In a recent article for Slash Film entitled 3 Ways Hollywood May Change Permanently After the Pandemic, writer Hoai-Tran Bui lays out a grim future for the motion picture business post-Covid-19. Are we looking at the Imminent demise of movie theaters?
Bui’s entire article is premised around a report from “boutique research agency” MoffettNathanson. The study, entitled “Say Goodbye to Hollywood”, is shot through with doom and gloom. There are only two problems with the report as far as I can see — I’ve never heard of MoffettNathanson, and Bui doesn’t seek input or reaction from any of the studios, theater chains, or streaming services to leaven the conclusions. If one were to do nothing but read the article (or, presumably, the research), one would assume the theater experience as we’ve come to understand it has one foot in the grave.
Just because I’ve never heard of MoffettNathanson doesn’t mean they don’t have chops. On the other hand, the sections of their report Bui cites strike me as shallow. Mostly, the agency predicts things that were already underway before the current state of affairs (talk about hedging your bets). For instance, they say the mid- to small-budget motion picture is in its death throes. This has been true for over a decade. Studios would much rather go all-in on a tentpole movie and take a chance on winning big than finance a series of smaller movies and risk none of them taking off. Anyone who wasn’t aware of this in the age of the Marvel Cinematic Universe simply hasn’t been paying attention.
But MoffettNathanson’s conclusion here, at least as Bui presents it, is incomplete. Smaller movies are much less likely to get theatrical distribution, but that doesn’t mean they’re gone from the entertainment landscape. They’re not dead; they’ve moved to television.
When we say “smaller movies” we’re, of course referring to budget, but, by extension, we’re also talking about genre. The cinema is now the province of expensive action and superhero movies while dramas and the like have migrated to outlets like HBO, Netflix and Hulu. I predict less expensive films which rely less on spectacle and more on writing and acting will never disappear — much as the publication of Jurassic Parkdidn’t spell doom for authors like John Grisham and John Irving. If any sphere of entertainment only caters to one segment of the market, it’s leaving money on the table. The suits are aware of this, and no suit worth his salt wants to leave money on the table.
MoffettNathanson also say that the theatrical window will narrow and movies will go to VOD and streaming much quicker than they did in the pre-coronavirus era. This at least is born out by the evidence. Given the nationwide lockdown, studios have had little choice but to rush their movies onto iTunes, Disney+, HBO, and the like. When there are no movie houses to show your films, you have to either take the next best option or take a bath. I haven’t seen how any of these movies have done financially, but I suspect the numbers have been decent. The studios have a captive audience right now, so parents, in particular, are probably more than willing to drop a few bucks on family films like Trolls: World Tour. We may never know “World Tour’s” iTunes numbers — DreamWorks will keep its cards close to its vest — but I wouldn’t be surprised if they equaled or exceeded theatrical projections.
It’s a weird time.
But, here again, MoffettNathanson has hedged its bets. Studios have been vying with the theater chains for years for shorter distribution windows. If anything, the pandemic will simply speed up the process.
The report goes on to make grim predictions about the state of theaters once they’re able to reopen. The big chains will likely a) invest much less in renovation and maintenance and b) they’ll raise prices. You as the moviegoer will be paying more for less. This is a sad state of affairs, but, until cinemas can recover from the tremendous losses they’ll suffer during the span of the pandemic, they’ll have very little to invest in infrastructure. I happen to think this is the part of their report MoffettNathanson got most right.
Still, it’s hard to imagine a movie like, say, Avengers: Endgame forgoing a theatrical run in favor of streaming. A movie that size is designed for a communal experience. In fact, I’ve seen people package audience reactions to that film in particular as reminders of what we’re currently missing out on in the era of “safer at home”.
I don’t think we’re looking at the imminent demise of movie theaters. They might be a little worse for wear, but they’ll be back.