Editorial: Are Movie Theaters Dying?

Part I: “Long Live The King” – The Lion King

Entertainment has no boundaries. Every so often, new entertainment replaces the old, and the old becomes the obsolete. So what about movie theaters?

The question has come up more than once: “Are movie theaters dying?” And every time, the debate gets thrown around until the next pop culture debate surfaces and very fittingly replaces the old one, rendering it obsolete. In this article, we will examine the debate once again, digging into the issues plaguing movie theaters and what it could mean for the industry. 

Part II: “We [Movie Theaters] Are Outgunned, Outmanned, Outnumbered, Outplanned.” – Hamilton

It is no secret that in recent months movie theaters and cinemas around the United States have been hit devastatingly hard. From social distancing procedures limiting box office profits to Hollywood’s increasingly frigid relationship with cinemas around the United States, theaters are facing seemingly gargantuan odds. Before moving on and asking the million-dollar question on our minds, perhaps we should take a moment to categorize, list, and evaluate the forces against cinemas.

First, there is the prevalent issue of the pandemic. In the new economic and political landscape of the United States, business models built on a large consumer base and frequent customer interactions have been hit devastatingly hard. The fact of the matter is, businesses are struggling, and it does not seem like movie theaters are alone in this struggle: barbershops, arcades, gyms and so many other businesses nationwide have suffered under the economic drought of COVID-19. Cinemas only seem to follow the trend here; and as gyms begin closing, restaurants board up windows, and barbershops take down their placards for the last time, movie theaters too seem on the brink of destitution and collapse. According to AMC Theaters, the nation’s largest movie theater chain with over 1,000 movie theater locations nationwide in June of this year, the damage due to COVID-19 has been devastating, costing $2.1 billion dollars in lost revenue for the company. Stories like this have led top economic analysts to assess the situation as dire. As Jeff Bock, senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations reports: “…theaters across America are on the verge of bankruptcy with no real cinematic savior in sight,”

As devastating as the loss of business has been for movie theaters, COVID-19 is not the only problem plaguing movie theaters nationwide. In recent years, digital streaming has become a growing threat to theaters’ dominance in the movie industry, completely revitalized as a possible outlet for entertainment. With big names such as Walt Disney Studios, Netflix, Hulu, and HBO turning their sights to streaming, movie theaters have seen a drastic cut in viewership even before this pandemic crisis, losing customers to cheaper, more convenient streaming from the comforts of couches. Indeed, the numbers look grim. Year after year, digital subscriptions to streaming services have jumped. HBO and its sister streaming subscription-based service HBO Max have gained 1.7 million subscribers in the first 6 months of 2020 alone, as citizens of the United States nationwide quarantined at home for months. Company giant Walt Disney Studios blew up the market of on-demand streaming with kilotons of metaphorical dynamite, as the company launched their long-awaited streaming service Disney+. With 54.5 million subscriptions to the platform in the first half-year of its existence, one thing is clear: without a doubt, digital streaming is booming; and as potential customers spend more time at home without the amenities a movie theater can offer, streaming is only rising higher.

If the doom and gloom of a pandemic and competition in the market were not enough, there still stands one final nail to be hammered in the possible coffin of movie theaters: studios. Among the hundreds of amateur and smaller studios that produce B-tier movies routinely, there stand five that tower over the rest. Colloquially known as the Big Five, Walt Disney Studios, Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures, Universal Pictures, and Columbia Pictures stand at the pinnacle of moving picture entertainment worldwide. If movie theaters want to make revenue and earn money, chances are that they will choose to show works created by the Big Five. The issue, however, is that studios are no longer playing ball with movie theaters. Of the giants in entertainment, Walt Disney Studios has been the most extreme example of this unprecedented, uncooperative attitude to movie theaters. Walt Disney Studios creates blockbuster movies regularly and even with the pandemic, they have not relented from their usual pace of movie-making. Beginning with the animated odyssey “Onward” earlier this year, Walt Disney Studios has released a total of 3 movies originally bound for theaters: “Onward” (A Pixar Studios work), “Hamilton” (the much anticipated Broadway musical), and most recently, a live-action remake of “Mulan”. For every release, Walt Disney Studios has bypassed the usual chain of command- skipping the weeks spent in showings in theaters to directly put them on its own streaming service: Disney+. As studios need to keep themselves afloat as well, they begin to chop down relations between themselves and movie theaters, electing to tough it out on their own and release media straight to consumers. In that streamlined process, however, movie theaters get thrown out in the cold, with no possible way to make revenue without their  increasingly frigid partners in Hollywood to work with. 

Part III: “Hope.” – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Despite the almost eulogical description of the odds of movie theaters making it out of this decade alive and intact, the crushed and weakened theater industry is showing signs of life once more. For starters, theater chains such as AMC and Regal Cinemas have tried to reopen in some capacity despite the limitations of social distancing. Blockbuster hits such as “Tenet”, which recently released in in-person theaters, have garnered great success, demonstrating that the base of viewers who were once interested in watching movies in theaters still exists, and still want the magic a projector, high-quality speakers, and a huge screen can offer. Apart from revitalizing movies for the world of film and slow reopenings, movie theaters themselves have also taken this time to adapt to the situation. Harkening back to the days of the past, drive-in theaters have seen great success in the past few months, and as COVID-19 remains a grave threat to everybody, drive-in theaters have slowly become the best way to see films on a big screen without compromising public health and safety. 

Part IV: “May The Odds Be Ever In Your Favor.” – The Hunger Games 

As time continues to march on, and the pandemic and digital streaming grow with every waking day, one thing is clear: movie theaters must evolve to survive. With the looming threats of economic destitution at the hands of a virus and digital competition, it is easy to see why so many people have written off movie theaters as a relic of the past, old for its age, and simply fated to end its journey here in this decade, but in so many ways, movie theaters are also experiencing a renaissance. Local theaters have become community centers in many towns, and drive-in theaters have made many remember what movie theaters were like and how enjoyable they were to experience in-person. Thus, the question of “Are movie theaters dying?” has no real answer. Movie theaters have been on the decline, but have also grown tremendously to serve their own communities. Going forward, one can only keep a cautious eye on movie theaters; watching how they change over time.

Writer at The City Voice

A senior, Aaron Chen is involved with Speech & Debate, NHS, GRYS, the City Chess Club and E-Club. Aaron has represented City at national level events for 3 years, including earning the title of 2021 National Speech and Debate Tournament Champion. A correspondent for The City Voice, Aaron reports on current events and analyzes political and social issues important to a dynamically changing generation of young adults.