Movies are getting software updates now

New year, new mew.
New year, new mew.
Image: Universal Pictures
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Am I the only person seeing parallels between Cats and Teslas? Two highly anticipated and closely watched launches; two companies forced to respond to failure in real time.

After a catastrophic premier, Cats—a CGI remake of the inexplicably beloved Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, or a cautionary tale about the perils of deepfakes—is getting updated graphics. In a memo obtained by the Hollywood Reporter, Universal Pictures alerted theaters that a new version of the movie would be available on Sunday (Dec. 22) with “some improved visual effects.” In its opening weekend, Cats made $6.5 million at the domestic box office, well below its $100 million budget.

Fixing a movie after its release is pretty much unheard of in an industry built on opening weekends. But after critics panned the film, praying for “the sweet release of death” from a “nightmarish anatomy lesson,” director Tom Hooper pushed for changes.

Though nearly unprecedented in cinema, we have seen this kind of categorical shift before—in the auto industry. For the first hundred years of cars’ existence, fixing a new model after it hit the streets usually involved physically recalling affected vehicles. Until eight years ago, when Tesla pioneered the software update for cars.

Since the Model S first shipped with onboard WiFi and 3G in 2012, Tesla has prided itself on the ability to fix technical glitches with “over-the-air” patches installed while a vehicle charges. Software updates can not only tweak a car’s functionality, but unlock new feature sets completely—as with autopilot in 2015. On the other hand, fixing bugs as they appear puts drivers in the unenviable seat of test dummy. As Sam Abuelsamid at Forbes wrote, customers experiencing errors around basics like brakes are a sign of “something fundamentally broken” in Tesla’s review process.

This “fix it in post” mentality is a byproduct of tech’s pervasiveness. As consumers grow accustomed to software upgrades, they expect perpetual improvements on their devices, cars, and—maybe now—their movies. Take, for instance, the case of Sonic the Hedgehog. This movie adaptation of the iconic video-game character was meant for a Thanksgiving 2019 theatrical release. But after the internet responded in horror to the film’s approach to Sonic’s design, Sonic was pushed to Feb. 14, 2020, and director Jeff Fowler promised to fix the character’s likeness:

Paramount reportedly spent around $5 million re-rendering the character. Fans rejoiced over the changes, but will the investment be worth it?

Before and after stills from the Sonic movie. In the previous rendition Sonic's portrayal was more human-like in appearance, unlike his more cartoony appearance fans of the video game were familiar with.
Before (top) and after (bottom)
Image: Paramount Pictures

With the rising costs and declining margins of blockbuster films, it’s a question of how profitable it is to bend public opinion. The Vancouver studio in charge of Sonic‘s post-production fix has since been shuttered by owner the Moving Picture Company. For Cats, it’s not even the case that substandard visual effects are driving bad reviews (though they certainly don’t help).

When Tesla spots a software glitch, there’s no question that an update is in order: Lives are at stake. But in the world of cinema, the benefits of after-the-fact updates may not be justified by the cost—and PR hit—of making them. For now, adjusting films after they’re released to poor reviews seems like merely wound-licking.