“I am very confident that movie theaters will survive, but how new movies are released and how people watch them will change forever.”
Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to experience director David Lynch’s surreal masterpiece, Mulholland Drive, on 35mm film at the legendary Music Box Theatre in Lakeview. It was one of the few times that I had attended a movie theatre since the advent of the pandemic, and being in the nearly sold out 750-seat auditorium with fellow cinephiles and a beautiful surround sound system reminded me of the unwavering magic that comes with seeing a film on the big screen. However, the movie-going experience, as we know it, may never fully recover from the pandemic.
While movie theaters’ survival across the country was greatly threatened by the pandemic, they now face yet another challenge as they seek to lure audiences back — with the rise and dominance of the streaming era. This past year, streaming services such as HBO Max and Disney+ released many of their summer blockbusters on their streaming platforms in addition to exclusive theatre runs. Disney’s Black Widow was available for a $29.95 rental on streaming services and performed quite well on Disney+ as it earned $60 million in the first week. Moreover, Black Widow’s box office numbers plummeted by 67% in weekend two, which is the largest drop ever for a Marvel film. Having the opportunity to rent a new film for $29.95 on streaming services is a major appeal to families because of the increasing prices for theater tickets. As of 2021, the average price for a movie ticket in the U.S. is $9.50, and a family of four would pay less money to rent Black Widow at home than physically attending a movie theater to watch the film. Between expensive concession snacks and theater tickets, a night out at the movies has become an expensive activity for families.
As movie theaters begin to reopen, independent art house cinemas have a particularly tough road ahead of them because they now have to compete with both streaming services and big-name theaters like AMC and Regal Cinemas. Most audiences are currently going to the movie theaters to experience hot blockbusters on the big screen at their local AMC, and independent art house cinemas are not playing these blockbusters. They are primarily focused on playing foreign language films, Hollywood classics and new indie films, many of which are now found on streaming services.
The Gene Siskel Film Center, an art house cinema in the Loop, was recently reopened in August 2021 after being closed for 17 months. The film center is currently operating at 80% capacity, requiring proof of vaccination and masks to watch a film. Since its reopening, the theatre’s director of programming, Rebecca Fons, said, “Our largest crowds have been for classic film. The new films, either because they are on streaming services or don’t feel like critical viewing, have not performed as well.” However, Julia Ducournau’s new film Titane, which won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, is currently performing very well at the theater, bringing in a heap of younger audiences.
In addition to reopening, the theater has continued to offer films via their streaming service for audiences who still do not feel comfortable going back to movie theaters during an ongoing pandemic. While the center has begun to play more mainstream films such as Paul Schrader’s new film, The Card Counter, to draw more audiences back into the theatre and get the business running again, Fons says that the theater still won’t play the next Marvel or Star Wars film. “We are dipping our toes into those art-house-adjacent films,” she said.
Amid the rise of streaming services, Fons says that all movie theaters will undoubtedly be negatively impacted: “Fewer people will come, there are no two ways about it.” In Fons’ words, “balancing programming and patronage” is key to her job as she strives to create a diverse and eclectic slate of films. “We have to play films that we feel will bring in audiences and sometimes that means retrospectives of Italian filmmakers and other times that means the new Wes Anderson film that everyone is very excited about,” she said.
According to Fons, the theater’s priority remains the same: “To show films that you can’t see anywhere else in the city of Chicago.” Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming blockbuster, Dune, although a major attraction among the theater’s target audience, will not be screened at the center because it is too “mainstream,” said Fons. The film will be playing non-stop at every AMC and Regal theater throughout Chicago, therefore playing it at the center would not adhere to its priority of curating a unique slate of films.
Before the pandemic, movies used to have a theatrical window in which they were exclusive to theaters for 75 to 90 days and would then be released on streaming services or DVDs. When the pandemic hit, the 90-day theatrical window was nonexistent as movies were primarily being released on streaming services with small theatrical runs. The same-day release of movies on streaming services and in cinemas was having substantial negative effects on movie theaters because audiences were choosing to stream new films at home instead of going to cinemas. However, recently, Warner Brothers finalized a deal with AMC to make movies in 2022 exclusive to theaters for a 45-day period. Ahead of the deal, Warner Brothers was planning to continue releasing their movies simultaneously on HBO Max and in movie theaters, but now audiences will have to wait six weeks after a movie has been released in theaters to stream it at home.
Although Warner Brothers has made progress in promoting the moviegoing experience, some people remain uncertain about what the future holds for cinemas throughout the U.S. “The deal gives me pause. I’m curious to see what they will do next year,” said Kyle Cubr, Music Box Theatre’s operation manager, who is still not completely convinced by the Warner Brothers deal with AMC. Currently, the Warner Brothers deal only covers the studio’s releases in 2022. In 2023, Warner Brothers may no longer choose to release their movies exclusively to theaters. Cubr acknowledges the growing uncertainty revolving around theater’s survival as streaming services become more prevalent. “I could see virtual cinema being the thing that might supplant art house theatres in certain places,” he said. The Music Box Theatre reopened last year in January only for private screenings, then transitioned to limited public weekend showtimes at the end of February, and finally returned to five-day-a-week showtimes in March.
The theater is currently open at full capacity, requiring audiences to show proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test in the last 72 hours. According to Cubr, making it through the pandemic was tough as Music Box had to close twice and many doubts filled his head: “Are we going to have a job? Are we going to survive this? How long is this going to last?” However, since March, the Music Box has been doing very well as it has had many sold-out shows such as Dune and The French Dispatch, both of which recently premiered at the theater.
Music Box is one of the oldest and most famous art house cinemas in the nation, so it would not be apt to employ its success as a representation of how all art house cinemas in the United States are doing right now. There are many other, lesser-known, art house cinemas located in smaller cities that will face major difficulties as streaming services begin to dominate the market. Yet, there are signs of hope for the future of cinema as major film studios like Warner Brothers begin to prioritize theatrical windows. However, the major question is if other studios will follow in their footsteps and if Warner Brothers will continue to prioritize the theatrical window once their one-year deal is over.
There are many uncertainties regarding the future of cinema, and it will simply never be what it once was as our generation enters the streaming era. I am very confident that movie theaters will survive, but how new movies are released and how people watch them will change forever.
Header image by Aylene Lopez