And Hollywood’s Haunting Question Is: To Screen Or To Stream?

That’s the issue facing Netflix, Hulu, and the industry’s other top behemoths in a rapidly changing, post-pandemic world

MORE THAN any time since the early 1950s, the summer of 2022 puts to the test whether Going to the Movies is still a thing. Following in the doomed footsteps of the ArcLight theaters, the Westside’s Landmark Pico has now closed, one more death knell for civilized cinephilia. And a couple months ago, a confab of national theater owners in Las Vegas fairly palpitated with desperation to get back audiences that had been diminishing even before COVID. 

The studios, meanwhile, strategize about how to have it both ways—saving the movie houses while calibrating what, when, and how much to stream. The argument isn’t so unlike the one made 70 years ago, when TV first terrorized Hollywood: that certain movies—Thor: Love and Thunder, Elvis, Lightyear, Brad Pitt’s Bullet Train, Jordan Peele’s Nope, and the biggest of big guns, Tom Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick—are too spectacular even for TV screens that have grown from 15 inches to 50. But all this evades the usual question, which isn’t whether the dinosaurs of Jurassic World Dominion need more space to roam on an IMAX screen but whether audiences really need more Jurassic World dinosaurs of whatever size.

Everything Everywhere All at Once packed theaters this spring. (COURTESY OF JAMES JEAN/A24 FILMS)

The question that people didn’t ponder as deeply 70 years ago, but that’s worth pondering now, has to do with the communal experience of responding to movies as part of  a larger audience, particularly in an ever more deeply fragmented society. Everything from pandemics to politics divides us these days, and now the way we see our movies does too. From the 1920s, movies were meant to play to colossal audiences in colossal movie palaces with mezzanines and balconies of hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of seats, filled with hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of people watching as one, responding to the film as one, laughing or terrified or thrilled as one. But a medium’s original intentions evolve with technology, and the audience evolves with it: 700 years ago, stories were told by town criers standing on tree stumps to gathering crowds before Gutenberg came up with the printing press that made stories private experiences in the form of something called a book.

In the same way, TV, and then the personal computer, and then the smartphone, are bound to irrevocably change the nature of cinema. That includes not only how audiences think about films, but filmmakers too. The reputations of even classic films evolve accordingly. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a bomb when it opened in 1958, came to be considered one of the greatest movies of all time by way of TV viewings by budding movie critics in the early ’60s. In the years since, theatrical failures like Blade Runner, Brazil, Fight Club, Donnie Darko, Eyes Wide Shut, and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me became fever dreams most effectively experienced alone, late at night, one to one.

Is Going to the Movies still a thing?

“I think I’m getting tired of these kinds of movies,” sighed my 17-year-old movie-fan daughter after a Saturday night opening of Marvel’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Though the movie did pretty good box office, you could feel the not-quite-capacity audience, after two stir-crazy housebound summers, trying to like the picture more than it did. The easy answer is that Doctor Strange is a little crummier than its spectacular bombast can salvage, even as a theatrical “event.” 

But it’s not always that simple. Two well-reviewed movies of the late spring, Robert Eggers’s Viking epic The Northman and the surreal martial-arts extravaganza Everything Everywhere All at Once, starring world-cinema treasure Michelle Yeoh, met two entirely different commercial fates, with the former tanking and the latter becoming the season’s buzziest breakout. The difference appears to have been less a matter of where to see these movies—the theater vs. the living room—than when to see them and with whom. Whether because its free-for-all sensibility was perfectly timed or because no amount of hype can match the populist power of word of mouth, Everything Everywhere became a picture that audiences, including my daughter, wanted to see right away and with other people. That may be the sort of unquantifiable on which movie-industry confabs can’t lay odds, even in Vegas.

This story is featured in the July 2022 issue of Los Angeles

(Photographed by Shayan Asgharnia)

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