The pandemic accelerated disruption. Traditional studios like Paramount, Universal, Sony, Warner Bros. and Disney have diverted dozens of theatrical films to streaming services or released them simultaneously in theaters and online. For the second straight year, citing the coronavirus threat, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences allowed films to skip a theatrical release entirely and still qualify for Oscars. The Academy had previously called for at least a cursory theatrical run of at least a week in Los Angeles.
This is about more than Hollywood selfishness. The worry is that with the proliferation of streaming services — there are now more than 300 in the United States, according to consultancy Parks Associates — movie theaters could become the land of superheroes, sequels, and remakes only. The venerable Warner Bros. has slashed annual theatrical production by almost half and built a direct-to-stream film assembly line. Last week Amazon beefed up its Prime Video service by acquiring Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the legacy studio behind “Licorice Pizza,” which is nominated for three Oscars, including best picture.
In a year when Hollywood largely failed to boost box office admissions, streaming services cemented their grip on viewers. According to the Motion Picture Association, global ticket sales were $21.3 billion in 2021, compared to $42.3 billion in 2019. (Theaters were closed for much of 2020.) Some theater companies have gone out of business, others have merged; The world’s largest theater chain, AMC Entertainment, has lost $6 billion over the past two years and its shares have fallen 66 percent since June. At the same time, the number of subscriptions to online video services around the world grew to 1.3 billion from 864 million in 2019, the group said.
One film that struggled at the box office was Mr. Spielberg’s West Side Story, which (at his request) was given an exclusive run of about three months in theaters. It raised about $75 million worldwide (versus a $100 million production budget and about $50 million global marketing costs). “West Side Story” is now available on not one but two streaming services, Disney+ and HBO Max, where it’s almost certainly been viewed more than in theaters. But the film never recovered — among Oscar voters — from being branded a box office dropout. It received seven nominations and is poised to win in one category, for Ariana DeBose for Best Supporting Actress.
Mr. Spielberg’s also-led presence in the current Oscar race makes the rise of the streaming contenders all the more remarkable: a lion in the fight to focus the Oscars on cinema films is brushed aside.
While unlikely, it’s possible that West Side Story could come from behind and win the best picture trophy. Just like Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast”. Such a result would be a bit like 2019, when Academy voters, deterred by an over-the-top campaign by Netflix to push “Roma” to best picture fame, instead gave the award to “Green Book,” a traditional Universal Pictures film.