For better or worse, theatergoing as we’ve known it for the past 100 years looks like it’s pretty much over. It’ll be months before most of the general public starts getting inoculated for COVID-19, and by then the damage may be beyond repair. According to a September letter pleading for aid to the industry—signed by James Cameron, Clint Eastwood, and a bunch of other heavyweights—69 percent of small and midsized movie theaters will be forced into bankruptcy without federal help. In late December, Congress finally passed a deal on a COVID-19 relief package that included $15 billion in aid for smalller movie theaters and live-entertainment venues, but the major chains will not be eligible for the aid—and they need help even more. After reopening some theaters in August, Regal, which operates more than 500 screens in the U.S., closed them again in October. Last summer, the largest chain, AMC, which has also been shuttered through the pandemic, announced in a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission report that it was about to run out of cash and had “substantial doubts” about its future.
The studios certainly see the writing on the wall. In December, Warner Bros. announced that it would be releasing its slate of pushed-back films—including Matrix 4, Dune, and Wonder Woman 84—on HBO Max. The decision was met with howls of discontent. “Some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service,” Tenet director Christopher Nolan said.
Theatergoing as we’ve known it for the past 100 years looks like it’s pretty much over.
Other studios have been tiptoeing in a similar direction, with Universal dramatically shrinking its window between theatrical release and Video on Demand and Disney releasing some of its content—like Mulan—on Disney Plus. Even some of Nolan’s fellow A-list filmmakers have been bailing on the big screen: David Fincher just signed a four-year deal with Netflix while Martin Scorsese, who shot The Irishman for Netflix, will be making his next movie for Apple TV Plus.
To Nolan and his ilk, all this heralds the end of an art form. And maybe there’s a kernel of truth to their laments. There is indeed something to be said for the collective experience of sharing a movie with a theater full of strangers. But it’s also true that cinema will survive even if theaters don’t. And it’s possible that Nolan and others are clinging to antique, idealized notions of moviegoing that bear about as much resemblance to reality as rom-coms do to actual dating. With a few notable exceptions, like the Chinese Theater, the Vista, and El Capitan, the gilded movie palaces of yore barely exist anymore; they’ve been bulldozed and replaced with sticky-floored multiplexes that radiate all the romance of a DMV field office.
Not surprisingly, a big chunk of the audience had already abandoned theaters long before stepping into one became life-threatening. Attendance has been dropping sharply for decades, with 2017 ticket sales sinking to a 25-year low. Meanwhile, the average TV-set size in American households has more than doubled over the last 20 years, from 23 to 47 inches, and it’s expected to increase another three inches by the end of 2021. And the bigger they get, the cheaper TVs become; these days you can buy a 50-inch screen for around $500, half of what it cost five years ago. Granted, you can easily blow another $100 a month paying for streaming services, but that’s still thousands of films for what a family of four might spend on tickets and snacks to just one Gal Gadot flick in a theater. Plus, you can stream in a Snuggie, which is pretty much priceless.
Theater companies have known for decades that most viewers would prefer to watch movies at home—it’s the very reason they’ve fought so bitterly for so long against narrowing the window between theatrical release and VOD. Up until the pandemic, theater chains have had the leverage to keep the studios in line. But now that those windows have been shattered, it’s hard to imagine the world going back. Hollywood, after all, is in the business of giving people what they want, and what they want isn’t crowded, dirty theaters filled with annoying strangers texting on their phones. That may be a bummer to Christopher Nolan and other screen-size-obsessed auteurs. But the truth is, any director who insists that his or her masterpiece can only be truly appreciated on a 50-foot screen probably hasn’t made such a hot movie anyway.