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The Fate of Moviegoing in a Post-Pandemic World


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It is a new year, and we’ve bid adieu to the oddity that 2020 was. As the world continues to grapple with the new norms of life there is an indubitable feeling that the pandemic fatigue has kicked in full swing. The uncertainty of the coming year and the acceptance of continuous adaptability brings in a mixture of hope and anxiety. As we continue to social distance to protect ourselves, our communities, and our loved ones, one form of entertainment excels as ideal escapism: streaming platforms. To emotionally unwind from the repercussions of a global pandemic, streaming giants like Netflix, Hulu, and Prime Video transcended from just another source of entertainment to being an outlook to escape the dreary realities of our world. With the growing popularity of streaming tv shows and movies, we witnessed the arrival of new streaming giants like HBO Max, Disney +, Apple TV +, and Peacock. We live in an age where we have access to unlimited content from all across the world, with just the tap of our fingers or the clicks of our remotes. It now feels like there is not enough time to catch up on the copious amount of tv shows and movies while we try to get back to “normalcy” in the new year.


On January 12th, 2021, my phone lit up with notifications that Netflix had announced their plan for the year. My movie buff self was itching to see what new content was in store. I was convinced that the pandemic probably would slow down the production and distribution of creative content, even if it was through digital distribution. I hurriedly clicked on their “Netflix 2021 Film Preview Trailer” and watched numerous famous actors and creators talk about their excitement of nonstop content distribution via the platform. From Dwayne Johnson to Regina King, actors and creators (in a Zoom-like setting) presented their dreams and vision of what cinema was going to look like in 2021. It was evident that nothing was going to stop Netflix and those in the entertainment industry from creating and showcasing movies we love so much. As I watched jump cut shots of movie clips from big budget to indie films, I was amazed to see that Netflix was all set for the year. In fact, their teaser ended up giving me a visual whiplash with the number of clips being presented in a two-minute and forty-four second trailer. And then there was the tagline “New Movies, Every Week, All Year” right before a final preview clip of Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence from the anticipated Adam McKay movie Don’t Look Up plays. The trailer ends with a concluding punchline, “2021 Here We Come.” Netflix is not only competing with other streaming platforms but asserts its superiority in bringing forth mass content on a global scale.


As I spoke to my family and friends about this announcement, I came across a variety of mixed reactions regarding this plan. A combination of excitement, happiness, and apprehensions all swirled into one blending pot. As my social circle encompasses cinephiles, artists, critics, and people who appreciate the arts, there was a slight trepidation surrounding the notion of “quality over quantity.” Being a creative person myself, this statement screams louder than anything else. As my whole life has revolved around my love for cinema, I am elated that due to streaming platforms like Netflix, I have countless movies to look forward to this year. However, I can’t help but also wonder, What does the future hold for cinema and What is the fate of “old school traditions” like moviegoing? As I look forward to the next big release of the week, I ponder if we are truly appreciating the cinematic artform, or are we merely consuming content and then moving onto the next most-talked-about movie and tv show in order to escape the pandemic’s melancholia?


Winning the Moviegoer’s Attention–The “Tug O’ War” between Streaming and Theaters


In mid-March 2020, decisions were made to “temporarily” close movie theaters due to lockdowns and social distancing safety measures. It was evident that the movie industry was going to face an even greater challenge alongside competing with streaming services. With Netflix already dominating and altering the movie industry’s landscape, new streaming services like HBO Max were launched during the pandemic itself. Jeet Heer from The Nation comments that with high quality home entertainment, “it’s now possible for members of the middle class to replicate the moviegoing experience in their own homes–or at least a highly fragmented and individualistic version of that experience.” (Heer, 2) Questions surrounding the power of media conglomerates like Netflix and Disney came into play, especially with the closing of numerous theaters across the United States and big theater chains like AMC narrowly escaping bankruptcy. In the New York Times, acclaimed movie critic A.O. Scott questioned the future of the moviegoing experience and this power play by asking, “Will a return to normalcy herald the next stage in an emerging duopoly, with the two dominant companies–Netflix and Disney–using big screens to showcase selected content, treating theaters as a kind of loss leader for their lucrative subscription services?” (Ibid)


The release of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet in the theaters was the initial trial to see if people were ready to return to the theaters. Even though the Warner Bros. blockbuster was the supposed opportunity for movie theaters to bounce back, the majority of the audiences in North America refused to leave the safety of their homes. Even though theaters assured moviegoers intense sanitization precautions, filtered air systems and various forms of seating arrangements to satisfy social distancing, Tenet was no match for the fear people had with regards to venturing into vast public spaces again. According to Sarah Whitten from CNBC “the Christopher Nolan film garnered less than $10 million during its opening weekend in North America and has totaled $41.2 million since it opened Sept. 4.” (Whitten, 5) John Sloss, the founder of Cinetic Media believes that, “when the pandemic starts to recede or goes away, it’s going to take a real committed, coordinated effort from everyone in the industry to get the theaters running again and get people into theaters again.” (Ibid) Even if one entertains the idea of returning to the theaters for a wholesome cinematic experience, the issue that moviegoers have asserted is not being able to trust other people in following COVID-19 safety protocols. In her article “Movie Theaters in Jeopardy as Studios move Blockbusters to 2021, Audiences Stay Home”, Whitten writes, “Still, one of the biggest reasons that potential moviegoers have said they are hesitant to return to cinemas is if they feel they cannot trust other people to follow mask policies or to stay home if they are sick.” (Whitten, 6) Major movie theater chains like AMC, Regal, and Cinemark will potentially survive the economic disaster, but the real devastation will be experienced by smaller and local movie theaters across the country forcing them to possibly close permanently.


In early December, Warner Bros. gained immense attention after declaring the dual release of new films helmed by their studio. Warner Bros announced that they would introduce a same-day release of films like Wonder Woman 1984, Dune, Judas and the Black Messiah, Godzilla vs. Kong, The Suicide Squad, Matrix 4, and many more on both HBO Max streaming and in the theaters throughout 2021. This decision affirmed the importance of streaming services, especially after the “test run” experienced with Tenet’s theatrical release. Warner Bros.’ announcement not only affirmed its ambitions of being the number one streaming giant of 2021, but it generated a range of mixed reactions just like Netflix’s 2021 movie release plans.

Prominent filmmakers in Hollywood, who have famously collaborated with Warner Bros., voiced their strong opinions surrounding this groundbreaking strategy. Denis Villeneuve’s (preeminent filmmaker and director of Dune) essay for Variety argues that this business proposition disregards the true meaning of filmmaking and appreciation for cinema. He writes, “I strongly believe the future of cinema will be on the big screen . . . since the dawn of time, humans have deeply needed communal storytelling experiences. Cinema on the big screen is more than a business, it is an art form that brings people together, celebrating humanity, enhancing our empathy for one another–it’s one of the very last artistic, in-person collective experiences we share as human beings.” (Countryman, 2) Christopher Nolan strongly criticized this decision and stated that the experiences of watching a film is meant to reach a wide range of audiences. Nolan comments, “In 2021, they’ve got some of the top filmmakers in the world, they’ve got some of the biggest stars in the world who worked for years in some cases on these projects very close to their hearts that are meant to be big-screen experiences. They’re meant to be out there for the widest audiences . . . and now they’re being used as a loss-leader for the streaming service–for the fledgling streaming service–without any consultation.” (Countryman, 3) Furthermore, Regal Cinemas issued a statement that acknowledges the greater issues for movie theaters to recover. “We believe at such a time, Warner Bros. (WB) will look to reach an agreement about the proper window and terms that will work for both sides. Big movies are made for the big screen and we cannot wait to reopen our cinemas in Q1 in order to offer our customers, as always, the best place to watch a movie.” (Countryman, 5) Additionally, major blockbusters, including MGM’s new James Bond movie and Marvel’s Black Widow, are continuously delaying their theatrical release while other studios like Disney decided to release Mulan, Pixar’s Soul, and Artemis Fowl to Disney +. From movie theaters across the country to acclaimed filmmakers in the industry, the negative reaction to Warner Bros.’ decision and the difficult choices surrounding the release of films in theaters further typifies how the pandemic has ushered in artistic and business contention. This tug of war between corporations, theaters and artists, represents the socio-economic and cultural clash this global crisis has brought upon creators. As our phones and electronic devices continue to light up with new announcements, we, the consumers, continue to anticipate and adapt to the innovative strategies brought forth in lieu of this strife.

It is evident that with vaccine rollouts starting in 2021 and experts agreeing that this global crisis will most probably end in 2022 (Goldberg 1), streaming is the current viable option for entertainment distribution. Warner Bros.’ decision invokes the belief that the future of movies encompasses a dual-release strategy. (Goldberg, 2) In actuality, Video on Demand (VOD) and streaming is not a new innovation. For decades, theaters had to deal with many studios’ decision to release numerous films straight to VOD, and later on digital streaming. (Whitten, 3) What makes streaming so prevalent in 2021 is because COVID-19 has forced us to forgo a lot of our social and recreational activities, thus ensuring we stay at home. Matt Goldberg from Collider made a unique analysis stating that even streaming services indulge in theatrical distributions. He writes, “Yes, Netflix had created a new streaming reality, but even there with some of its major titles Netflix was trying to knock down the door in the opposite direction by getting theatrical releases for films like Roma and The Irishman. Even Netflix, King of Streamers TM, didn’t want a streaming-only future even though their business model relies on subscriptions.” (Goldberg, 3) Goldberg further brings in a fitting analogy by comparing streaming services to restaurants and delivery services; he writes, “Sure, people can order takeout whenever they want, but no one’s going to say, ‘Restaurants are dead now because DoorDash exists, this is our food future.’” (Goldberg, 4).


Moviegoing Lives Forever

In this instance, as I write my concluding thoughts of this article, I have my plans sorted out. I’m excited knowing that I will be doing a virtual watch party (something I have frequently done throughout the pandemic) with my friend to unwind from all the overwhelming anxieties the world has to offer. Who knows . . . maybe we’ll end up watching Netflix’s latest release, the highly anticipated indie film Malcolm & Marie starring Zendaya and John David Washington? Either way, I know that thanks to streaming platforms I’m still able to indulge in one of my most-loved activities. Furthermore, as someone who enjoys watching and talking about films with friends and family, the linkage of a “watch party feature” on all the streaming platforms replicates a semblance of the social aspect of moviegoing.


Theaters have always been a haven for me. Ever since I was young, going to the movies with my loved ones is a cherished activity that I hold dear to my heart. The rush of seeing a feature presentation as I devour my giant tub of popcorn with good company is an irreplaceable euphoric feeling. Thus, to answer the question if (with the rise of streaming) I believe theaters are dead? Absolutely not. Streaming platforms may seem to threaten the landscape of the theatrical experience, but I feel they have efficiently satiated our appetite for entertainment during such a grim period in human history. As we deal with the chaos and major social restraints brought forth by COVID-19, it is undeniable to recognize that with connectivity, streaming services provide that instant form of escapism where we can, for a moment, forget the devastation of our reality. Sure, there are complexities that come forth with mass content distribution, especially when it comes to appreciating good quality content. However, the silver lining is that, through streaming services, we are able to watch and value unlimited content from every corner of the world with just the click of a button. Once this pandemic is over and the fear of contagion has dissipated, I have no doubt that we will return to the theaters. We may live in a future where cinema exists in a hybridized system of dual distribution; but because we are social beings, the very act of sitting in a theater with strangers as larger-than-life images play on the silver screen, will be salvaged. For now, as we wait for the world to gradually get immunized, we embrace a digital slice of the moviegoing experience from the comfort of our homes as we press play and watch on.



References:


Countryman, Eli. December 2020. “Directors, Theaters Express Worry Over Warner Bros. HBO Max Deal” in Variety, Variety Media LLC. Accessed on January 18, 2021. https://variety.com/2020/film/news/warner-bros-hbo-max-reacts-1234851888/


Goldberg, Matt. December 2020. “Streaming is the Future for 2021, but I’m Not Convinced it’s the Future of Movies” in Collider, Collider, Quebec. Accessed on January 25, 2021. https://collider.com/will-movie-theaters-survive-future-streaming/


Heer, Jeet. December 2020. “Movie Theaters Aren’t Dying – They’re Being Murdered” in The Nation, The Nation, New York. Accessed on January 29, 2021. https://www.thenation.com/article/culture/movies-streaming-covid-theatres/


Reyes, Mike. December 2020. “Why Warner Bros’ Big HBO Max Decision Doesn’t Mean The Death Of Theaters” in Cinema Blend, Cinema Blend LLC, Portland. Accessed on January 27, 2021. https://www.cinemablend.com/news/2559800/why-warner-bros-big-hbo-max-decision-doesnt-mean-the-death-of-theaters


Rubin, Rebecca. December 2020. “Hollywood at a Crossroads: Studios Face Tough Choices on How to Reach Audiences as Coronavirus Worsens” in Variety, Variety Media LLC. Accessed on January 18, 2021. https://variety.com/2020/film/news/coronavirus-movie-theaters-release-dates-1234842520/


Whitten, Sarah. September 2020. “Movie Theaters in Jeopardy as Studios move Blockbusters to 2021, Audiences Stay Home” in CNBC Entertainment, CNBC, New Jersey. Accessed on January 19, 2021. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/09/29/coronavirus-movie-industry-studios-move-blockbusters-audiences-stay-home.html

Whitten, Sarah. January 2021. “Movie Theater Owners are Frustrated about Streaming, but their Survival depends on Studios” in CNBCEntertainment, CNBC, New Jersey. Accessed on January 29, 2021. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/01/02/movie-theater-owners-are-frustrated-about-streaming-but-their-survival-depends-on-studios.html


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Aanchal Bhattacharya is ink.’s content contributor and staff writer. Aanchal holds a first-class joint honors degree in history and religious studies from McGill University. She is also a Wasserman Scholar and has a master’s degree in cinema studies from Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. From indulging in creative writing to directing short films, Aanchal’s passion has driven her to artistically express herself in this ever-changing world. She has inspiration flowing through her veins.

No matter how busy life gets, Aanchal always makes time for watching movies/television shows, listening to awesome music, and engaging in inspiring “food for thought” discussions with family and friends.


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