I’ve discussed my distaste for viewing movies in public before, and with some exceptions (e.g. college campus, independent arthouse, and film festival theatres), I argue the theatrical experience is not worth the money, time, and energy necessary to patronize it. Most patrons themselves are obnoxious, loud, and disruptive, distracting from the “immersive cinematic experience” of the big screen with either their phones or personal commentary or gross hygiene. Given the last 18 months (July 2021 as of this writing) or so of COVID-19, I feel even less inclination to attend public film venues after so much social conditioning that crowds of people are filthy, infectious, dangerous, etc.
Beyond the lackluster experience of theatrical moviegoing in general, however, I feel the modern international box office environment promotes a culture of bloated film budgets, corporate franchise intellectual properties, and overall too safe, bland filmmaking styles at the expense of mid-budgeted films, standalone genre features (e.g. straightforward thrillers, violent action movies, abrasive comedies, intellectual science-fiction, atmospheric horror, etc.), and any sort of auteur filmmaker identity. I could go on and on about how disappointing the contemporary film theatre experience is and how baffled I am at other cinephiles’ supposed love of this hallowed, cherished cultural institution (an extended rant could fit into one of my Things You Like that I Don’t essays… ), but today I’ll rant in a somewhat different direction: Let’s hypothesize possible near future developments of the movie theatre industry in light of the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on theatrical distribution and the rise of streaming platforms.
For simplicity’s sake, I’ll restrict this speculation to public theatres in North America (the United States + Canada, to which most Hollywood box office analysts refer to as “the domestic market“). I’m well aware different national cultures have different film viewing habits and disparate attitudes toward cinematic appreciation; France is a film culture that supposedly prioritizes the theatrical, communal film experience, for example, and China has recently grown from a developing market into the largest film industry on the planet by revenue and ticket admissions, at least in part thanks to COVID-19’s decimation of Western film markets in 2020.
My general thoughts on the domestic (i.e. US + Canada) box office ecosystem are that the pandemic accelerated socioeconomic trends that existed prior to 2020, namely the long-term decline in box office ticket sales since the new millennium and the growth of streaming media platforms, the latter of which compete with theatrical markets for both viewership and distribution rights. As Red Letter Media, no fan of the theatre-going experience themselves, has noted several times, major Hollywood studios have invested in streaming services of their own since the success of Netflix (e.g. HBO Max, Disney+, Peacock, etc.) and have gained leverage over theatre companies since the pandemic decimated their revenue output. “Theatres are going to need the studios more than the studios need theatres,” remarked Jay Bauman. I reckon the Hollywood elites’ dedication to “the theatre-going experience” extends as far as the latter improves the profit margins of the former.
With that in mind, here are several possible, not wholly mutually exclusive futures of the domestic theatrical box office, which may or may not be predictive of theatrical film markets in other parts of the world. I try my best to divorce my personal distaste of movie houses from these suppositions, but again, keep in mind I’m rooting for streaming platforms to replace, or at least overtake the film distribution market from the likes of AMC, Cinemark, Wanda, etc.
Scenario #1.) Public theatres die a slow death and streaming media becomes the default mode of watching new releases of motion pictures: This first speculative scenario may be the most probable based on my subjective judgements of market trends prior to, during, and after the 2020 coronavirus onslaught. After an entire year or so (approximately spring 2020 to spring 2021) of most major releases moving to video-on-demand after an abbreviated theatrical window (e.g. The Invisible Man ), debuting only on streaming platforms for a premium fee (e.g. Mulan ), or marketed day-and-date (i.e. released simultaneously) in both theatres and on streaming platforms (e.g. Warner Bros.’ entire 2021 catalog, including Godzilla vs. Kong, Mortal Kombat, et al.), I predict most audiences have grown further accustomed to consuming high-profile, topical media at home.
At the same time, international theatre chains and the timeless appeal of watching loud, bloated, special FX-driven blockbusters in public with riotous crowds will maintain for a while. Bigger films like Godzilla vs. Kong, Fast and Furious 9 (F9? Fnine? Furious 9?), and Black Widow have done well so far in 2021 on both their native streaming services and in theatres, and even an anti-theatre cynic like me can understand the theme park ride-like sensation of at least tentpole blockbusters on the big screen. Cineplexes in this potential future outlast smaller venues like film festival screenings and theatres that cater to niche cinephile demographics such as Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. That being said, this scenario assumes the total market share of Netflix and its ilk will grow over time at the expense of theatre chains, from the international to the regional to the local, which brings me to…
Scenario #2.) Theatrical distribution is kneecapped by the transformation of streaming media, evolving audience tastes, and continued coronavirus outbreaks, while outlier theatrical models survive: In this potential timeline, not just film distribution but the entire domestic film market shifts from theatrical, big-budget blockbusters to streaming services dependent on a wider variety of cinematic projects. Given how expensive modern tentpole blockbusters have become and how dependent they are on massive opening weekend box office to turn a profit, as well as the unpredictable nature of COVID-19 in the near future, cineplexes will have less and less wiggle room to compete with streaming and remain viable. The types of movies Hollywood produces will have to change as a result, with the industry returning to smaller and mid-budgeted productions.
I predict a possible reality where theatrical moviegoing becomes the arena of the hardcore cinephile, the movie-buff, with businesses like the aforementioned Alamo Drafthouse, university and college campus theatres, and film festivals becoming the cinematic equivalent of fine arts fairs, public libraries, and cultural centers, which to some extent, one could argue they already are. This future is perhaps the one I would most prefer given my fondness for niche-audience theatrical experiences and adult-oriented genre films, most of the latter of which are cheaper to make yet less profitable than blockbusters tailored to all demographics.
Scenario #3.) Most theatre chains return to dominance through sheer force of will and the continued marketability of expensive major studio blockbusters: Theatres survive in this case, as A Dose of Buckley argues, because they have to and, as I would add, because they refuse to change their business strategies and the types of movies they fund (i.e. blockbusters dependent on expensive computer generated imagery and massive action set-pieces). The contemporary theatrical model resurges as the coronavirus pandemic subsides, while streaming platforms coexist with theatre chains in an uneasy alliance whereby certain films (e.g. independent films and smaller budgeted genre pictures) move to digital platforms earlier and blockbusters remain the domain of the big screen.
One can also imagine in this future several weaker streaming services (e.g. Paramount+, Apple TV+, Peacock.) dying out as the bigger ones (e.g. Disney+, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video) compete. Studios like Sony could opt out of the streaming wars altogether and continue focusing solely on theatrical production and 3rd party distribution.