Movie Theaters: What’s Next?

Photo credit: KCRA

Yesterday, a piece of movie news dropped so unprecedented in scale, so seismic in impact, that it feels like it’s not a question of if the movie industry will be forever changed, but rather how it will be forever changed. Naturally, I feel like I should talk about it.

Allow me to provide two types of context before delving in to this. First, the business context: It is perhaps an understatement to say that in recent years, movie theaters have been on the verge of an existential crisis. With an influx of both third-party and original content available on more streaming services than you can count on two fingers, consumers have never had an easier time opting to watch content from the luxuries of their home as opposed to driving to their closest theater and paying for what they might view as an overpriced ticket (and that’s not even counting the concessions). Streaming and digital sales pose such a formidable — dare I say, existential — threat to theatrical releases that, up until the earth stood still yesterday, it was standard practice for studios not to be able to release a movie in theaters unless there is a 90 day lag between when it opens in theaters and when it will be available on demand; this is known as the 90 day theatrical window.

Well, at least it was known as the 90 day theatrical window. Just yesterday, AMC Theaters and Universal Pictures agreed to a groundbreaking new 17 day theatrical window, allowing studios to remove their movies from theaters after a mere 17 days and release them on digital. This agreement is the result of a months-long stalemate between AMC and Universal, as when Universal released Trolls: World Tour directly to digital despite it being aimed for a theatrical release, AMC was so aghast that they declared they would no longer show any Universal films in their theaters. Of course, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to know that AMC was bluffing, as AMC needs ticket sales from blockbusters like the Fast and Furious franchise now more than ever due to the coronavirus dry-spell theaters might be facing well into 2021. Still, the implication was clear: theaters are terrified about the prospect of studios sidelining theatrical releases, especially when coronavirus lockdowns have sped up the inevitable and forced many low- to mid-budget releases to opt for a $20 rental as opposed to waiting months to release in theaters.

Now, that long overdue second piece of context: the movie theater is my favorite place in the world. I look back at seeing Interstellar in 70MM IMAX, witnessing a spectacle to my eyes and ears so beyond belief that for 150 minutes, I truly felt like I was on another planet; I look back at seeing Star Wars: The Last Jedi on a packed opening night as unsuspecting fans shared screams of agony or whoops of joy at some of the most shocking moments in any blockbuster ever; I look back at seeing Whiplash in a small, crowded theater where the audience collectively covered their mouths in shock when J.K. Simmons threw a chair at Miles Tellers’s head, only for us all to collectively breathe a sigh of relief and wipe the sweat from our palms after the movie’s exhilarating finale was over. These are just several of the many movie-going experiences that not only defined my love for going to the movies, but movies themselves, and I largely attribute that to the shared magic of the theatrical experience.

So, as you can see I have some personal stake in the future of theaters. And the reality is that, after yesterday’s momentous news, nobody quite knows exactly what is going to happen. Heck, we don’t even know when theaters will open in the United States, so speculating about the long-term effects of this new window seems silly, but I’ll do it anyways. What I see as a most-likely outcome is that movie theaters don’t die, but rather serve a different purpose than they did pre-COVID. As opposed to featuring a wide array of movies with different budgets, movie chains might soon become the primary hub to see the newest blockbuster and, if you’re lucky, a low-budget movie while it’s still playing. The reason for this is that when it comes to big-budget releases like the upcoming Tenet, studios need theaters just as much as theaters need studios, because it’s nearly impossible to turn a profit on a budget that large purely based off of rentals. This gives me some hope, because as long as these types of movies still exist, movie theaters have to exist, too.

The question then becomes what constitutes the grey area where a studio releases a mid- to low-budget movie in theaters. Again, nobody really knows here, but it’s possible that they will release a decent number of mid-budget movies in theaters, see how well they’re doing at the box office, and then decide whether to pull the plug after 17 days. This, too, isn’t the end of the world, as a movie like Get Out would still play for an eternity under these conditions due to all the money it made in the quiet months of February despite its meager budget. I actually think that alongside a Tenet — a surefire mega-blockbuster — the most important type of movie with this new window is a Get Out, a low-budget movie that doesn’t demand to be seen in theaters, but when/if it does hit theaters, it becomes unstoppable. Are studios going to be aware of this potential Get Out factor and give low-budget releases a chance in theaters, or are they going to go straight to digital? The answer is that it will probably depend, but it’s unclear how often it will happen.

I’m not a writer for The Hollywood Reporter; I’m a not a financial analyst who specializes in the entertainment industry; I’m just a guy who loves movies, but more specifically loves going to the movies. Maybe I’ll look back on this article 20 years from now and think I’m a total idiot, either because theaters haven’t changed at all or because they’re as obsolete as a Blockbuster video store. But as it stands, the times are changing, and I can only hope that my weekly ritual to the theater returns with efficiency and a sense of normalcy, giving me the chance to experience the magic that only the movie theater can offer alongside the wide variety of movies that Hollywood offers.

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