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Death of Movie Theaters

AMC vs Universal Studios

AMC theater has banned Universal Picture films in AMC's theaters. This radical decision was the result of Universal's decision to day-and-date (releasing in digital and theaters at the same time) all their future movies even after the quarantine ends. Universal's decision could be speculated due to the earnings of Trolls World Tour (a digital-release-only) surpassing the earnings of the first Trolls movie (which had a theatrical release), gaining attention to theater companies of their missed earning opportunity. AMC also extends its ban to any other production studio that will decide to day-and-date all the studio's movies. Although Universal does not deny the importance of theatrical release and the desire to continue screening its films in movie theaters, it does not, however, conflict with their decision to become more accessible to day-and-date release.


The Effects of Quarantine in the movie industry

Due to quarantine, people have enjoyed films in the comfort of their homes. I believe many will value the movie theater less and less - a more accelerated rate than the grim future prospects of movie theaters even before the quarantine. Now during and after the pandemic, movie theater conglomerates such as AMC and REGAL are struggling even more with little to zero profits in box office earnings as safety regulation development elongates or complicates the opening process. Even before the pandemic, the film studios have been influenced in this decline by only choosing films that are guaranteed to make a box office profit, focusing on sequels, reboots, and big-blockbuster type movies. This has pushed the independent scene under, only surviving in small theaters and art houses. However, with the increased supply and demand for movie streaming, a new era of film-making and film distribution has arisen.

The act of banning future films of Universal from screening in any AMC theater unveils AMC's old thinking: The thinking that the old formula for making money from movies are rooted in box office exposure. Although the quarantine played a major role in the earnings of Universal's Trolls World Tour, it uncovered that earnings through digital release can match and even surpass earnings from the theatrical release. Will more studios follow the steps of Universal? What if Disney decides to do day and date releases? How would the theater companies react? You can sense the vulnerability of movie theater when one decision (the decision for every studio to day-and-date release) can substantially shrink profits of theater companies have altogether.

The little theaters offer nowadays

The only advantage of watching films in the theater is the authentic experience. It is culturally rooted to have social gatherings through movie theaters: Dates and the occasional indulgence of entertainment. The big screen, the smell of popcorn, the rich sound, and the undivided attention give theaters an experience that is unmatched. But is this just nostalgia in me speaking? Have the convenience in streaming services and improvements of at-home movie presentation improved enough to overtake the movie theater's appeal?

Theaters are struggling to attract audiences. Now there are dine-in theaters, RPX, 4DX, reclining chairs, beds, and blankets. The lists get more lucrative as their struggle prolongs. All of these are great experiences but it comes at a very high price. Now, theaters are selling tickets more for the experience being in a dark room than the quality of the film. I do agree that it brings new experiences but does the price justify it? To some maybe, but to the most, not so much. If a movie releases with day-and-date, would you rather pay $15 each ticket to go to the theater, or pay $4.99 or buy the digital version forever for multiple people. In my case, I do go to the movie theater for blockbuster films with Lucy and her family but maybe once every two months. My desire to go becomes less and less over the years, especially now with the virus. I find most of my movie needs on-demand or on streaming subscriptions.

The accelerated rise of streaming services

As a consumer of streaming services, I see much more offered with the convenience of enjoying a movie or show at home. There are subtitles, language assist options (critical to enjoying foreign movies), the ability to pause the movie, the ability to watch it from any device anywhere and anytime. I can download films for travel entertainment and I can share it with others for free. It is also so much cheaper! People have reverted to investing in a theater setup at home since, over the years, technology has improved dramatically and has become more affordable. This shrinks the gap of what theaters offer and what home movie setup offers.

Everyone benefits from streaming services and digital releases except for theater companies. I find a much more personal experience watching a film at home through Amazon, Netflix, and Criterion Collection. I would only go to theaters for social gatherings. I know there are purists who only watch films during theatrical release dates, which includes many of my friends, but is it enough to keep the theaters as profitable as before? This trend of purist could see its last stance during this generation. Younger generations have already been accustomed to internet commodities, movies included. When Universal releases their new movies, more people will now see it in the comfort of their home for a fraction of a price.

If it wasn't for streaming services, most of the film studios would have not survived or even profited during uncertain times. The film studios would not have introduced its films in streaming services if they thought the future of digital release is not promising. Streaming services also help support smaller studios that focus on untold stories, and original content, which is something that movie lovers missed.

The New Era of Film

Now that movies in streaming services don't need the flashy effects and euphoric feeling as much as blockbuster theatrical films rely on to attract audiences, directors and writers are freer to create their stories again. I believe the future will put more importance on the story of the film than seeing theatricals. More original content is being made thanks to streaming services. Film studios are becoming more creative and more relaxed about what films will be made. A change was in demand, as people are tired of seeing reboots, sequels, and prequels of the same story and universe. Streaming service studios see the need and are producing content to fulfill that need.

I believe this is the new golden age of film making. Knowing that there is global reach, even more now since streaming services provide very cheap viewing prices that can inspire and encourage many unknown filmmakers and storytellers. And in conjunction with more accessible video capturing devices (almost all smartphones now), my hopes for the future of films are high. I expect new styles, voices, perspectives that will challenge societal norms and cultural thinking. It is a very exciting time to be a filmmaker.

As a Filipino disappointed in the current state of Philippine's movie industry, I hope this change will inspire many new stories and visions that the second golden age of the Filipino cinema (Lino Brocka, Mike DeLeon, Ishmael Bernal) offered. There are already great Filipino directors now (Lav Diaz and Brillante Mendoza), but their reach does extend to the general public. Studios have used the same formula for years, strictly for profit. I hope we break out of that formula soon and make films have internal resonance again. I encourage everyone to look into international films because there are many incredible perspectives that touched the craft of film-making.

The rebuttal: How can theater companies survive.

Although I believe the theaters are on the decline, there might be factors that might prove otherwise. Since the quarantine has kept the urges contained, there could be a resurgence of social activity after the quarantine. Theaters could adapt to the changes by having dividers between each seat and have better air filter technology. New technology can keep theaters thriving as did the air conditioner did for movie theaters in the 1920s. If it wasn't for the air cooling in movie theaters, watching movies would have continued to be uncomfortable in the extreme heat of summer.

There could also be a new gimmick that can make the theater experience like no other. Just tossing ideas: interactive space, cheaper prices, breaking out of the old formula.

When movie-pass first came with the $10 monthly and unlimited movie entry, everyone flocked to the movie theater exploiting its extreme value. I watched so many movies that summer, going five times per month. It was what everyone wanted, and there was a resurgence of non-frequent-movie-goer, aka my dad, who even went to enjoy movie theaters again. With the movie pass incident, it showed that there was a demand for people to visit movie theaters. However, the normal price prevented those, after movie-pass changed its terms and eventually going bankrupt, from ever returning to movie theaters.

It is up to an unexpected technology that can save the theater-going experience. Stories can be enhanced if aromatics and haptic feedback are used in theaters. Or an idea as far fetched as Willy Wonka's taste television. Maybe the architecture of theaters will be very different in the future if it still survives. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst (Worst meaning the end of film theaters).

There is however an undervalued viewing experience that has existed: drive-in theaters. Theater companies can turn their focus to drive-in theater as it already offers isolation and is fairly safe. It has worked for many years and it will continue to work if the demand is there. The only downside, I see is the demographic this will benefit. People living in the suburbs or rural communities can benefit from this the most. Since most of the world's population is concentrated in packed cities, finding the real estate to have a drive-in theater in the city is very expensive. People would need to drive outside the city to enjoy drive-in theaters. Another problem with this solution is that it is required to have a car to watch a movie. Will there be Uber/Lyft movie services for drive-in theaters? It is a funny thought but then again, going into a stranger's car was a strange thought back then as well. In the future of big-screen screenings, Drive-in theater seems like the most convenient option since it already has existed.

Nyv Mercado

Level Nine Productions


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