Ben Affleck on post-pandemic future of the mid-budget movie: 'It's going to be very, very difficult'
Name a type of film and Ben Affleck has made it. He's won an Oscar for writing a small-scale drama, he's directed a mid-budget heist classic (and a Best Picture winner), and he's been Batman. But, like all of Hollywood, the decorated multi-hyphenate has no idea what the future holds for his industry.
With the uncertainty regarding theaters and the traditional release model, EW recently examined whether COVID will forever kill the Event Movie (please let Tom Cruise go to space first!). Speaking to EW for the 10th anniversary of The Town, his first go-around as star and director, Affleck shared his honest — and slightly grim — thoughts on what comes next for film.
"I don't know what will be the reality post-COVID," he admits. "Who knows what the theatrical business will be like. What I think has happened is that people have grown accustomed during this time to watching from home. It benefited The Way Back, for sure. [Affleck's recent drama made only $14 million in its two weeks in theaters before the pandemic pushed it to VOD.] It had just come out so I think the ability to see a new movie at home enabled us to get many more viewers than would have come out to a theater to pay money to see a sad movie about an alcoholic dealing with the death of his child. People have now been acculturated to streaming and watching movies at home in ways they weren’t before, which probably accelerated a trend that was already taking place."
As a filmmaker, Affleck has lived in the middle, making films for adults that cost hundreds of millions less than the blockbusters he's starred in. And he's continuing that trend with his next directorial outing, an adaption of the book The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood, which chronicles the behind-the-scenes story of the 1974 noir classic Chinatown. Despite that project being in development at a studio in Paramount, Affleck doesn't see much of a theatrical future for the types of movies he's become known for.
"I think after COVID movies like The Town, movies like Argo, all the movies I made would effectively end up on streamers," he speculates. "There will probably be like 20 to 25 movies a year that are distributed and they’ll all be big IP movies, whether it’s the type of movies that Disney makes like Aladdin or Star Wars or Avengers, something where you can count on the low-end being half a billion dollars worth of business. And I think it’s going to be very, very difficult for dramas and sort of mid-budget movies like [The Town] to get theatrical distribution. You’ll either see massive, massive movies getting huge wide-scale distribution or small movies doing little prestige releases in a few theaters but mostly being shown on streamers. I think that’s for better or worse, and you can draw your own conclusions, but that would be my best guess about the direction of the movie business just based on what I’m seeing now and experiences I’m having trying to get stuff made."
Affleck admits — and hopes — that he may be wrong, but he specifically points to two success stories at Netflix to support his theory. Premiering back in April, Chris Hemsworth's action extravaganza Extraction has already been named Netflix's most-viewed original film of all-time, while also landing in the streamer's top 10 is Affleck's Triple Frontier, which reportedly garnered 63 million views in its first four weeks of release last year.
"Triple Frontier did really well for them," says Affleck. "Would it have been as successful and profitable theatrically? I don't know. But I know it was super successful for them, so the economics may really be shifting so that if you can generate a certain amount of viewership and if they can somehow demonstrate that they get a certain number of subscribers based on that material, then that means value. I think that's the future and it just sort of is what it is. I comfort myself with the idea that you can get a 60-inch TV now for $250, so people are definitely at least seeing it in greater detail, and even a little surround system isn’t that expensive. Now, I don’t particularly love the idea of putting all of the work that you put into a movie and then having somebody watch it on their iPhone; I feel like they’re just going to miss out on a lot. But, you know, sometimes the future makes up its own mind and you just have to go along with it."