Scarlett Johansson in 'Black Widow' (Photo: ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved)

The current Sydney lockdown and the tightening of restrictions across the country has dealt another blow to exhibitors.

While theatres in the greater Sydney area are unable to operate at all, even those in other parts of NSW, who can trade, are facing losses.

Major cities in Queensland, Western Australia, and the Northern Territory are also currently in lockdown, while South Australia, Tasmania, and Victoria have capacity limits in place for theatres.

President of Independent Cinemas Australia (ICA), Scott Seddon, said that the newest outbreak coinciding with the school holiday period made things particularly hard.

“Many of us hoped that this was going to be the beginning of a sustained recovery so that has certainly made life difficult,” he told IF.

“Even for those of us who are open, the need for 50 per cent [capacity], and the masks, is certainly affecting the confidence of the public and it’s just very unfortunate.”

The July 8 release of Black Widow is expected to be the most-high profile to be affected by the restrictions, with the current Sydney lockdown set to run until at least July 9.

The film, directed by Aussie Cate Shortland and starring Scarlett Johannson, is the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which includes eight of the top 25 highest grossing films of all time.

This will be the first entry in the MCU since Spider Man: Far from Home, which released in July 2019, after Black Widow was delayed three times from its original May 2020 release date due to the pandemic.

Australian Disney+ subscribers can stream Black Widow from July 9, at an additional cost of $34.99, via its Premier Access program. With many Sydneysiders unable to leave their homes this could prove the only option for those who want to experience the film on release, cannibalising post-lockdown theatre traffic.

The Premier Access program is a far cry from the traditional 90-day theatrical window.

Windows have come under increased spotlight in recent years, with many exhibitors refusing to run Netflix originals, including Martin Scorsese’s Oscar nominated crime-drama The Irishman, which were offered, for no extra fee, on the platform three weeks after premiering in cinemas.

Cinema Nova in Melbourne were one such exhibitor.

“We’ve tried to hold firm in the face of various streamers looking to reduce the window,” said CEO Kristian Connelly.

“We left that to other theatres because frankly, at the time, pre-pandemic, we just didn’t see the benefit.

“It’s our understanding, for the most part, that for those locations that did screen films that were playing on Netflix or Amazon Prime [the results] were quite underwhelming.

“Ultimately the focus for the streamers was almost entirely on campaigns promoting the films being on the streaming platform but not in theatres so we don’t think we really missed out on anything in that situation.”

The effectiveness of the model is still up for debate, both locally and abroad. In the US, Warner Bros. is offering same-day streaming on HBO Max of all their 2021 releases including big name titles like Godzilla vs. Kong, The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, and upcoming July 16 release Space Jam: A New Legacy.

Seddon, who also owns and operates Scotty’s Cinemas Raymond Terrace and Heddon Greta Drive-in, feels that the market will determine where theatrical release windows settle in the future.

“I don’t think we’re going to see windows getting substantially shorter and there will be a bit of stabilisation happening over the next year or so,” he said.

“For those major tentpole films especially, it’s clear studios need to have a viable theatrical business in order to be able to make those movies.

“Internationally as the world gets out more, and everyone stays home less, the need for cinemas to stay viable will mean that the market may push back a little bit.

“The key thing is what level of window pressure the business can take.”

Connelly agrees it’s likely a middle ground will be struck.

“Exhibition has been very fortunate to have a considerable window between theatrical and home entertainment for quite some time.

“Prior to the 90-day window it was 120 days, and where it seems to be heading now is towards a 45-day ‘new normal’ given the churn of the major blockbusters that do a sizeable portion of their box office in the opening weeks.

“It’s not unrealistic for the studios to want to leverage the awareness of those films off the theatrical release when they start landing in PVOD.”

Black Widow is the third Disney original film to be offered through Premier access, following Raya and the Last Dragon, and Cruella earlier this year.

Both films had solid, but not phenomenal, takings when they debuted, but the ongoing influence of the pandemic make Premier Access’ effect on the box office difficult to determine.

“The only ones who really know are Disney,” said Seddon.

“In abnormal times it’s hard to compare it to anything but those titles have not done as well as historically we would have expected them to do.”

Connelly is unsure if theatrical releases will continue to move the needle post-pandemic the same way they did previously, but feels that exhibitors still have a major role to play in the future.

“How have the films that have been released straight to streaming in the last 12 or 18 months impacted the larger popular culture?” he said.

“When a [blockbuster] movie goes out theatrical day-and-date across the whole world, you can’t go to a news site or check your phone without being served something that talks about that film.

“Until we see people behaving around a piece of content on streaming in the same way they did when a movie goes and makes a billion dollars at the box office, theatrical will be important to the release of a feature, and that’s also true of the arthouse films.”

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