Are Movie Theaters “Dead Men Walking?”

The Aurora Theatre in East Aurora, New York. Photo: Hannah Buehler/ WKBW-TV

When Warner Brothers announced earlier this month that it would be releasing its complete slate of 2021 movie titles the same day to both theaters and its streaming service HBO Max, the movie industry lost its collective mind. Film makers, most notably Christopher Nolan, ripped the company for its move. Now, before I get to the heart of this post, let me just say that Warner Brothers was wrong to not include their partners in the decision-making process. Not only were film makers like Nolan caught unawares, so were production companies like Legendary (who finance the films). That was a mistake and it could be a costly one long-term.

The decision by Warner Brothers is the latest in a series of moves by studios to remain profitable in the wake of the pandemic. I’ve already written about how COVID-19 has affected the entertainment industries here, here, and here to include the movie industrial complex. For the most part, production companies shifted release dates in hopes of returning to normal conditions in the not-too-distant future. As time went on, some realized they needed to rethink what was viable in the short to mid-term.

Warner Brother’s own Wonder Woman 1984, which will be released Christmas Day concurrently in both theaters and on HBO Max, had seen its release date moved multiple times, and not just due to the pandemic – its original date was November 1, 2019. It was then delayed to June 5, 2020 (rumored to help set up a soft reboot of the inconsistent DCEU). Then, of course, the pandemic changed everything.

While we learned from the Disney investors presentation last week that their tent pole movies would continue with a theatrical release model (for now), I think the Wonder Woman film was slated for concurrent release for two reasons: 1) The movie was in danger of losing all momentum and becoming dated because of its very strung out marketing schedule. It’s past time for the movie to be released. 2) Its Christmas Day release to theaters and HBO Max is really the best case scenario for the film at this point. Those that can and want to go to theaters will have their best chance to do so during the holidays, while those that are skeptical of going to theaters right now can sign up for HBO Max and watch it at home – a win for Warner Brothers and its parent company AT&T.

Warner Media’s motivations to release their entire slate concurrently aside, this seismic shift in the entertainment landscape has left the movie industry reeling (see what I did there?). Some believe this move is the final nail in the coffin for movie theaters (who have had a hard time staying open since April), as the convenience of watching movies at home will be expected by consumers from now on. Others think this is temporary and strictly COVID-related. Interestingly enough, Disney used the phrase “direct to consumer” multiple times during their presentation, but in the end announced that Black Widow and the rest of their major films were keeping their theatrical release dates. Again, we’ll see where things are in a few months; I still think it’s possible Disney will do a concurrent release to theaters and Disney+ for Black Widow, but time will tell.

Multiple film enthusiasts – from YouTube personalities to Christopher Nolan – are championing / romanticizing the movie-going experience as a sacred social construct. The best way to watch movies, they argue, is in a movie theater with a big screen, big sound, and as a communal experience with other people. (Hence Nolan pushing for his movie Tenet being released to movie theaters earlier this year.)

If this was 1984 or even 2004, these theater enthusiasts would have a point. But today – as home displays become bigger and more high-def each year; as surround sound can be had for minimal cost – the difference in quality of experience between the movie theater and the home theater has shrunk drastically.

Home theaters are becoming more and more common as media components get better and prices plummet.

When was the last time Christopher Nolan had a movie-going experience like the rest of us? You know, not in a closed environment with movie critics and fellow movie-makers? When Nolan goes to the movies, I’m quite sure he’s spared the young couple bringing their baby; the morons lighting up the theater with their phones; the guy taking nine years to open his box of Sno-Caps; the lady yelling advice to the protagonist on screen; the man explaining to his elderly parent what just happened; the ear-splitting sound that has forced me to wear ear protection at times; the insane concession prices; the floors coated with butter…need I go on? This is the actual theater experience.

Sure, theaters have finally figured out that there’s this innovation called reserved seating and that they can have comfortable recliners and still make money. Congratulations. I can have reserved recliners at home too…and the food is a lot better and cheaper. I can also pause the movie when I have to use the bathroom rather either suffer or miss something.

Here’s the thing: I love movies. I’ve been a movie buff for as long as I can remember. Some of my fondest memories are watching old movies with my mom and Akira Kurosawa films with my fellow movie fanatic friend. My wife and I have gone to opening weekend showings of most Marvel and Star Wars movies – not because we wanted to watch them in a theater with a bunch of strangers that would only take away from our enjoyment – but because we wanted to see those movies as soon as possible. While I will concede that the communal movie experience is enjoyable for some, I’m guessing I’m not alone in feeling that I can’t wait to see Wonder Woman 1984 Christmas Day…at home.

So, what if what some fear is true – that Pandora’s Box is open and there’s no going back to the (now) normal three-month theatrical window? (It used to be six months.) Is it the beginning of the end for movie theaters? Will they fade away? Will they become niche like vinyl is in music? All that is certainly possible. However, I believe there is at least one alternative.

Movie theaters could take this as an opportunity / forcing function to evolve. If we indeed come to a point where the majority of movies are released concurrently on digital media and theaters, what could that mean? I can envision theaters that double down on a boutique / high-end experience to truly make going to the theater special.

1. Reserved, comfortable seating. Movie chains have been moving this way for the last few years; this needs to continue. It should be at least as comfortable for someone to watch a movie at a movie theater as it is at home.

2. Full-service menu with servers. Enough with the expensive junk food. Theaters should embrace the draft house mentality in terms of lunch and dinner options and servers to bring customers their food. How? You order your food before the movie begins and receive it during coming attractions and before the feature starts. Allow people of drinking age to order up to two alcoholic drinks – receiving one at the start and one at…

3. Have an intermission built in. How about a 15 minute intermission so servers can get that drink order to you and you can hit the restroom without missing anything.

4. Have showings for 18 and over only. No kids. At all.

5. Have family showings so people like me know not to go to that showing and families can watch the movie on the big screen together without worrying about bothering people.

6. Charge people accordingly. If theaters make it worth it, people who want that experience will pay.

What a model like this could do is have people watch a movie at home on Netflix or HBO Max or Apple TV or whatever, realize they’d like to see it again on the big screen, and then get a bunch friends or family together to have that high-end experience for a true night out. This way, everyone gets the movie but everyone also gets to experience it how they want.

Evolve or…

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