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  • Writer's pictureVal Agnew

Are Movie Theaters Dead?

When my husband and I talk about the things we miss the most during the pandemic, among the first we always mention is going to the movies. We attended the movie theater at least a couple times a month prior to the lockdown. Both of us grew up with a love of going to the movies with our family and with friends. I have so many memories tied in to going to the movie theater. I remember my dad taking me to see a remastered version of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo at the Music Box Theater in Chicago when I was 8. I've lost count of the times my middle school friends and I would sneak our way into R-Rated films. I still remember the exact snacks I had when I went to see Cast Away with my grandmother at the old one-room theater in her small town (popcorn and sno-caps - classic).

For me, going to the movie theater is more than just the viewing of the film on a nice big screen. It's the popcorn and the soda and previews. Most importantly it's the collective experience. If I had seen Avengers: Endgame alone in my living room, I would have missed the cheers and terror and mourning that the entire room shared in the same moment. Watching a Pixar movie in the theater is such a testament to their storytelling skill. All ages, rapt at attention together, taking in the pieces of the film meant especially for them. In a world where we already are increasingly retreating into our own bubbles both literally and virtually, movie theaters (and all theaters really) felt like one of the last places of human overlap.

So, it goes without saying that I was devastated when we could no longer go to the movie theater last spring. And I have spent the last few months worried about the industry as a whole. Especially when big movies skipped the theaters entirely and went straight to streaming, it felt like these big production companies were dipping their toes in the water to see if this could work in the long term. Then when Warner Brothers recently announced that ALL of their 2021 releases would be simultaneously be available on HBOMax it felt like a full blown cannon ball into a future where where movie theaters are irrelevant.

Is it possible that movie theaters were killed for good by the Coronavirus? In most cases in the last year, the virus and the way it has impacted our lives has merely amplified an already existing issue (think racial injustice or education inequalities) or sped up a trend that was already happening (think remote work). So let's see if that's maybe the case with movie theaters as well. We have seen earlier evidence that more and more people don't think movie theaters are worth the price of admission. As ticket and concession prices have gotten higher and higher, companies like MoviePass came on the scene to try to capitalize on people's desire to see movies for less. They may not have had the greatest business model, but they were onto something in terms of people's preferences.

Movie theaters have tried to make themselves more of a destination, adding bars and fancier food. Who knows if this was very successful either, but it was clearly in response to needing to become more attractive. Then of course we saw Netflix and Amazon and now Disney making movies that were never really meant to be in movie theaters. One could argue that they, like the people who were using zoom to work remotely years ago, were just a little ahead of the curve. Now everyone is jumping on the trend, because they have to, but also maybe because it's actually prudent from a business perspective. Especially now that we're going to be in economically dire straits for some time, people might not be able to go to the movies with as much frequency. Especially if the admission prices remain high.

As a sort of aside, I always wondered where all that money was going at movie theaters. It currently costs a couple who gets snacks $50+ to go to a movie at a theater. But movie theaters are often dirty and retro and the staff motivation seems to match a minimum wage rate. So where is all this money going? Perhaps if movie theaters do make it, this situation will make them take a healthy look in the mirror on that one.

OK so we can safely say this was actually a long time coming. This was more of a trend than a sudden response to the pandemic lockdown. So what might happen? Here are a few possible scenarios I gamed out:

Nothing Changes

The most likely scenario is the vaccine comes out, theaters hang on by their fingernails through this storm and just go back to serving $10 small popcorns and only mopping the sticky floor once a day. It feels like everything is changing so much and there is no way anything will just go back to normal after this is over, but humans hate change as a rule and big businesses hate it even more. So if there is any possible way that the system can stay the way it is, it will.

As much as I wish these companies would rethink their business model for a myriad of reasons, unless they absolutely have to, they won't.

Movie Theaters Just Die

The idea of the big box movie theater just goes the way of the dinosaur. The rest of the malls where many of these theaters stand anchor are also dying off, so it's not that strange to think they would go down too. Perhaps art-house and retro theaters will live on, but as novelties rather than a norm. We all will just retreat a little more into our private bubbles. Perhaps home theaters will become a more popular renovation into people's basements.

This would certainly have other side effects. For example, the primary way people do market research in the film industry is screenings and audience surveys. This would no longer be a thing so figuring out what people want would be left to algorithms. Who knows what kind of content that would result in.

Another possible reaction would be the style of film would change to match a smaller screen. More emphasis on dialogue and less on visual dynamics. We could find ourselves in a world where the different streaming platforms become more polarized to try to attract different audiences. We could find ourselves with a Fox News vs. MSNBC situation where the styles and content types get more and more divergent until there is no common ground at all in film.

However, there could also be a positive side effect to no more theaters. It would level the playing field a lot. Currently, it is phenomenally expensive to distribute a film. Most independent filmmakers enter festivals expressly because they are hoping to get a distribution deal. There are a lot of inequities in distribution too. Despite the fact that women directed films have higher ROI, they are distributed significantly less widely than male directed films. Movies with more diverse casts also do better financially, but have the same distribution problems. If distribution were no longer an obstacle to entry and having super high production value were not a requirement for success, more independent filmmakers could break into the industry. So maybe there is something to be said for movie theaters just ceasing to exist.

Vertical Integration

I can definitely imagine a scenario where Netflix, Amazon, and Disney start buying up movie theaters. Perhaps to exclusively screen their newest releases, or maybe to upcharge other studios for distribution. Either way, this would consolidate even more power with the big studios and likely block out the indie filmmaker that much more. Already, most distribution companies are part of large studios. This is just one extra step of also owning the place of final distribution. It's like if Kellogg's owned the factory, the warehouse/trucking system, and its own grocery stores that exclusively sold Kellogg's products or charged a premium if Post wanted in.

Given that in the last couple years a lot of the antitrust regulations on movie studios were torn away by the Attorney General's office (because of course they were), there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of reason NOT to do this aside from taking on the added operating costs of physical theaters.

How bizarre would it be if this happened and movie theaters were accessed by monthly subscription, much like their streaming platform setup? Then going to the movies would be akin to going to the gym or a country club. Would there be a status or identity thing where if you were a member of Netflix's theater club you would judge people who were a part of Amazon's? Would some people just be shut out completely because they couldn't afford the monthly membership fee at all? Probably. Currently, movie theaters, with all their flaws are one of the last places where you see a pretty broad cross-section of humanity in one place. What would happen if that went away?

An Independent Theater Utopia Emerges

Obviously this is pretty unlikely, but it would be an incredible thing if individuals and collectives bought up at least some of the existing theater buildings and ran their own independent movie theaters. Each movie theater would feel more like a part of its local community. They would be able to create spaces that had personality. And, most importantly, being independent organizations would give them more power as a collective with studios and distribution companies. It would be like people unionizing rather than everyone working at one giant corporation with no power over its decisions or how those affected them. They could push for better prices on distribution, thus investing more money in making the movie theater experience fun and accessible again. And they could fight for movies that actually perform best to be the ones that get made.

There's no way to predict what will actually happen. But selfishly, I really hope there is still a place for my husband and I to have that incredible collective experience that is going to the movies. What do you think will happen?

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