus concerns for making films like “Jungle Cruise,” “Cruella” and “Black Widow” available in homes on Disney+ at the same time as in theaters (even though Hollywood has suspected that the real reason — or at least an equally important one — has been helping Disney+).

The crystal-clear result: Audiences flocked to “Shang-Chi,” which was on pace to collect $83.5 million from 4,300 theaters in the United States and Canada from Friday through Monday, according to Comscore, which compiles box office data. Overseas, the well-reviewed movie, notable for being Marvel’s first Asian-led superhero spectacle, generated an additional $56.2 million. “Shang-Chi” cost roughly $200 million to make.

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‘F9’ Could Be the Blockbuster Hollywood Needs

LOS ANGELES — In February 2020, Universal Pictures used the Super Bowl to light a marketing match under “F9,” the latest installment in the “Fast and Furious” franchise. With any luck, the studio hoped, the movie would roar into theaters a few months later and take in more than $1 billion worldwide, just as a predecessor, “The Fate of the Furious,” did in 2017.

But the pandemic had other plans. Some rival studios hemmed and hawed over their release schedule, but Universal shocked Hollywood in early March 2020 by delaying “F9” for an entire year. “It was a very unpopular decision,” Donna Langley, chairwoman of the Universal Filmed Entertainment Group, said recently in a phone interview. “A lot of people really did not agree with me.”

It was a $350 million-plus decision, between production and marketing costs, and Ms. Langley, like everyone at that stage of the pandemic, was operating in the dark. “It really was a gut call,” she said.

Avengers: Endgame” in 2019.

screen patriotic films with titles like “The Sacrifice” and “The Red Sun” at that time.

As Hollywood has contemplated how best to rev up moviegoing now that theaters are beginning to operate with some normalcy again, there has been a lot of talk about “the right movie at the right time.” It was not Christopher Nolan’s cerebral “Tenant,” which was released in September by Warner Bros. An old-fashioned monster mash-up, “Godzilla vs. Kong,” drew big crowds last month, but results were depressed because it was simultaneously available on HBO Max.

Could “F9” be the one? It will receive an exclusive run in theaters and features action sequences designed specifically for big screens. One of the film’s cars has an actual rocket engine attached to its roof.

“It feels like a big, beginning-of-summer, school’s-out celebration,” Ms. Langley said of the sequel. It finds Vin Diesel’s marble-mouthed Dom Toretto facing his younger brother Jakob (John Cena), an assassin working with the villainous Cipher (Charlize Theron). Michelle Rodriguez returns as the brooding Letty. Tyrese Gibson, Helen Mirren and Ludacris also star.

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Scrounging for Hits, Hollywood Goes Back to the Video Game Well

LOS ANGELES — For 28 years, ever since “Super Mario Bros.” arrived in cinemas with the tagline “This Ain’t No Game,” Hollywood has been trying and mostly failing — epically, famously — to turn hit video games into hit movies. For every “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” (2001), which turned Angelina Jolie into an A-list action star, there has been a nonsensical “Max Payne” (2008), an abominable “Prince of Persia” (2010) and a wince-inducing “Warcraft” (2016).

If video games are the comic books of our time, why can’t Hollywood figure out how to mine them accordingly?

It may finally be happening, powered in part by the proliferation of streaming services and their need for intellectual property to exploit. “The need for established, globally appealing I.P. has naturally led to gaming,” Matthew Ball, a venture investor and the former head of strategy for Amazon Studios, wrote last year in an essay titled “7 Reasons Why Gaming I.P. Is Finally Taking Off in Film/TV.”

Sony Pictures Entertainment and its PlayStation-powered sibling, Sony Interactive, are finally working together to turn PlayStation games into mass-appeal movies and television shows. There are 10 game adaptations in the Sony Pictures pipeline, a big leap from practically none in 2018. They include “Uncharted,” a $120 million adventure based on a 14-year-old PlayStation property (more than 40 million copies sold). “Uncharted” stars Tom Holland, the reigning Spider-Man, as Nathan Drake, the treasure hunter at the center of the game franchise. It is scheduled for release in theaters on Feb. 18.

post-apocalyptic game of the same title. Pedro Pascal, “The Mandalorian” himself, is the star, and Craig Mazin, who created the Emmy-winning mini-series “Chernobyl,” is the showrunner. Executive producers include Carolyn Strauss, one of the forces behind “Game of Thrones,” and Neil Druckmann, who led the creation of the Last of Us game.

Sony games like Twisted Metal and Ghost of Tsushima are also getting the TV and film treatment. (Contrary to speculation, one that is not, at least not anytime soon, according to a Sony spokesman: God of War.)

In the past, Sony Pictures and Sony Interactive operated as fiefs, with creative control — it’s mine; no, it’s mine — impeding adaptation efforts. When he took over as Sony’s chief executive in 2018, Kenichiro Yoshida demanded cooperation. The ultimate goal is to make better use of Sony’s online PlayStation Network to bring Sony movies, shows and music directly to consumers. PlayStation Network, introduced in 2006, has more than 114 million monthly active users.

“I have witnessed a radical shift in the nature of cooperation between different parts of the company,” said Sanford Panitch, Sony’s movie president.

Halo,” a series based on the Xbox franchise about a war between humans and an alliance of aliens (more than 80 million copies sold), will arrive on the Paramount+ streaming service early next year; Steven Spielberg is an executive producer. Lionsgate is adapting the Borderlands games (roughly 60 million sold) into a science fiction film starring Cate Blanchett, Kevin Hart and Jamie Lee Curtis.

Buoyed by its success with “The Witcher,” a fantasy series adapted from games and novels, Netflix has shows based on the “Assassin’s Creed,” “Resident Evil,” “Splinter Cell” and “Cuphead” games on the way. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, the duo behind HBO’s “Westworld,” are developing a science-fiction show for Amazon that is based on the Fallout video game franchise.

And Nintendo and Illumination Entertainment, the Universal Pictures studio responsible for the “Despicable Me” franchise, have an animated Mario movie headed to theaters next year — another new collaboration between a game publisher and a film company.

Still, Hollywood’s game adaptation track record is terrible. Why should the coming projects be any different?

For a start, the games themselves have evolved, becoming more intricate and cinematic. “Games have stories that are so much more developed and advanced than they used to be,” Mr. Panitch said.

first major game adaptation in three decades to receive a “fresh” designation on Rotten Tomatoes, the review-aggregation site. Since then, two more adaptations, “Sonic the Hedgehog” (Paramount) and “The Angry Birds Movie 2” (Sony) have been critical and commercial successes.

“Quality has definitely been improving,” said Geoff Keighley, creator of the Game Awards, an Oscars-like ceremony for the industry.

The most recent game-to-film entry, “Mortal Kombat” (Warner Bros.), received mixed reviews but has taken in $41.2 million in the United States since its release last month, a surprisingly large total considering it was released simultaneously on HBO Max and theaters were still operating with strict coronavirus safety protocols.

Mr. Panitch acknowledged that “video game movies have a checkered history.” But he added, “Failure is the mother of invention.”

Game adaptations, for instance, have often faltered by trying to rigidly replicate the action and story lines that fans know and love. That approach invites comparison, and movies (even with sophisticated visual effects) almost always fail to measure up. At the same time, such “fan service” turns off nongamers, resulting in films that don’t connect with any particular audience.

“It’s not just about adapting the story,” said Michael Jonathan Smith, who is leading Sony’s effort to turn Twisted Metal, a 1995 vehicular combat game, into a television series. “It’s about adapting how you feel when you play the game. It has to be about characters you care about. And then you can slide in the Easter eggs and story points that get fans absolutely pumped.”

“Uncharted” is a prequel that, for the first time, creates origin stories for the characters in the game. With any luck, such storytelling will satisfy fans by giving them something new — while also inviting nongamers, who may otherwise worry about not knowing what is going on, to buy tickets. (The producers of “Uncharted” include Charles Roven, who is known for the “Dark Knight” trilogy.)

“It’s a question of balance,” said Asad Qizilbash, a senior Sony Interactive executive who also runs PlayStation Productions, an entity started in 2019 and based on Sony’s movie lot in Culver City, Calif.

Unlike in the past, when Sony Pictures and Sony Interactive pledged to work together and ultimately did not, the current collaboration “has weight because there is a win for everyone,” Mr. Qizilbash added. “We have three objectives. Grow audience size for games. Bring product to Sony Pictures. Showcase collaboration.”

The stakes are high. A cinematic flop could hurt the game franchise.

“It’s risky,” Mr. Qizilbash allowed. “But I think we can do it.”

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