In mid April of 2020, I spoke with a representative of the Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Department for his take on how the pandemic had upended Hollywood thus far. Although he was ambiguous in positing any definitive directive the industry might employ moving forward, he did cryptically declare, "I can tell you that the longer this whole thing goes on, the weirder it is going to get." Exactly two weeks later, AMC theater corporation declared war on Universal Pictures.
In a breakdown of where Hollywood now stands (both domestically and internationally), we have decided to follow up on two articles published during 2020, by revisiting the industry to assess how it has responded to a crisis unlike any in the hundred and twenty five year history of cinema. The article below is our follow-up article to THE SHOW MUST GO ONLINE (ARTICLE 2 IN A SERIES OF 4) -- HOLLYWOOD RE-IMAGINED
If you are looking for an article that spells out the near certain doom of the movie theater industry as we know it, you needn’t look any further.
Now that we are past the hyperbolic click bait, let me point out the key phrase in that opening line being: “as we know it.” Because, I can assure you that the movie theatre industry will survive the Great Pandemic of 2020, just as it did the Spanish Flu Pandemic in 1918. So long as films are being made, and audiences crave escapism (and who isn’t craving a lot of that under the current circumstances), the “movies” will be a constant.
But the theater industry will most certainly become a very different beast over the next several years. How we commune with the cinematic has been evolving, and COViD-19 may be that final-stage-rocket-accelerant that spawns a new incarnation of the movie going experience, most likely within our lifetime.
If there is one certainty about the human condition, it is that we are survivors. Think of the World Wars, or more recently the social unrest surrounding the summer of 2020, or probe back even further to the time of the Black Plague, the Spanish Inquisition, or the Great Flood (if you believe in that sort of thing). News flash… humanity survived, and sometimes against the heaviest of odds. It all boils down to our ability to adapt, and as it turns out we are pretty adept at it.
Just like the human race, the movie theatre industry has had to adapt and evolve over its storied 125 year history. It too has weathered wars and pandemics, social unrest, and most importantly, innovation. And it too, has always came out on the other end, and will do so once again if the Great Pandemic of 1918 has taught us anything.
In the year 1918 there were nearly 20,000 established movie theatres in the United States alone. By early October of that same year, nearly all of them were shuddered as the Spanish Flu spread coast to coast. Eventually, after only seven weeks of closure, movie theatres re-opened with a range of new protocols in place to help combat the insidious virus and ease the movie going public back into seats. In the essay “Flu Season: Moving Picture World Reports on Pandemic Influenza, 1918-1919”, Richard Koszarski describes the use of a spray disinfectant, applied not to the theatre seats mind you, but rather on the visitors. I guess desperate times call for desperate measures.
Such measures didn’t seem to stop moviegoers from responding in droves. By the Spring of 1919, audiences had returned in full force, crushing box office numbers as the need for escapism overcame the fears of a worldwide pandemic that had taken the lives of a suspected 60 million people. And we can say with a certain amount of confidence that the same will happen again. Because it won’t be COViD-19 that alters the movie theatre industry, but rather rapid advancement in technology that will be to blame for the next incarnation of the cinema.
Every thirty years or so, the film industry experiences a major technological overhaul. In the early 1920s, we saw the introduction of sound. Thirty years later in the late 1950s we saw color technology become the norm. The early 1990’s gave birth to the CGI generation. And now we are about to experience the next turning point. In fact, the movie theatre industry was already undergoing this next transformation long before the Great Pandemic of 2020 reared its ugly head. COViD-19, if anything, has merely sped up a transition that was already underway.
The rise of digital technology in the delivery of movie entertainment, and the threat of the movie theatre system losing its status as the primary release point for motion pictures began back in 2007, when Netflix first launched its streaming option. Disney+, Peacock TV, Paramount+ and the entire host of new streaming services now available weren’t birthed by the pandemic (even though several may have been launched during it). Streaming entertainment options merely established their foothold during this time when consumers were required to modify their entertainment consumption habits while living in quarantine. And now, streaming has become more definitively adopted because, well, we did what we do best, we adapted.
But where might this leave the old brick and mortar establishments, the movie palaces we once lined up in front of, eager to be the first to glimpse the next big motion picture (or so we will someday explain to our grand children)?
Even if the likes of theatre monarchs such as AMC and Regal Cinemas fold, there will surely be proprietors who will assume their assets at 10 cents on the dollar, and future cinema will rebrand and rebuild. The old brick and mortar establishments aren’t going to vanish no matter what doomsday rhetoric you may read in the media.
But regardless of who is in charge, the next phase of theatre owners will be shepherding in the next big technological movement. This progress will be designed to enhance the cinema going experience in order to seduce theatre goers away from the temptation of simply crashing on the sofa with a remote in hand. Technological adaptation will become vital for theatres if they are to continue playing a pivotal role in the distribution of film entertainment.
Photo by MIKE McGREGOR
Moving forward, theatres will need to raise the value proposition of the theatre going experience as these establishments became palaces once again, and possibly for a far more elitist clientele. Going to the cinema may be like going to the opera or an amusement park. It will be economically geared to the affluent, or those willing to spend like the well-off. It will go far beyond the luxury of seeing a moving picture, on the big screen, in comfy recliner chairs, while be served food and imbibing in top shelf liqueur. We have already surpassed this stage. The increased revenue attached to 3D screenings, restaurant style accoutrement or reserved seating hasn’t lifted the theatres out of crisis mode, nor will it. These are merely window dressings to the experience itself.
And as the release window for films contracts even further, what with many films now being offered both digitally and cinematically on the same "day and date", why would one bother to go to the expense of catching a film on the big screen, unless theatres have more to offer us.
Future cinema will need to evolve and become such a unique experience, that one couldn’t possibly afford to recreate a similar reality at home. Advancements such as interactive multi viewer films, choose your own adventure cinema (broken into VR entertainment-zones) or virtually submersive, multi-sensory movies will need to vastly differentiate between the home viewing experience and the ultimate in theatre entertainment. Theatres will need to become all-encompassing high tech attractions.
Such strategies are now being seriously investigated as the advancement of technology makes such possibilities near realities. Just wait until you see what James Cameron has up his sleeve for the next Avatar release. The cinema going experience is about to take on new heights in innovation, and at just the right time. Future cinema won’t be about what it looks like, it will be about what it feels like.
Unlike the Pandemic of 1918, COViD-19 will indeed be a catalyst that transforms our cinema experiences. Moving forward, it will have us reconsidering the norm and embracing more novel approaches to cinema distribution, whether we are ready to get off the sofa, or not. This transition is inevitable. It will be the only way for the industry to survive, because adapting is what we do best.
Hold on for the ride.