The industry-shaking tensions between movie-theatre owners and streaming services have spilled over into the Toronto International Film Festival, once again.
Canadian theatre giant Cineplex Entertainment has confirmed to The Globe and Mail that, while two of Netflix’s films will screen at Cineplex’s Scotiabank Theatre during this year’s festival, the majority will not. This is due to the exhibitor’s long-standing disagreement with streamers over how long streaming services keep their films in theatres before they are made available to subscribers at home.
The situation is a direct echo of the controversy that surfaced during the film festival’s 2019 edition. (The 2020 and 2021 hybrid editions of TIFF did not use the Scotiabank as a venue, due to significantly smaller programming lineups and drastically reduced in-person attendance.)
“Cineplex is very focused on theatrical windows,” Sarah Van Lange, vice-president of communications, content and social media for Cineplex, said in a statement, referencing the industry term for the window of time it takes a film to move from theatres to digital platforms. She added that the company “happily showcases films” with windows on its screens.
Currently, traditional Hollywood productions, such as Jurassic World Dominion or the Doctor Strange sequel, take about 45 days to go from theatres to home entertainment markets – in itself a marked drop from the pre-pandemic norm of 90 days. Streamers like Netflix prefer to have their original films play theatres for just a week or two before they are made available to home subscribers – if they release the titles in cinemas at all.
Practically, this means that the Scotiabank – a key TIFF venue with 14 screens and room for 4,500 moviegoers – won’t host the majority of Netflix’s nine TIFF titles. These include the drama A Jazzman’s Blues from prolific filmmaker Tyler Perry; the thriller The Good Nurse, starring Jessica Chastain and Eddie Redmayne; the documentary In Her Hands, following the leadership of Afghanistan’s youngest female mayor; The King’s Horseman, an adaptation of Nobel Prize-winning playwright Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman; the animated comedy Wendell & Wild; the period-piece drama The Wonder starring Florence Pugh; and the inspirational biopic The Swimmers, the world premiere of which opens TIFF Thursday night.
On Tuesday, a day after single public tickets went on-sale, TIFF added screenings of Netflix’s remake of All Quiet on the Western Front and Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery to the Scotiabank, after the films were previously confined to other festival venues. This switch suggests that the films, including the highly anticipated whodunnit starring Daniel Craig (to which Netflix acquired the sequel rights for last year in a reported US$450-million deal), will become outliers in the streamer’s release strategy.
Representatives for Netflix were unavailable for comment.
In 2019, Cineplex first exercised control over what could and could not screen at its theatres during TIFF. During that festival, nine Netflix productions (including eventual Oscar nominees Marriage Story and The Two Popes) only screened in non-Cineplex venues, including TIFF’s five-screen Bell Lightbox, which subsequently played the films during their brief, post-festival theatrical runs. Four Prime Video titles from that year also skipped the Scotiabank.
This year, all three of Prime Video’s TIFF titles are playing the Scotiabank: the Harry Styles-starring romance My Policeman; the Lena Dunham-directed comedy Catherine Called Birdy; and the French coming-of-age dramedy Hawa. This similarly suggests that the titles will respect Cineplex’s desired theatrical window. The same goes for two of the five Apple TV+ films playing TIFF (the Jennifer Lawrence drama Causeway, and the documentary Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues). The festival’s single Paramount+ title (the hip-hop drama On the Come Up) is not scheduled to play the Scotiabank.
“Every year, we look for the very best films we can find for our audiences. Many of those films now come to us from streaming platforms. The landscape is changing. We treat those films as we do any other films but we have sometimes been restricted by our exhibition partner in where we can schedule them,” TIFF said in a statement to The Globe. “This year, we’re glad to say that films from all of our biggest streaming partners will be presented across all festival venues, including the Scotiabank Theatre. As film distribution and exhibition continue to evolve, we’ll stay agnostic to platform and keep putting the films and filmmakers first.”
Representatives for Prime Video, Apple TV+ and Paramount+ did not return requests for comment.
Relations between exhibitors and streamers warmed slightly during the heights of the pandemic. Cineplex, starved for content after traditional Hollywood suppliers like Disney and Sony Pictures either held onto new films or released them via digital platforms, screened Netflix’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Mank. But today, tensions are at an all-time high.
This summer movie season featured approximately 48 per cent fewer wide theatrical releases than in 2019, with August particularly barren. And while the coming fall corridor looks tentatively promising thanks to such sure-things as Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and the Dwayne Johnson-starring superhero film Black Adam, current projections put this year’s North American box office earnings at about 30 per cent lower than in 2019 – and that’s despite average ticket prices having increased 20 per cent since then.
Meanwhile, streamers are pumping out more movies than ever, with Netflix alone set to release 43 new titles now through December – a higher number than all of the traditional Hollywood studios combined.
This isn’t to say that streamers are riding high. Netflix is undertaking a corporate reset after its stock nose-dived this past spring, with plans to launch an ad-supported service reportedly accelerated to this fall. At the same time, Disney is planning a similar venture to dazzle Wall Street.
Meanwhile, HBO Max (which is not available in Canada but whose programming is largely viewable here via an output deal with Bell Media’s Crave) is undergoing a massive strategic rethink after the merger of Discovery and AT&T’s WarnerMedia. And Peacock, the nascent U.S.-only streamer owned by Comcast, witnessed zero growth in subscribers in its second quarter this year, during which it lost US$467-million.
Apple TV+ and Amazon’s Prime Video appear to be staying the course – but both are relatively protected thanks to their market-dominant parent companies.
“Our team is in active discussions with non-traditional suppliers to showcase their content on the big screen and increase our offerings,” Cineplex’s Van Lange said in her statement. “Without question, the non-traditional studios are forming a new appreciation for the importance of a theatrical release in increasing awareness and value prior to a title’s release on their streaming platforms.”
Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter, with film, TV and streaming reviews and more. Sign up today.