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The movie business moves to the acceptance phase in its Netflix grief complex

At the movie-industry confab CinemaCon, the Motion Picture Association of America tells streamers: We’re in this together.

The movie business moves to the acceptance phase in its Netflix grief complex
MPAA Chairman & CEO Charles Rivkin speaks onstage at CinemaCon 2019. [Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for CinemaCon]

A year ago, when Motion Picture Association of America chairman and CEO Charles Rivkin took to the stage at CinemaCon, the annual gathering of movie theater exhibitors and Hollywood studios, he gave a chest-thumping speech about the robust state of the box office, never mentioning the names of any pesky streaming companies. 

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“The theatrical experience will always be at the heart of our experience–and that heartbeat is strong,” he said. 

My, what a difference a year makes. On Tuesday morning, when Rivkin gave his state of the industry address in Las Vegas, he gave a warm embrace to Netflix, saying: “At the MPAA, each of our member companies is evolving, too. And thus, how we pursue our mission of promoting and protecting creativity is evolving. Recently, that evolution featured Netflix joining the MPAA, adding to our roster of leading global content creators. 

“Here is what I know,” he went on. “We are all stronger advocates for creativity and the entertainment business when we are working together . . . all of us.” 

The statement was an acknowledgment–or perhaps, an abdication–that streaming is here to stay, whether theater owners like it or not, and the two groups are going to have to find a way to live together peaceably. As Rivkin noted, Netflix was admitted to the MPAA in January, paving the way for this new era of inclusion. The mood change on the part of the MPAA isn’t just about Netflix, which currently has 139 million global subscribers and was a major player in the Oscar race this year, taking home three statues for Roma. Later this year, Disney, Comcast, and WarnerMedia will all begin rolling out streaming services, causing a tsunami effect that there is simply no way for theater owners to ignore–or fight. 

Rivkin’s remarks were followed by those of John Fithian, CEO and president of the National Association of Theater Owners, who stressed amity between streamers and theaters, but also emphasized the importance of a theatrical release.  

“There’s no doubt that home entertainment consumption moves toward streaming with each passing day,” Fithian said. “As large media companies look to establish direct relationships with consumers through streaming platforms–and the options in the home grow–competition for directors and stars who want their work seen on the big screen will only intensify. 

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“In this new climate it’s important to ask: How does any given movie stand out among endless choices in the home? Everyone in this room knows the answer to that question. A robust theatrical release provides a level of prestige to a movie that cannot be replicated.” 

Fithian noted that the global box office hit a record $41.7 billion in 2018, including a best-ever $11.9 billion in North America.  

Netflix has loosened its stance on theatrical releases–a little bit. In the run-up to the Oscars, it gave three-week theatrical releases to Roma, Bird Box, and the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs in order to placate filmmakers and build Oscar buzz. It’s been speculated that Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Netflix film The Irishman will receive a similar release. Beyond where a filmmaker insists or there are Oscars to be won, though, Netflix is sticking to its streaming-only strategy, and there is no indication that the floodgates have been opened.

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About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based senior writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety

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