If there is something that I have loved doing all my life, it is going to a movie theater to take in a new movie. There is something very peaceful about sitting in a theater and experiencing a movie without any interruptions. Especially in this hyper-connected world, there is a poetic feeling of disconnecting for a couple of hours while eating some overpriced junk food from the concession stand.
The movie theater experience is a slice of Americana that has somehow lived through the advent of the digital age. But it seems that this remnant of American society may soon be something of the past. And while many have blamed the Coronavirus pandemic for this development, the truth may be a bit more complicated than that.
A Collapse in the Making
The easy explanation for the current struggles of the movie industry is to blame widespread shutdowns of theaters due to lockdown and stay at home orders throughout the country. But upon further inspection, this is an industry that was already heading down a path of obsolescence that has been accelerated by the pandemic.
The common joke about the movie theater experience has always been the cost of concessions. But this joke was rooted in reality. The cost these days of taking a family of four to the movies has gotten comically high. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that this family will spend $100 after ticket costs, popcorn, drinks, and whatever other snacks they pick out at the concession stand. And these prices have continued to rise, to the point that it began to feel like the airport where pricing makes no sense.
This contributed to the growing sense that movie theaters and the people running them were wildly out of touch with reality. But the one thing that movie theaters could hang their hat on was the watching experience. That despite the price of entry, the large screens with crisp picture and the immersive audio experience was the absolute best way to enjoy a movie. But even that experience has been threatened these days as the popularity of the in-home surround system has continued to grow.
Just Watch it at Home
In the past decade, the TV’s in our homes have gotten bigger and better. Soundbars and surround setups have become more popular and re-create the audio experience that a movie theater would be able to provide. For a while, this was okay for the movie theaters because these setups were not as accessible to the masses. High-end big screen TV’s and sound setups would cost thousands of dollars that were just out of the realm of the average moviegoer.
But as time has gone on, the good TV experience has become commoditized and a perfectly fine TV experience can be had for much less than it used to cost. Companies like TCL and HiSense have released capable 4K TVs at affordable price points under $600. Even soundbars have gotten better at lower price points, making the home theater concept much more available and accessible for people that previously thought it impossible to attain.
This maturity of a technology category created a legitimate question for many people. Why go out to the movie theater once or twice a month when the experience can be easily recreated at home for less cost in the long term? The answer for most people was to leave the movie theater behind and to stay at home and enjoy shows and movies on their in-home setup. This realization has magnified during the Covid-19 pandemic as there has been a surge in Smart TV use and viewership during the quarantine period. And it is this where the true threat to movie theaters and perhaps the industry’s salvation may also lie: streaming services.
The Gift and Curse of Streaming
When thinking about the impact that streaming apps have had on the movie business, the name that is the most important to consider is Netflix. When streaming apps come to mind, it is this specific app that comes to mind first. It is interesting to look at the progression of a company that started as a service to receive DVDs by mail that was competing with Blockbuster Video, to a company that has made a renewed commitment to being a content creator. In fact, the company is releasing original content at a very high rate with 52 original titles coming to the site in November 2020 alone.
Netflix venturing into the waters of making its own content and functioning as the main course as opposed to the side dish is important to the future of the movie theater. This is because, in the early days of Netflix, the two entities were competing for different types of viewers. Companies like AMC and Emagine were attracting people looking to see a new movie, whereas Netflix was catering to people looking to watch something they may have missed at the box office at home. But as Netflix starts to take making its own movies more seriously, it now is directly competing with the movies that are coming to theaters.
Since these movies are going straight to Netflix without a theatrical release, the appeal of Netflix grows where it has become something of a hybrid. The service that can threaten both AMC and HBO equally. The success of Netflix has spawned so many streaming movie channels as a result and now the eyeballs of the masses have more options than ever. This is a threat to the movie theaters, and the fact that they have become stagnant due to the pandemic is indicative of the trouble that Netflix and the services like it are causing. But maybe there is a way that streaming could even be the solution for the movie industry.
New Way, Same Ending
The way that movie makers have approached the pandemic has been interesting, to say the least. There have been a variety of approaches to the problem that have been taken. With the release of the live-action Mulan remake, Disney offered the movie on its Disney+ streaming app for a $30 price before making it widely available on December 4th. The new James Bond movie, No Time To Die, has repeatedly been pushed back due to wanting the release to be a worldwide cinematic event. Lastly, the Wonder Woman sequel was originally pushed back multiple times before Warner Bros decided on a simultaneous theatrical and HBO Max streaming release date this Christmas. The main takeaway from these decisions is that Hollywood is still trying to figure out what to do about the very real possibility that movie theaters may go away soon.
In the short term, what has resulted in the resurgence of the drive-in movie theater as a solution for the movie-going experience while theaters are closed. But this is a bandaid remedy. What needs to happen is making coming to the theater (when it is allowed again) appealing. Imax theaters were a step in the right direction, while 3D movies were mostly a gimmick. What if movie theaters rebranded as event destinations? Not just for movies but also sporting events, live stream concerts (as the future of that industry is also up in the air), and lastly exclusive extended versions that will be designated for movie theaters.
All of these changes could be utilized to redefine what a movie theater can be, a media destination with immersive experiences that add value to the viewer. By diversifying the image of the venue, there can be adaptability to the movie theater while still maintaining the aura of going out to the movies. But in the meantime, movie theaters are closed and these revitalization plans cannot be put into motion immediately.
It is the movie theater industry’s lack of action years ago as people started to frequent their establishments less and less that have determined their ultimate fate. And it is their complacency in the status quo that has caused a blow that cannot be recovered from. This is the true tragedy of the story. Movie theaters and the movie-going experience have been a staple of American cultural identity for decades and are now being undone by their own complacency and arrogance. It is a plot reminiscent of a film in its own right, which is the irony of it all. I will always remember the excitement that came from seeing a new movie with friends and family on a weekend night while excitedly watching trailers of upcoming movies with a handful of popcorn. The death of the movie theater seems imminent, and perhaps it is just a sign of the times as opposed to the incompetence of an industry. But one thing is certain when the credits roll in on this chapter of pop culture history, it will be a sad day indeed.