Editorial, Opinion

EDITORIAL: The movie theater industry will survive, but small-scale cinema needs our support to recover

Lights dim and a quiet hush settles over the room. The opening music begins to play from the surround-sound speakers, demanding attention to a large, all-consuming screen. From your lap, the smell of popcorn wafts up into the cool, AC-blasted air.

This is a sacred place, where the outside world is suspended for two hours and rules are unconditionally respected.

The place where you were introduced to Disney and buttery, popcorn fingers.

Alexia Nizhny/DFP STAFF

The place where you went with your friends to watch your first PG-13 movie.

The place where you cried and celebrated a film with long-awaited representation.

Or, simply the place to fangirl over Timothée Chalamet.

This is a movie theater.

Unfortunately, despite the fond memories they hold, movie theaters are among the businesses hit hardest during the pandemic, facing mandatory closures and restrictions. AMC Theatres barely escaped bankruptcy this year, and it’s a large, international chain business. Small, local theaters that don’t have the same resources, investors or audience base may not come out of this alive.

In Boston, movie theaters are just beginning to reopen. Two AMC locations in the city have allowed up to 25-percent capacity, as well as private room rentals of up to 20 people.

But even with these reopenings, audiences are hesitant to sit in a closed room for an extended period of time. Only 27 percent of all American adults are ready to go back to in-person cinema viewing, according to a weekly survey conducted by Morning Consult.

There’s a fear that movie theaters might go extinct after the pandemic. These polled statistics aren’t exactly promising. With convenient streaming services such as Netflix, Disney+ and HBO Max satisfying our every need for entertainment, will movie-going culture die out entirely?

The film industry is hurting, that’s for sure. Warner Brothers recently announced all of its films would be released simultaneously on HBO Max and in theaters this year. This same-day streaming was previously unthinkable — the pandemic made streaming much more viable, and this is a change that might be permanent moving forward.

Even before the pandemic, sales have been declining for 17 years and competition from these platforms led to a five percent national decrease in ticket sales in 2019. During the pandemic, sales fell 82 percent.

But Harvard Business Review is hopeful movie theaters will survive, citing in an article how previous digitization of books or other media had a minimal impact on traditional products’ sales.

Plus, the industry needs theatrical releases. Most big blockbuster titles are waiting for swift vaccine distribution — once life returns to normal, they’ll be able to release in theaters as usual.

Actors, directors, producers and cinematographers don’t put in all their time, money and effort to lose out on a big release and the treatment the films deserve. Digital releases will never match the profit of national or global theatrical releases.

Actors specifically need that extra profit because some make their living from a portion of the box-office revenues. And if the open letter filmmaker Denis Villeneuve — director of 2021’s “Dune” — wrote to HBO Max is any indication, they are unhappy with Warner Bros’ shift to streaming.

The film industry as a whole simply won’t let movie theaters die — or at least not without a fight. Though streaming might become a larger, more permanent part of our lives, watching a movie in an auditorium will always outrank binge-watching in your bedroom alone. The National Association of Theatre Owners agrees on this.

“People will return to movie theaters because that is who people are,” NATO stated in a press release in March of last year, “In the uncertain, difficult economy ahead, movie theaters will fill the role they always have in boom times and in recessions – the most popular, affordable entertainment available outside the home.”

It may be more expensive and less convenient than streaming, but there will always be an incentive to watch new releases on that big, wide screen. It’s the thrill of the experience, the built-up anticipation and the shared bond with others that Netflix Party or Scener can’t replace.

Plus, a one-time ticket to a movie is much more affordable than a monthly subscription, especially if you don’t watch TV that often.

Yet even if our theaters survive, the landscape might be forever changed by the pandemic. For one, it may take a while for theaters to pull themselves out of the economic depression they’re currently in, which means independent, local favorites could die out or be replaced by chains such as AMC or Showcase Cinemas.

Additionally, if same-day releases become a permanent fixture in our society, the way we define film success may no longer be reliant on box-office sales. And of course, there are artistic implications if we continue to prioritize the production of films for smaller screens — changes regarding aspect ratios and the details of moving parts.

We’ll leave you with this final shot: Cinema theaters have mostly reopened, but the small, cozy business down the street has shuttered permanently. It will no longer support its local employees, artists and filmmakers.

It’s easy to take our entertainment for granted and think all is well as long as big companies stay intact. But these small theaters are the flavor and spice of the industry. If you can afford to, take the time today to donate to or support local theaters such as Coolidge Corner Theatre — which is offering virtual screening and private movie parties.

 

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