Circuit Breaker Anniversary Edition

Rise of home cinema

Viewers are enjoying a golden age in home entertainment with streaming services such as Netflix pumping billions into content like the drama series Queen's Gambit (above).Stay-home policies have also strengthened the grip of streaming services at the
Viewers are enjoying a golden age in home entertainment with streaming services such as Netflix pumping billions into content like the drama series Queen's Gambit (above).PHOTO: NETFLIX
Viewers are enjoying a golden age in home entertainment with streaming services such as Netflix pumping billions into content like the drama series Queen's Gambit (above).Stay-home policies have also strengthened the grip of streaming services at the
Stay-home policies have also strengthened the grip of streaming services at the expense of big-screen entertainment. The Disney+ streaming service launched in Singapore in February this year.PHOTO: REUTERS

For a while, it looked as if the pandemic had knocked cinemas out cold.

The venues were in a trap: With cinemas closed around the world, producers pulled films from release. Without crowd-pulling content, cinemas in countries that had successfully controlled the viral spread like Singapore might as well have stayed shut.

All the action was happening in the home.

The Disney+ streaming service, after months of rumours, launched here in February this year. And it was series, not movies, that hooked viewers.

Netflix launched hits like the drama series Queen's Gambit and French thriller series Lupin. Disney+ had the superhero series WandaVision and The Falcon And The Winter Soldier.

And even the rare major movie title released in halls, such as Christopher Nolan's science-fiction thriller Tenet, could not shake off the cinema doldrums.

In its first weekend here in August last year, it made $763,000 - a decent sum but nothing that indicated pent-up demand for big-screen entertainment.

Then, in March this year, Godzilla Vs Kong happened.

The monster movie's opening-weekend take of $2.19 million here - a close match with the pre-pandemic $2.44 million first-weekend haul of origin movie Godzilla (2014) - showed that Singaporeans are far from cinema-averse, as long as the movie warranted the effort and expense.

Delighted with the numbers, its distributor, Warner Bros, declared it the No. 1 hit of the 2020-2021 pandemic season.

There are a couple of ways to look at the numbers.

The obvious one is that Godzilla Vs Kong is simply solid entertainment. It features two iconic creatures crossing over from separate franchises, it has all-ages appeal and its action is worth paying money for to watch on a big screen.

Another way of looking at it is that the success of the monster movie confirms the dictum that, like many territories, the cinema industry here depends heavily on big-budget franchises.

In Singapore, smaller distributors complain frequently of being offered too few screens for independent films because a Fast And Furious action flick or a Disney animation feature has grabbed the lion's share of venues.

It is not the cinema's fault - it goes where the money is.

The pandemic year exposed just how vulnerable cinemas are to shocks in the blockbuster movie supply chain. No James Bond movie, no ticket sales, cinemas falter, cinema fans suffer.

Second, with Disney+, Netflix, Apple TV+, HBO and Amazon Prime Video pumping billions into original content, people are living in a golden age of home entertainment. Being forced to stay at home has made people more aware of what is available to stream.

Today, for example, Netflix has 35 Oscar nominations for its films, the most of any producer.

These solid mid-and low-budget films, the sort that some years ago might have been developed by a traditional studio and screened in cinemas, are moving online.

Stay-home policies have strengthened the grip of streaming services, while the success of Godzilla Vs Kong in cinemas has, paradoxically, highlighted the weakness of the industry.

These days, for serious mid-budget films, such as the immigrant drama Minari or the injury-recovery portrait Sound Of Metal, increasingly, the question does not seem to be, "Where can I watch this in Singapore?".

Rather, it is a complaint, phrased as, "Oh no, do I have to go to a cinema to watch this? Why can't we rent it on Amazon or iTunes?"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 11, 2021, with the headline 'Rise of home cinema'. Subscribe