COVID-19 streaming and piracy won’t kill cinema just yet

Big screen can still resist rise of home movie streaming but Eden Cinema fights blockbuster drought with classic film screenings

The world of film is yours... Eden Cinemas has screened Scarface after the COVID-19 pandemic pushed back the Hollywood schedule
The world of film is yours... Eden Cinemas has screened Scarface after the COVID-19 pandemic pushed back the Hollywood schedule

Moviegoers should rest easy. The rise in streaming services will not kill the cinema yet, says Kate De Cesare, operations director at the Eden Leisure Group, operator of Malta’s largest cinema.

The lockdown has corresponded with a global increase in streaming subscriptions such as Netflix, but De Cesare says the filmic experience of cinema is still offering clients a different kind of outing that can’t be had inside people’s living rooms.

“Online streaming has been gaining momentum steadily over the years, and yet 2019 was one of our strongest years at Eden Cinemas. Streaming won’t kill cinema because they’re two different film experiences: they can live and thrive side by side,” De Cesare said.

Foreign productions in 2019 brought in 734,626 admissions across the island with a total gross box office of €5 million over 28,534 screenings. 409 films were screened, an average of 71 screenings per film.

But cinemas, like many other businesses, were hit hard by COVID-19. On 16 March they joined the list of entertainment companies that were temporarily shut down in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus. There are currently six cinemas operating in Malta and Gozo.

Last week the Eden Leisure Group, along with other cinemas on the island, opened their doors for the first time in almost three months. However, it’s a considerably different experience than many moviegoers are used to – across the island cinemas have slashed their prices for adults at a discounted price of €5 from its usual average of €8.

There is also a smaller pool of films to watch due to the fact that many film studios have pushed back blockbuster summer releases to later in the year, fearing they would tank at the box office due to COVID-19 social distancing and lockdown measures.

In fact, Marvel’s highly anticipated ‘Black Widow’, starring Scarlett Johansson, was meant to be released on 11 May, and is now postponed to November 2020. Another anticipated musical ‘In The Heights’ from three-time Grammy winner Lin-Manuel Miranda was also pushed back from its June release. Fans will now have to wait until summer 2021 to see the beloved Broadway musical on the big screen.

Indeed these changes have forced cinemas to think outside of the box. “Most studios have postponed their releases towards the end of summer or beyond. With no new releases available we need to think out of the box to have a well-curated film programme throughout the summer months, to screen a variety of cult classics as well as newer content to ensure there is something for everyone,” De Cesare said.

That is why Eden is now screening Brian De Palma’s classic 1983 crime movie ‘Scarface’. It is not the first time Eden dabbles with past favourites, such as its screening of ‘Titanic’ in 2017 for its 20th anniversary, which De Cesare says was widely successful due to younger generations wishing to watch classic movies on the big screen.

In recent years Eden Cinema also invested heavily in event cinema to show a varied range of live and recorded entertainment, excluding traditional films, such as sport, opera, musicals, ballet, music, one-off TV specials, current affairs, comedy and religious services.

“So aside from the usual Hollywood blockbusters, we show art exhibitions on-screen, concerts, musicals, operas, ballets and more. Thankfully we have a strong upcoming slate which will still be available,” she said.

While the future of COVID-19 is still very unpredictable, De Cesare said if there are any other postponements, Eden is hoping to return to some form of normality in August. “If there aren’t further postponements, we should start seeing some normality sometime in August as new content will become available once more. In the meantime, we will continue to show a diverse programme of films as well as alternative content,” she said.

Eden Leisure Group has followed the direct recommendations of the health authorities to ensure a safe environment for its staff and patrons, with Perspex dividers installed at the bar where patrons can buy tickets as well as food and drinks to allow minimal contact. The cinema also offers ticket machines for zero contact, as well as social distancing inside cinema halls operating at a capacity of 25% less and parties separated with two seats empty on either side.

Piracy of the high web

One of the effects of the COVID pandemic has been a displacement of cinema audiences to a new “piracy audience”.

According to data company MUSO, film piracy spiked in the last week of March as countries went into lockdown, with data for April shows a continuation of this trend.

Whilst it is unclear whether this trend will continue or settle back to pre-COVID levels, there are some insights within the data that may point to a new audience having discovered piracy. For example, Bloodshot, starring Vin Diesel, was the last major movie to be released before cinemas worldwide were affected by the coronavirus pandemic in March. Bloodshot’s release strategy changed to counter the impact of COVID-19 and was made available to rent and buy digitally on 24 March. As soon as it was available legally, the high-quality version leaked to piracy.

Additionally, MUSO measured a massive piracy spike of over 1.2 million torrent downloads on 25 March, far higher than for any other film in recent times. Bloodshot saw torrent downloads totalling over 2.4 million and streaming visits over 8.7m in March.

Comparing the last week of March when lockdown began to the last week of February 2020,  MUSO saw film piracy increase by 41% in the USA, 43% in the UK, 50% in Spain, 62% in India and an astonishing 66% in Italy. These numbers would seem to confirm that it has never been easier to view content illegally and people have never been more relaxed about doing so.

“While cinema survived being closed for lengthy periods of time during the Spanish Flu epidemic, it had no competition; no TV and no streaming platforms. A hundred years on, and it’s anybody’s guess if cinema as we know it will survive. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that very few things are actually essential,” MUSO said in a White Paper on the subject.

Indeed, luxuries such as cinema tickets and entertainment subscriptions will be amongst the first expenditure to be sacrificed by people facing a tightening of belts – even though Netflix subscriptions have increased considerably.

MUSO also found that whilst film piracy has risen considerably across all genres, the ones linked to escapism like horror, family, animation, science fiction have seen far more dramatic increases in demand than genres linked to releases like drama, crime and mystery.

“It is unclear whether these new piracy audiences will return to pre-COVID-19 levels or not once activities like going to the cinema resume or whether they will actively remain after the pandemic fades, access to content, pricing and the economy will be key factors,” a MUSO White Paper said on the piracy phenomenon.

“What is clear is that piracy audience data reveals real intent and reflects the market and global conditions in near-instant time. This audience doesn’t necessarily respect the commercial strategies and desired outcomes of the right-holders but the rights-holder can inform and improve their desired outcomes and commercial strategies by understanding piracy audiences.”