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Streaming saves film industry as cinemas grapple with pandemic

The movie and entertainment industry were among the hardest hit by the pandemic. Barely able to survive by pivoting to digital means, the industry’s traditional partners – the cinemas – were left in the dark, their future grim and uncertain.

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Movie theaters in the country have been closed since mid-March last year, leaving the dimly lit entertainment halls – once filled with lights and sounds of excitement and laughter – empty, cold and in absolute silence.

With cinemas shuttered because of the pandemic, film companies were forced to find new distribution channels for their newly produced movies.

ABS-CBN Films, which includes Star Cinema, Cinema One Originals, and Black Sheep under its umbrella, was able to produce movies even without its regular platform, the cinema.

The company in October last year decided to premier its newly produced local movies on digital, cable, and satellite TV.

“A digital rollout provides a convenient, safe, and economical means of enjoying cinemas without the anxiety of the virus. Especially now, with theaters closed, there is simply no alternative,” ABS-CBN Films head of business development and strategy Enrico Santos told The STAR.

“To stop releasing movies is simply to let the Filipino passion for local movies fade. Star Cinema and Black Sheep are committed to our moviegoers. We will always be there for them, even during these tough times,” he said.

ABS-CBN Films head of distribution Thellie Castro-Palanisamy said the company has released 39 new movies since October last year.

This was done through Cinexpress, a distribution service it offers to simultaneously release new movies as first window, on paid platforms such as KTX.ph, iWantTFC, TFC IPTV VOD, Sky Cable PPV, and Cignal PPV.

Castro-Palanisamy said that the income from transactional or pay-per-access digital and cable platforms is incomparable to pre-COVID theatrical box-office grosses worldwide.

However, she said the figures are still “modest enough” for producers given that cinemas nationwide and majority of international cinemas are still non-operational.

“The advantage is the wider reach, of course. Those who, by circumstances of distribution, cannot make the trip to a physical cinema, will find it so much more convenient to view our films online. We also find that we have a new, younger audience, those who are at home with the digital platforms, and thus, find it easy to access us,” Castro-Palanisamy told The STAR.

She noted, however, that these advantages are outweighed by the disadvantages.

“Digital releases are piracy-prone. They diminish the impact of event movies, since all movies are now lumped into casual video on demand viewing,” she said.

But while movie production companies have managed to find ways to connect and remain of service to its audience, operators of movie houses, on the other hand, remain out of business for over a year now.

“The cinema business has been significantly affected, just like most businesses. Robinsons Movieworld has not operated since the pandemic started and cinemas are still closed. All our cinemas have not been operational since March 2020,” Robinsons Movieworld general manager Bomboy Lim said.

The Cinema Exhibitors Association of the Philippines (CEAP) told The STAR that 54 million people nationwide went to the movie theaters in 2019, with the movie industry generating P13 billion in revenues.

Last year, the CEAP said the industry only grossed a portion of its 2019 revenues because of the very few provincial locations that were allowed by the government to reopen.

“There were some cinemas that opened momentarily in some MGCQ (modified general community quarantine) areas, but given that it was very limited, the revenue generated were nowhere near what it used to be pre-pandemic,” it said.

Early this year, traditional cinemas in areas under general community quarantine were supposed to be allowed to reopen with up to 25 percent of their seating capacity, but mall operators decided to defer the reopening to wait for the approval and guidelines from local government units.

CEAP said all cinemas nationwide are closed at present as the group is still waiting for the latest guidelines on cinema reopening from both the national and local government.

“The cinema industry is not only an inherent part of the country’s culture, but also an integral part of the economy, supporting thousands of livelihoods. The schedule of our re-opening is still uncertain as we are highly dependent on the national and local governments’ directives,” CEAP said.

“It is genuinely no exaggeration to say that the continued closure of cinemas has put the future of the industry in jeopardy, and we hope that cinemas will be given the chance to operate again like the other industries,” it said.

CEAP said its members have committed to enforcing safety protocols, including, but not limited to reducing capacity, wearing face masks and face shields the entire time, social distancing, declaration and contact tracing system, temperature checks, encouraging contactless transactions, availability of hand sanitizers, air ventilation, and employee health training, should theaters be allowed to reopen.

CEAP said even as online streaming platforms are popularly used now as an alternative to watching movies, cinemas can still exist side by side with streaming given the differences in experiences offered by each of the two platforms.

“Movie studios are still producing movies that are experiential and best seen on the big screen. We know there are numerous movie aficionados out there who can’t wait to go back to our venues,” the group said.

“The cinemas offer a different immersive and social experience that can be very hard to replicate in a home digital and pay for view platform. Once it is declared safe for audiences to return to cinemas, we believe that moviegoers would come back safely to the cinemas,” Lim said.

For ABS-CBN Films’ Santos, the future of cinema is a blended access.

He said digital releases would likely not go away, but people would still celebrate the big event, big screen, and communal nature of physical cinema.

“Warner and Disney have been experimenting with simultaneous physical cinema and streaming. Perhaps physical cinema will evolve to provide a more premium experience than what streaming provides,” Santos said.

“Wine and cheese perhaps? Augmented reality and virtual reality? Expanded, cinema-exclusive content? Cinema is ripe for reimagination,” he said. philstar

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