Home Movies: The Year in COVID-19 “Moviegoing”

January 26, 2021

The Unseen | Raven Banner

Is it possible the benighted 2020 was a landmark movie year – maybe even the year we could no longer deny the obvious?


To wit: a film needn’t be seen in a cinema to be “cinema.” Home is overwhelmingly where the audience is, even in non-viral times.


Saturday night is horror film night at our house. And one pre-pandemic Saturday, my wife became intrigued by the plot of an “invisible man” film on Crave called The Unseen. I told her it was a Canadian film I’d reviewed positively a year earlier when it was in theatres.


Decision made. Around the halfway point, I absently picked up my laptop to glance at the numbers on our Original-Cin blog. To my surprise, there’d been a sudden spike of about 50 clicks on that year-old review, coinciding with its scheduled screening.



Like most Canadian films, The Unseen had an underwhelming theatrical run. If 50 people had shown up on any given night, the producers would have probably cracked open the champagne.


But The Unseen continues to show up on our online radar, with 1,869 clicks last year. (It got a significant boost about the time the Elisabeth Moss film The Invisible Man was released.) And we are a small-potatoes movie site, so feel free to multiply. Another Canadian movie – one I didn’t even like – the Joe Weider biopic Bigger, had 4,557 clicks last year, quite the impact on our modest sample size.


It defies what we’ve been taught to believe, but people clearly do watch Canadian movies – just not in theatres. As time has gone by, more and more of our “reads” are for films that are streaming on Amazon Prime or Netflix, or being programmed on Crave, Super Channel and other outlets. Faced with screening options, prospective viewers may Google a film title, or check out Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic and scan some reviews before making their decision.

Mine 9
Mine 9

I see these spikes and get curious. A small-budgeted but very tense and effective Appalachian mine disaster movie called Mine 9 entered our top-5 recently. Again, this was more than a year after it was in and out of theatres like a groundhog that’s seen its shadow. I Googled and discovered it had just been put on the U.S. Netflix menu.


As for 2020, a Canadian national newspaper recently described its movie roundup as “the best of a bad year.” But I feel it was only a bad year for super hero movies and tent-pole films (and, of course, for theatrical exhibitors – Cineplex stock dropped 70% last year as Amazon stock rose 75%).


Having dropped the criteria of only considering movies that played in theatres, the Toronto Film Critics Association found itself with more than 1,600 films eligible for its annual awards, about double the usual number. “Straight-to-video” used to mean “crap.” Now it’s where the “grown-up movies” go.


I think I’ve seen more thought-provoking films now that indies don’t have to rent a physical theatre to get seen. If a theatrical screening was the deal-breaker, would I have seen the Brazilian “Most Dangerous Game” film Bacurau or odd, entertaining Shudder programming like The Pool – the Thai film about a couple trapped in an empty swimming pool with a crocodile?


Living in Toronto, we are spoiled by the notion that anything we want to see is “at a theatre near you.” But there’s a whole lot of nothing between the multiplexes in Owen Sound and Orillia. Years ago, when we took our sons whale-watching in St. Andrews, N.B., they insisted they wanted to see the just-released I, Robot with Will Smith. This meant an hour’s drive to St. John in the thick Bay of Fundy fog.


I have three different friends who moved to the country not long before the pandemic. They all have wi-fi and they all stream movies and TV series from all over the world. And they’re all at least an hour’s drive from the nearest multiplex, which might give them eight current films to choose from. Tough decision.


Even as it lets go of arts coverage with both hands, the big media outlets never seemed to “get” this increasing disconnect between theatres and the people who watch movies.


Friday has typically been movie day, as dictated by the studio release schedules. It made our life easy as reviewers. But in reality, we were targeting only a sliver of the movies’ eventual audience.


And even people intent on seeing the newest movies as early as possible might now be wired into watching at home. The idea of paying $30 to home-screen Mulan or Wonder Woman 1984 was ridiculed at first. But people have done the math and paid the money. (How many people is unclear. The traditional Monday morning box office post-mortem is a quaint pre-COVID memory.)


None of this suggests a post-pandemic paradise for Canadian filmmakers. The often shabby experience of theatrical release (which probably wouldn’t happen at all but for Telefilm requirements) is replaced by streaming on different platforms in different countries, the revenue for which can be difficult to track. Despite the knowledge that many more people are seeing their movies, the filmmakers’ return often still amounts to nil.


It may be that globally tracking stream money owed to Canadian filmmakers should be a job for Telefilm, rather than its quixotic quest to put more films in theatres.


My heart is with the Ron Manns of the world, people like the passionate Films We Like distributor who are finding ways to share streaming revenues with the theatres that would normally be screening these smaller Canadian and independent movies. As a child, I looked forward to Saturday matinees, discovered Winnipeg’s lone art-house theatre in my teens, and thought I’d found heaven when I moved to a Toronto filled with every kind of rep theatre imaginable. I cringe when I see someone watch a movie on a phone.


But even when we get the all-clear, it’s going to be hard to break the relationship with a 55” 4K Smart TV and sound being pumped out through tower speakers, and an endless programming menu – even with the lure of $12 popcorn and “golden topping.”


By Jim Slotek