Streaming services challenge the future of movie theaters

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During COVID-19, streaming has become a popular alternative for new movie releases you would normally see in theaters. Same-day releases and streaming-exclusive films have caused a stir in the film community. (Photo illustration by Kaelin Hagen)

In the future, going to the movies is going to be like going to the opera: a special occasion where you put on a nice suit and make an evening out of it. At least that’s what film critic David Sterritt said he remembers someone saying almost 20 years ago. Now in 2022, it doesn’t seem to be the most far-fetched idea.

“I’m not literally saying that,” Sterritt said about the opera comparisons. “But clearly things have been veering in that sort of direction for quite a while.”

Sterritt takes movies seriously. He has a Ph.D. in cinema studies from New York University, spent 10 years as the chair of the National Society of Film Critics and now works as a film professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Movies are a huge part of his life.

Sterritt said for decades he has greatly preferred to watch movies on his home TV rather than go into the theater, even though a lot of his colleagues prefer the latter. 

Movie theaters and movie releases have long been intertwined. Sterritt said in the 1980s when the original “Dune” movie came out, he had the chance to speak with writer and director David Lynch about the film.

He said Lynch believed his version of “Dune” had to be seen in a movie theater with a great screen and excellent sound. Sterritt challenged Lynch on that, saying a lot of people in the future were going to be watching the film on video.

This same sentiment expressed by Lynch is visible in other contemporary filmmakers. In a letter written to “Variety,” “Dune” (2021) director Denis Villeneuve said he was upset with the decision to release his version of the film on streaming the same day it was released in theaters.

“With this decision, AT&T has hijacked one of the most respectable and important studios in film history. There is absolutely no love for cinema, nor for the audience here,” Villenueve said in the letter. 

Sterritt said technology has brought so much accessibility to movie-watching. He grew up in an era where you couldn’t watch a movie unless it was playing in the theater near where he lived, and once it was gone from the theater you couldn’t watch it unless it happened to play on TV.

People could watch the new “Dune” in the comfort of their own home the day it came out, and most people will watch both Lynch’s and Villeneuve’s versions of “Dune” on smaller screens long after their theater runs are over.

Sterritt said for someone who spends prodigious amounts of time watching movies, he finds significantly fewer distractions in the comfort of his own home.

“Unexpected things confront you in the movie theater; the person behind you is talking or answering the phone, or rumbling popcorn and stuff like that,” he said.

Sterritt has a nice big screen in his living room and said he feels as though he is able to achieve something really close to the theatrical experience there.

COVID-19 and the great shutdown

If the movie distribution model had been veering away from theaters, COVID-19 gave it quite the push. 

During the pandemic, theaters have seen a steep decline in attendance. In 2020 AMC lost $4.5 billion, and both Cinemark and AMC had to close all their theaters.

The preference for movie theaters has decreased since the start of the pandemic. A study done by Statista found that in November 2018, 28% of people strongly preferred to watch a movie for the first time in theaters and 15% strongly preferred streaming. In June 2020, those numbers practically flipped, with 14% saying that they strongly preferred the theater and 36% saying that they preferred streaming.

In the past few years, preference for first-time viewing experiences have shifted. More people strongly prefer to watch a movie for the first time at home rather than at a theater. (Made in Canva by Kaelin Hagen)

The impact of COVID-19 can’t be understated when looking at these numbers. Statista said risk of infection was definitely a factor in consumers’ decisions to attend or not attend theaters.

Streaming in general has gotten more popular. Another study done by Statista found that 52% of consumers in the U.S. had some form of streaming service in 2015. In 2021, that number increased by 26%, with 78% of consumers having at least one streaming service.

The Quorum, an organization that tracks information related to film marketing, published a study in November 2021 about people’s willingness to attend movie theaters. This study was an effort to determine who wasn’t going to the theaters anymore and what would make them more comfortable returning.

A study published by The Quorum shows that consumers are divided on whether or not they feel comfortable in movie theaters. (Made in Canva by Kaelin Hagen)

The study found that 33% of respondents have continued to go to the theaters despite COVID-19, even during the delta variant surge. On the other side, 8% of respondents said they stopped going to the theater altogether when the pandemic began. Of all respondents, whether currently attending the theater or not, 71% said they would be disappointed if theaters disappeared.

Along came a spider

Among those who would be disappointed to see theaters go is Tori Baker, President & CEO of the Salt Lake Film Society. Baker said the group’s mission is to exhibit and preserve — and part of preserving means preserving the movie theater experience.

“We are preserving that communal experience where you come together, sit around the fireside, tell the story,” Baker said.

Baker said the aspect of being with a lot of other people is integral to that experience. 

“It’s about the coming together and the feeling of communal emotion,” Baker said. “That shared experience and the energy that happens in a room is super unique. You can possibly feel it with your partner on your couch for a little bit, but it’s very different to feel it in a dark room with 200 strangers.”

Many people were able to experience that feeling of coming together with the release of “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” 

Kaden Prows, a BYU student studying media arts, said watching “No Way Home” in a packed theater was one of his favorite movie-watching experiences ever.

“Had I just watched this movie on my own, I probably would’ve thought it was pretty good. It was a good movie,” he said. “It’s not a perfect movie, but seeing it with that crowd made me like the movie a lot more than I would have had I just watched it in my home on a small screen.”

Prows, who went to see movies in theaters more than 25 times last year, said the atmosphere made the experience very special and unique. He said the coming together of a crowd to experience something they loved gave him the feeling of euphoria.

Other people share this sentiment about “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” Cheyanne Elton, a BYU student from San Diego studying media arts, said movies like “No Way Home” become an event that you plan ahead for and they’re something you want to experience with other people who like the same things you do.

Content wars

While it’s impossible to know for sure what the future of movie theaters looks like, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” shows that people are still willing to go to the movies. The film made more than $1.5 billion globally, becoming one of the highest grossing movies of all time.

Kelly Loosli, an animation professor at BYU and co-creator of the school’s animation program, said movie theaters are still important to filmmakers. She said most filmmakers still want their movies screened in theaters for the experience that it provides as well as for the financial benefits. 

“Most of them grew up watching movies in the theater and they love that experience. More important than that is the financial impact. It used to be that a movie would play in the theater, then it would go to prime cable TV stations like HBO, it would be sold on DVDs or Blu-rays, then after that play on channels like NBC or CBS,” Loosli said.

Loosli also said streaming services have their upsides and that they allow for other types of movies to be made. Not a lot of romantic comedies or relationship-based films end up in theaters, but those types of films are still being made for streaming. However, Loosli said the problem with movies made for streaming is that a lot of those films are being made with less care and quality.

Baker said a lot of companies follow the “quantity over quality” model and that as long as a service pushes enough content onto their platform then subscribers will continue to pay the monthly fee. She said what sets theaters apart from the vast amount of streaming services is the quality. 

“There’s no way that anybody’s going to invest in a theatrical release because it costs money to mount that, unless they stand behind their work and unless they’ve gone through this kind of rigid process,” she said.

Baker said a theatrical release is what every filmmaker shoots for, and getting that release says something about the filmmaker’s work. While there can be good content on streaming services, the movie theater is where you’ll find the films that have made their way to the top.

The cultural impact or lack thereof

While “Spider-Man: No Way Home” was able to make a good amount of money, other films in 2021 weren’t as fortunate. Many films didn’t make back their budget, even critically successful films such as “The Last Duel” and DC’s “Suicide Squad.” Loosli said theaters may evolve to be houses for big-event films only.

“Streaming doesn’t seem to have this same sort of ‘wow’ factor,” Loosli said. “We may just find that theatrical releases end up being for more unique films that can create this audience draw, and everything else goes to streaming.”

Loosli also said the recent Disney and Pixar movies that have been released on streaming haven’t thrilled him.

“Is that because they aren’t as good or is that because the venue in which I watched them didn’t create the same experience? I don’t know. For me, seeing a movie I am excited to see in a theater is still my top priority,” he said.

Baker said she believes for a piece of media to achieve true cultural relevance it needs millions of eyeballs on it. She said a big streaming platform like Disney could have those millions of eyeballs, but the question is whether or not it will get those views in a certain time frame. 

“It’s probably the theatrical window that really is the magic sauce to cultural relevance,” she said. “There’s something to that model that inherently allows that window to protect you being able to talk about that at the water cooler, so to speak, which is what it takes for cultural relevance anymore.” 

While it’s hard to know exactly how the distribution of movies can impact culture, Baker said she believes the impact movie theaters can have on people is immense. 

“If you’re going to the theater, you’re going to have that experience at some point that either changes who you are or shapes your worldview,” she said. 

To each their own

In referencing his comparison of the movie theater becoming like the opera, Sterritt said he was exaggerating and it’s pretty clear people still want to go to the movies. 

He himself goes every once in a while when there’s a movie he wants to see that isn’t streaming, and he said he assumes his local theater sells a lot of Saturday night tickets. He said he wants theaters to be available for anyone who wants to go have that community experience, but he also doesn’t think the future is going that direction.

“I think the future is going to be a hybrid, and I think there will be fewer movie theaters than there used to be. But I hope that there are still plenty of them,” Sterritt said. “The main bulk of movie-watching will probably be done by people at home.”

His heart goes out to all the film proprietors losing tons of business. He said he wishes they weren’t, but it doesn’t give him any qualms to watch movies at home. He believes a lot of people feel the same way.

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