Imagine for a moment: it’s Friday night, and you’re gearing up for a night at the movies. The smell of buttery popcorn wafts throughout the expansive, high-ceiling lobby, and lines of people impatiently wait for Coke, ICEES and Sour Patch Kids. You rush to the screening room, eager to claim the best creaky seat and escape into the room’s dimly lit anonymity. The movie finishes and you stumble out, dazed, confused, and unsure of what reality you’re in. The blinding fluorescents of the lobby shock you to your senses, and, just when you turn toward the doors to leave, you exclaim, “No way, it’s already nighttime!?”
Will we be able to revisit theaters and experience this buttered popcorn-induced, Twilight-Zone feeling again? Or will it remain as a memory, belonging only to a pre-2020 world? Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, where movie theaters were already losing visitors thanks to at-home streaming services, social-distancing, and increased efforts by streaming giants, the Fates seem poised to cut the life-thread of cinema.
A Tale of Two Industries
Prior to the pandemic, movie theaters already saw the number of movie-goers decline, thanks to online streaming services such as Disney+, Apple TV+, and Netflix. As deaths continue to rise, so have studio losses. Mass closings and soaring debt cast a bleak shadow. Trying to stay afloat, AMC Theatres struck a deal with Universal Pictures to cut down the theatrical release from 90 to 17 days before films could be streamed. This is pivotal because big opening releases are crucial for studios and theater chains alike.
Major studios, streaming giants, and theater franchises are playing hot-potato with the future of cinema. Disney has pushed back Black Widow and West Side Story to 2021. Warner Bros. took a gamble and released Christopher Nolan’s Tenet in select theaters, but box office reception remains unknown. Studios have changed direction, bringing the much-anticipated Mulan and Tom Hank’s Greyhound straight to streaming services to Disney+ and Apple TV+, respectively, effectively avoiding a theatrical release altogether.
The current pandemic has accelerated shifts in the movie industry and broke open the streaming services floodgates. Since March, Netflix has added 10 million new subscribers. Tech and streaming giants like Apple, Amazon, and Netflix have even considered buying theaters. These companies have the capital and means necessary to buy out struggling chains and incorporate them into existing integrative business models. This may take on different forms: Disney-owned theaters might include merchandise shops, where you can buy a stuffed toy of the animated character you just watched on the silver screen down the hall. Like what Amazon has done with Whole Foods, there may be exclusive offers and discounts for movie-going members.
Is there still hope for our beloved theaters?
Cinema will inevitably change. Reorganized theater seating and temperature checks are in the works. Old-fashioned drive-ins became popularized within the last few months and are more social-distancing friendly. However, they are more limiting because they usually operate only on the weekends, during warmer months, and after dark. They can only do double features with the most popular movies and require substantial outdoor spaces. Even so, they can preserve the idea of theater-going for the foreseeable future.
Theaters certainly won’t go down without a fight. There is too much potential for return on investment and too much at stake for big studios, theater chains, and investors. More so, audiences can’t resist a good CGI spectacle and seat-vibrating surround sound system.
While the world remains unknown and unpredictable for the rest of 2020 and into 2021, theater lovers, theater chains, and major studios will have to adapt to the new normal that emerges from a post-quarantine world.
But I have faith that I’ll once again stumble out of a movie theater dazed and confused.
BY: ELIZABETH LANDRY