It’s been a year since COVID-19 put the world on an extended timeout. Last year saw theatres shutter their doors while movie studios postponed their biggest titles. In the areas where theatres finally reopened, many regular patrons opted to stay home.
But the film industry’s existential crisis started long before the pandemic. While cinema’s future looks bleak now, there is an excellent chance it will be able to recover.
COVID-19 may have left the movie business battered but it’s not broken, and it is, perhaps, better equipped than ever to compete with new media for our attention.
We’re deep into the pandemic, and there are still a ridiculous number of quality titles making their debut on video-on-demand (VOD) platforms and streaming services each week. Depending on where you live, you can still catch films at drive-ins and theatres (offering reduced-capacity seating).
The pandemic did force Hollywood to postpone its most lucrative franchises. A big-budget title like Fast & Furious 9 can’t recoup its cost without earning revenue from theatres. The industry managed to churn out hundreds of small- to mid-budget films because these titles can turn a profit without a theatrical run.
Critical darlings like Nomadland, The Father and Minari may not be on the average moviegoer’s radar, but don’t view their award-season nominations as a sign of the End Times. Best Picture contenders are rarely box office smashes.
The flood of new streaming and VOD titles won’t dry up before theatres reopen. Once the coronavirus is fully under control, Hollywood will start releasing its most anticipated titles right in time for summer blockbuster season — assuming, of course, that COVID-19 doesn’t roar back with another wave.
If all goes well, big-name movies that were postponed last year should arrive in theatres this spring. It won’t be long before audiences can start booking tickets to hot releases like Marvel’s Black Widow (May 7), A Quiet Place II (May 28) and In the Heights (June 18).
This year should be jam-packed with potential hits all the way through December. A number of movies bumped from last year’s schedule (Top Gun: Maverick, No Time to Die) will now compete for theatregoers’ cash, along with titles scheduled for 2022.
This booming release period assumes that the vaccination process goes according to plan. If COVID-19 numbers don’t drastically decrease, the math gets trickier for studios holding on to their cash cows.
Government health and safety guidelines dictate how many people may occupy movie theatres during the pandemic. These numbers have been as restrictive as 50 people per building to 25 per cent capacity per auditorium, with the audience placed in socially distanced seating arrangements. If theatres continue operating at limited capacity deep into June, studios have more incentive to delay their big titles until the fall or even 2022.
Movie theatres, which are already taking a financial hit by selling fewer tickets, must also pay additional expenses to meet new COVID-19-related health and safety standards. Even if theatre staff go above and beyond safety protocols (like wiping touchpoints every 30 minutes), there’s no telling if and when moviegoers will feel comfortable packing themselves in large rooms with strangers.
As COVID-19 numbers waned last summer, Warner Bros. attempted to kickstart the box office by releasing Christopher Nolan’s latest epic, Tenet, in theatres. The movie failed to draw crowds, and Tenet’s dismal box office numbers served as a warning to studios still considering theatrical releases.
Movie theatres must prepare for an uphill battle, but not strictly due to the ravages of COVID-19. Even though the domestic box office hit an all-time high in 2018, ticket sales peaked all the way back in 2002. These days, Hollywood doesn’t keep breaking box-office records by selling more tickets. Instead, theatres charge people higher amounts to see fewer films. Raising ticket prices without giving moviegoers greater value in return is no way for theatres to compete with competitors like Netflix and Amazon Prime.
People won’t stop watching movies any time soon, but viewing them in theatres may fall out of fashion. For theatres to remain relevant, they must stop acting like they’re still the king of the hill. Theatre owners must take heed of their digital competitors and evolve with the times.
When a major studio like Disney or Warner Bros. launches a streaming service, it can cut out the theatrical middleman. This leaves theatres in a precarious position. Studios don’t have to share their profits with partner theatres when they can beam Wonder Woman 1984 directly to viewers on HBO Max or Raya and the Last Dragon on Disney+.
The proliferation of streaming services has forced theatrical companies into changing their fundamental business model. Market forces now demand a renegotiation about how long titles may run in theatres before arriving on streaming services and home media. This radical change to the theatrical window is just the starting point.
Staying relevant requires theatres to offer enticing content beyond run-of-the-mill screenings, from curated retrospectives, Q&As with filmmakers and film appreciation clubs to ensuring that superior projection and sound quality continues generating experiences that one cannot replicate at home.
If suffering through COVID-19 has made you worry about the death of cinema as we know it, there’s still reason for hope. Movie theatres have a secret weapon that strikes fear into the heart of streaming services: there is no comparison between watching a movie at home and the collective experience of watching cinema in a movie theatre. It’s like the disparity between catching your favourite band at a concert hall vs. listening to their greatest hits album at home on the couch.
Sitting on the bus watching The Irishman may qualify as watching a movie, but leaving your home to sit in a dark theatre and stare at a giant screen with an electric crowd is truly going to see a show. When you spend money on a movie ticket, you’re not paying to simply gaze at a flickering screen. You’re ponying up for a one-of-a-kind multi-sensory experience.
With luck, and with some adjustments by theatres, hopefully it’s not an experience eventually relegated into the annals of history, but instead something that generations ahead of us can continue to enjoy.
Victor Stiff is a writer and film critic who has covered TIFF, Sundance, and SXSW. He is the host of Dope Black Movies and a Senior Critic at That Shelf.