Cinemas shut, movies postponed: how Covid-19 upturned film in 2020

If you had money on drive-in movies making a comeback in 2020, the year’s most talked-about actor being Laurence Fox, and the biggest Hollywood hit being Bad Boys for Life, then you invented Covid-19 and should pay for your crimes.

You could call 2020 a year of winners and losers; but, frankly, it was mostly losers, the biggest being cinema itself. Things started out promisingly. Parasite won big at the Oscars, and last year was the biggest ever at the British box office. This year was set to surpass it, with blockbusters such as No Time to Die, Black Widow, Fast & Furious 9 and West Side Story on the way. Twelve months later, we’re still waiting.

The studios postponed their big movies because the cinemas were shut; the cinemas strove to safely reopen, but had no movies to put on. It became a chicken-and-egg situation: most chickened out; the few that didn’t got egg on their faces. Tenet threw an odd bone to the spectacle-hungry public but took a substantial hit, grossing £270m worldwide (director Christopher Nolan’s Inception took £600m in 2013).

The year’s overriding movie story is one of cinema’s losses and streaming’s gains. At the start of 2020, the chief concern was that Disney was going to rule Hollywood for ever; by the end, Disney was posting multibillion-dollar losses and conducting a “bloodbath” of personnel. Its one consolation was the streaming service Disney+, which launched in March just as the world was hunkering down at home. Its original target was 50 million subscribers by 2022. It gained 73 million in nine months.

Like the rest of us, Hollywood’s main pursuit this year has been catching up with Netflix. Major players shifted their chips from cinema into streaming: Universal’s Peacock, Paramount+, and most of all Warner’s HBO Max. Warners, which took the hit with Tenet, are set to release Wonder Woman 1984 simultaneously on HBO Max and in cinemas in the US. In December it announced it was doing the same for all 17 of its planned 2021 releases, including The Suicide Squad, The Matrix 4 and Dune.

This is bad news for cinemas, which depend on exclusive, advance access to new movies – especially the big franchise titles. Some smaller films benefited from the blockbusters’ absence: the London teen drama Rocks, for example, or horror Saint Maud, but a lack of festivals also hurt the non-blockbuster end of the market. There’s the horrible feeling we might be witnessing the end of cinema as we know it.

The future might not be so bright for streaming either, though. Competition grows ever fiercer. And when cinemas and the rest of the world finally reopen, people might feel like getting the hell out of their houses. The numbers are already difficult to stack up for studios. A decent blockbuster could make $1bn in cinemas; that’s a big shortfall to make up with streaming. Added to which, small-screen movies have yet to create genuine, franchise-generating buzz. Streaming is also a convenient place to bury bad movies, so let’s at least be thankful for the bullets we dodged in 2020, such as Artemis Fowl, Scoob! and The New Mutants.

Ultimately, it’s not studios or streamers who get to decide – it’s us. If we want to watch movies in cinemas again, that’s where they will go. Covid will be over one day, but cinema doesn’t have to go with it.