Going to see a movie in theaters was an integral part of many American childhoods, including my own. Whether it was for a family outing, a first date or just a fun day spent with friends, going out to watch a new movie in theaters has been a way for people to come together and spend time with each other while admiring a piece of art. Movie theaters have been suffering from this pandemic as much as we have, but it has only been a matter of time since their extinction would come.
Since the first movie theatre opened in 1905, Americans have been infatuated with the idea of storytelling via a moving picture on a screen. For years, movie theatres have been sanctuaries for people of all ages and backgrounds to congregate and share a unique bonding experience that is unmatched by anything else. Movie theaters have connected Americans in an impactful way, but even before COVID-19 hit, movie theaters were struggling to maintain an audience.
The first problem that movie theaters started facing was the invention and mass production of television. According to an article from the University of Dayton, televisions made moving pictures more accessible to people in the comfort of their own homes. After that, multiplexes started causing the movie theater industry trouble. A multiplex is essentially the standard movie theater that we think of now: an array of different rooms so that people can watch different movies at the same time. As the article states, the influx of new equipment led to bankruptcy in multiple firms, but many still survived by increasing admissions prices to pay back the debts that they owed.
The article also reports that from 1999 to 2001, America saw the greatest decline of movie theaters they had ever experienced. This was because of the invention of streaming services in 1995, according to an article from The Guardian. Like it’s predecessor of television, these services made movies more accessible to people in their own homes. Streaming services thus became the biggest challenge that movie theaters had to face – until the global pandemic.
During the time of COVID-19, many movie theaters were forced to discontinue operations because of the guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even though it hurt their business tremendously. For example, Regal, the runner up to AMC Theaters, has just announced that they are closing all of their 500 locations, according to NPR. This is partially because major movies that would have gained a substantial amount of revenue for these theaters are pushing their release dates to 2021, but it is also because of the takeover of streaming services.
This virus already has, and will forever, alter American culture; but it is now forcing an entire industry to either completely modify itself or shut down entirely.
Streaming services, not surprisingly, have been handling the decline of movie theaters extremely well. Instead of releasing new films in theaters, many producers have been distributing films to streaming services, and either charging audiences to pay to watch the movie from the streaming service, or releasing it on a certain date for free. The problem with making movies available for free on streaming services is that studios will not make revenue from individuals watching the movies at theaters. Because of the need for studios to survive during the pandemic, though, the option to stream new movies has become increasingly enticing.
The one thing that would have saved movie theaters may also be nullified as well: Oscar eligibility. Because of the pandemic, the Academy has revised their rules and eligibility for nominations to include films that were “intended for theatrical release,” but were instead released via a streaming service and films that were released in one of six qualifying locations. These new rules might signify the end of movie festivals, and movie theaters may and will become a rarity among Americans.
Other aspects of American culture that may be altered are things that have already been feeling the impacts of technology’s looming presence. Shopping malls, restaurants and performing arts groups have all been affected by COVID-19, but there is hope for many of these groups. For theaters, though, a replacement is, and has been, readily available for a long time. It was simply a matter of time before that replacement took over.