Ed. by Nicolò Villani and Luca Ieranò
[English version by Serena Demichelis]
Having reached a new phase in the (inter)national handling of the quarantine, the time has come for a few considerations on how the lockdown situation in which we’ve been spending the past few months has influenced the production and distribution of cinema and series, in order to trace future scenarios. This new phase, in fact, is characterized by the prodromes of a progressive and gradual reopening and restarting of activities, among which the media industry, whose regular function has been significantly disrupted; such disruption has had a strong impact on viewers’ habits, already affected by the new temporalities imposed by this forced “at-home” situation. The development of new scenarios, some of which extremely complex and challenging, was thus inevitable.
With this article, we will try to present the sequence of events which has brought to the current situation in terms of media consumption; we will take into account the changes which occurred in viewers’ attention and behavior and subsequently offer a prospect of what awaits us on the bases of the dimensions and interests involved in the audiovisual market. In order to do so, we will use data kindly provided by JustWatch: such information is precious but needs to be processed adequately – data have to be interpreted with a degree of awareness strictly connected to the observation of the whole media system and its implications for the viewer.
Press pause, press stop – How and why the industry got stuck
To understand the reasons for and the development of the events which resulted in a basically full stop for the audiovisual industry in its two main operative arteries (production and distribution), it is necessary to highlight how the two are strictly intertwined: each sector of the market, just like a component of an engine, is responsible for the overall balance of the system. In the beginning, the closing of a few movie theaters in the country may have suggested the momentary interruption of movie distribution, possibly leaving a metaphoric floor to products which would have had a much smaller audience in normal conditions – however, the economical consequences of such closing anticipated those which were soon to involve the whole world of production, even before the final stop imposed by the need for social distancing.
But let’s proceed with order.
The initial cautionary measures in Lombardy in the second half of February brought to the closing of various movie theaters; in distributional terms, the closing of theaters in such areas implied a significant loss, as it is estimated that approximately 35-40% of a film income on a national level comes directly from there. Inevitably, the films whose release was planned for the period of time between February and April were postponed until further notice: Carlo Verdone, Luca and Paolo, Pixar, James Bond and various other protagonists of the approaching spring backed up, leaving room to titles which had been out for a while (as for instance Gli anni più belli) or to less commercialized products (Call of the wild, Volevo nascondermi are two among the many).
Less tickets, less titles, less sales: theaters in the whole country were forced to close at the beginning of March, thus implying the postponement of the release of several products (Disney fought until the very end with Mulan and Black Widow, strongly advertised since last winter). Without the possibility to proceed with distribution via cinemas, production companies did not manage to handle containment measures, shootings were forced to stop and the whole industry, world-wide, did just the same. Releases were inevitably rescheduled, not just in Italy but pretty much everywhere else. It’s still uncertain what will be done with edited or in-editing material.
Consuming habits during lockdown – the Hows of entertainment in quarantine
Unsurprisingly, in quarantine time media and entertainment consuming has been taking place in people’s houses, through all those multimedia channels available for domestic use: tv, home video, books, comics and, above all, streaming platforms. As the table below shows, the three main OTT platforms in Italy (Netflix, Amazon and NowTV) have experienced a substantial increase in the number of subscriptions if compared to the pre-lockdown situation. Beware, though: the increase is expressed in percentage – raw values will be significantly higher for Netflix than for NowTV.
This last observation is confirmed by the graph below, showing the effective usage of the same platforms: despite the increase in subscriptions, NowTV comes last in the list, right after Disney+ which, in just a few weeks from its initial release (March 23rd) has gained an important position in the economy of streaming services in Italy. It is thus clear how competition and comparisons among streaming channels have been protagonists of people’s lives while in lockdown; the result of such competition though has to be read also in the light of the different ways to approach entertainment – ways strictly linked to traditional consuming habits and less central, resembling those of television scheduling.
Indeed, when considering the titles which have made the first positions of our top10s, we may very well think that they mirror a common search for comfort tv (sit-coms and the like) or an attempt to catch up on long runs (behaviors which have been stimulated by the release of products responding to viewers’ needs, like long series and so forth); however, we also perceive a gradual increase in affection towards the tv in its role of “common synchronizer,” capable of organizing rhythms – those of entertainment and those of information alike.
Considering the increase of one hour a day “tv-time” on the whole national territory, together with the data in the table below, it’s easy to perceive how television covers an important role in establishing the mediatic offer: the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings sagas aired by Mediaset immediately became protagonists on various social medias through posts, stories and the like, functioning as means of cohesion at the level of community and society, and leading to an intergenerational confrontation on audiovisual usage.
Programming logics become thus a way of approaching the use of such streaming channels such as Netflix Party, which allows for synchronic watching by multiple viewers, usually reached via social media (see for instance the Doctor Who episodes which have been simultaneously viewed and commented by spectators, actors and authors, or similar initiatives carried out for Marvel products such as Guardians of the Galaxy and X-Men). Whereas data show a radical separation in use – devices which work online are mostly used for entertainment purposes, whereas tv is the place for information, as shown by a recent analysis carried out by Unipv – the mixing of modes becomes more articulate, putting us in front of an unprecedented convergence between the two aspects.
It is thus with augmented awareness that we see users’ behavior worldwide with regards to media and devices. In this perspective, possible results for those initiatives which aim at recovering from missed releases via online ticketing and viewing (see for instance the movie Un figlio di nome Erasmus) are surely in doubt: the modes and ways of consuming we have discussed thus far, in fact, reflect those belonging to the fruition of products distributed in theaters, mirroring a practice which is basically independent from the content itself. Such practices are what allows for titles such as Un figlio… to gain a popularity in theaters they are unlikely to attain online.
Scenarios and perspectives – The future of cinema and series
The circumstances described above delineate a mosaic of future possibilities characterized by irregularity and different levels of speed. It is thus adequate to adopt a perspective as wide as possible, in order to understand and build hypotheses regarding the consequences of such current premises.
Let us start from streaming and subscribing services: despite the high increase in subscribers experienced in the past few weeks, they will necessarily have to come to terms with their limited catalogues. The “abnormal” use viewers have done of such media during lockdown (long runs, marathons, binge watching and the like) will surely have an influence. Two main consequences can be foreseen: on the one hand, the progressive exhaustion of contents of interest for each specific user, whose eclectic tastes, as omnivorous as they may be, are always reducible to one niche on the market; on the other hand, algorithms managing suggested products have suffered from a “work overload” which has affected on of the most important selling elements of OTTs, namely, suggestions themselves.
Adding the forced stop to productions to this rather grim picture, we can see how there will be an inevitable lack of contents for the Fall, usually a time of great expectations for tv products latu sensu. Contents which were shot and edited just before and during lockdown will be parsimoniously released by streaming platforms and broadcast channels, something which leads to the discouraging perspective of a meagre season for series. Moreover, tools such as Netflix Party are not necessarily going to survive the possible end of the quarantine, since it’s difficult to see how they can find a place in consumers’ habits were they to get back to “normal.”
Movies will have to deal with a possible restart in relation to their distributional possibilities, something which depends largely on the market section allotted to each producing company. As mentioned above, a few films have managed to find an alternative way through online ticketing and viewing, whereas others have been postponed until months from now. Digital solidarity initiatives, moreover, have significantly changed the ratio between economic value and quality of the product within the system of virtual fruition. How can we interpret all this systematically, considering, in addition, the huge X represented by festivals?
First of all, movies which have been released via online ticketing/viewing are managed by production companies which often see their main economic outcome in the movie itself and base most of their income on tickets sales. If this big part of production companies – a majority in the Italian scenario – could, in theory, recover from the economic blow via online “theaters”, at the same time it will have to deal with a reality in which viewers used to go to the movies for the sake of going to the movies, as a practice, and not to see that movie in particular (something which relates largely to the age groups involved). Such initiatives are thus destined to fail in terms of audiences, which will possibly be limited to the restricted group of auteur cinema enthusiasts.
Those movies whose releases have instead been rescheduled are mostly those around which a wider economic system articulates. Unsurprisingly, Disney, despite the recent release of its own online streaming platform, is not making titles with a large public appeal available. A film like Mulan prompts gadget sales, amusement park parades and the organization of events, all of which adds to the economic income brought by tickets – thus by the film itself. Until the “return to normal” will be complete, it is likely that big corporations will struggle more than others.
The picture of the possible perspectives for the audiovisual market is thus starting to appear in all its multifaceted nature. Speed and low expenses are the key words for the immediate future: the industry is hungry for contents and products, and there will be a great need for scalability, in agreement with the mixture of modes and devices which has characterized the time in quarantine. The movie spectator has now turned into a viewer with a higher awareness of his/her usage possibilities, less inclined to habit but more inclined to the sharing of rhythms (something which fits well with the release of episodes on a periodical basis and not all at once); at the same time, viewers will be waiting for the return of the communal practice of going to the movies as a collective, human experience which cannot be replaced by an impersonal and aseptic virtual reality.
What we wish for the future, together with other observers and critics, is that the restart will bring with itself a better awareness of both intentions and measures, so that the audiovisual market, already a bit unstable and slightly ill-defined in its heterogeneity, will succeed in reaching a configuration in which clarity and interconnection favor coexistence in the delicate ecosystem of entertainment.