Commentary: It’s Too Soon to Write Movie Theaters’ Epitaphs

Photo by Felix Mooneeram on Unsplash

Since the time of nickelodeons, the gold standard of movies has been public exhibition—strangers gathered in a darkened room to become communally immersed in a world outside of their own. Now, after more than 120 years as an industry leader, movie theaters as we know them are facing their most existential threat to date.

There have been chinks in the armor of the cinema for years. First there was home video, then cable, then the expanded sizes and definition quality of home television screens. The window between in-theater releases and their debuts on home video, which used to be at least six months, collapsed to a matter of weeks, and then disintegrated.

The ubiquity of streaming has been, for many, the death knell. Major releases, including prestigious Oscar winners “Manchester by the Sea,” “Roma” and “The Irishman,” have opened on streaming platforms simultaneously with their theatrical runs—negating, for most Americans, the hassle and exorbitant expense of viewing them the old-fashioned way.

Movie theaters still serve as the ostensible introduction of tent-pole studio blockbusters, but this conventional distribution model may be shifting as well. In April, Universal became the first studio to distribute one of its marquee money-makers, “Trolls World Tour,” as a digital rental, and its success among quarantined viewers—it set streaming records, becoming Universal’s most successful day-one rental of all time—would seem to indicate that virtual openings, even for grand-scale entertainments tailor-made for a giant screen, may be the new norm.

This is not a trend that should be celebrated, and if you look at the total returns of “Trolls World Tour,” it’s not even sustainable. Yes, it’s made some money online, but it’s all relative: It has only recouped $2.1 million on a budget estimated at $90 to $100 million. Nor does the model work for lower-budgeted products. Art-house movies released digitally through the Virtual Cinema project—launched in the immediate aftermath of the coronavirus lockdown as a way to bring smaller-budgeted movies to independent theaters’ websites, with those cinemas receiving a portion of the e-ticket sales—have not been close to the boon needed to keep these theaters afloat in this recessionary time. Chris Collier, who runs a small theater chain in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, told NPR’s Morning Edition this week, “The number of ticket sales [of Virtual Cinema releases] is more in the tens, than in the hundreds and thousands we’d see in theaters.”

I’m heartened to hear numbers like this, not because I’m a Luddite clinging to an antiquated medium of distribution, and not because of any fondness toward the oligopolistic nature of the theater industry, in which three chains own nearly half the cinemas in the country. Like you, I’m annoyed by the commercials tacked on the front of screenings, and the eardrum-pummeling volume of the trailers, of which there are far too many.

I’m anxious for the reopening, and renewed cultural dominance, of theaters because of the art. It’s as simple as that. No matter how slick and high-def your home system is, theatrical projection still looks better. God knows it sounds better, given the hollowed quality of most televisions’ embedded speakers. (At home, I often find myself turning on subtitles to catch all of the dialogue in American films, which is never a problem on cinema screens.)

Then there’s the distractibility of virtual viewing, all the domestic needs demanding our attention: The doorbell rings, the dog barks, the dryer beeps, the offspring demand sustenance. The “pause” function has made it so easy to turn a movie into a miniseries, to atomize the intermissionless integrity of “The Irishman,” say, into three or four sittings.

The singularity of the theater experience may be demanding, but it’s artistically irreplaceable. A cinephile friend of mine has likened stopping a movie and picking it up on another day to eating reheated leftovers—they’re never going to be as satisfying as the original experience.

Collier, in that NPR article, says it best, when speaking of his 4-year-old toddler’s cinema-going habits: “He really does like the experience. At home he does run around the house and loses attention in what’s on the TV screen. But at the theater, he sits in the dark and is enwrapped with what’s on screen.”

I, for one, am hoping the increasingly distant past of movie watching—those halcyon days that were put on indefinite hiatus in mid-March—is also its future.

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