Hollywood vs. The Pandemic: Will COVID-19 Kill Theaters or Can They Survive?

Welcome to “Hollywood vs. The Pandemic,” a new column where I, Scott Menzel, will take a look at the entertainment industry and how COVID-19 has impacted it. Before I begin, I want to remind everyone that these columns are my opinion and what I believe is happening or will happen in the near future. I welcome anyone who reads this article to agree or disagree with it; I don’t mind hearing or writing constructive thoughts and opinions. I am passionate about the industry, which serves as the main reason I’m starting this column. My hope is that these articles will ignite a larger conversation about each of the topics being discussed. I want to begin this Hollywood vs. The Pandemic journey with the subject of movie theaters and whether or not I believe they will survive after the pandemic.

Where does my movie theater love come from?

As I get into answering the question above, it’s important to point out that going to a movie theater has always been one of my favorite past times. I fell in love with going to the movies at a very young age and spent most of my weekends from the age of six going and watching as many films as possible. Growing up, I frequently visited Rutgers Plaza 6 in Somerset, NJ, or the Dunellen Theatre. Around the age of ten, a Regal Cinemas opened in South Plainfield, NJ, and it instantly became my go-to theater. I remember lying to my parents and telling them that I was going to hang out with friends but instead would ride my bike over five miles each way to watch a movie at the Regal.

My love for the movies only grew stronger as I matured. I vividly remember my first trip to California and seeing Lost & Delirious at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in West Hollywood. That experience instantly made me fall in love with arthouse cinema. Lost & Delicious made me realize there were many other films out there besides the ones released by major studios. This is where my passion for Indie films started, and it is all because I randomly stopped at a small movie theater in West Hollywood, which was playing a bunch of films that I never heard of.

That night I took a risk that led me to discover other indie films like RushmoreDonnie Darko, and Ghost World. Independent cinema gave me a whole new appreciation for film as an art form. I became so obsessed with independent movies that I actually drove four hours roundtrip, at least once a week, to see an independent film at one of the only movie theaters in New Jersey that played them.

Since 2001, in addition to seeing the majority of films released by major studios, I went out of my way to see at least one new independent film each week. I was addicted to the movies, and when I was in High School and College, I realized that this sort of obsession was not commonplace. In fact, if it wasn’t for a major blockbuster, most people at my high school or college had no idea about the majority of the movies that I was seeing. Even some of my close friends would be like, “you saw what?” I loved going to the movies, but the majority of those around me didn’t have the same desire to visit their local cinema as often as yours truly.

Why? Well, I don’t have an answer to that. All I can state is obvious, which is everyone has different hobbies and interests. There isn’t always a clear reason why one person is drawn to a particular hobby or interest over something else, but it is an important thing to note. In fact, it sort of leads me to another important question, which is…

Who was going to the movies before the pandemic, and how often were they going? 

As a film critic/entertainment journalist, it took me years before I realized I lived in a bubble. I live in an entertainment bubble, and most of the people I associate with or talk to regularly also live in that bubble. They live and breathe entertainment. It could be film, tv, music, theater, or a combination of all or some of those things. I consume some aspect of entertainment every single day. While this may seem like “the norm” to those who work in entertainment, in reality, the vast majority of people in the world do not. And since I am aware this isn’t “normal” for most people, I can look outside the industry bubble and answer the question at hand. This leads me to a survey done by Statista in June 2019, which states:

Just 14 percent of U.S. adults visited a movie theater one or more times per month and 46 percent stated that they went to the cinema to watch a movie once a year or less.

While the above statistics may seem extreme, I believe they are 100% accurate and represent the majority of Americans. In fact, I would encourage everyone who is reading this to ask a friend or family member, one who isn’t involved or wants to work in the industry, the question, “what was the last film you saw in a movie theater?” I would bet the answer will surprise you. And, please keep in mind that I am asking you to ask, “What was the last movie you saw in a theater?

Anyway, the conversation about the rise and fall of movie theaters is not something that has just popped up during the pandemic. It has been a serious topic that has come up year after year for as long as I can remember. I believe it is continuously brought up is because fewer people are going out to the movies regularly. While the box office numbers may look like movie theaters are alive, and well, I would implore you to dig deeper and look at the available data, including the total number of film releases, ticket prices, movie budgets, and, of course, the total box office gross.

The image above is a screenshot from Box Office Mojo. It shows the total gross domestic US box office numbers for the last 20 years and includes the number of films released during each calendar. A simple glance at the numbers would make one think that everything is hunky-dory, but the box office return is not what it used to be. If you look at 2010, there were 651 movies released in a theater with a total box office gross of $10.1 billion. Now, fast forward 9 years later to 2019, and there are 909 movies released with a total box office gross of $11.3 billion. Yes, the money is higher, but there were 258 additional films added into the mix. That’s a whole lot more content being released with not a huge increase in the box office.

Furthermore, this doesn’t take into consideration any of the other aspects, as I pointed out previously. While I will not do an overall breakdown of each film and its budget, I want to address the other elephant in the room — the increase in ticket prices from 2010 to 2019. According to The Numbers.com, the movie ticket’s average price went up from $7.89 in 2010 to $9.11 in 2019. Again, the $1.22 increase may not seem like a lot, but it is, especially when you add in the cost of concessions, which have also gone up significantly.

So, just looking at these two factors alone, you can see that there is a decline. If you want to dig into this even further, I suggest you look at the alarming number of films released each year and how many of them actually make money at the box office. For shits and giggles, out of the 909 movies released in 2019, only 107 of those releases made over $20 million at the box office during that calendar year. That means that the remaining 802 movies made $20 million or less, which isn’t good for business.

So are movie theaters dying, and will COVID-19 be the final nail in the coffin? 

My answer is yes and no. While some movie theaters are in trouble and will close, others will survive. The film industry is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and Hollywood studios will never let movie theaters disappear completely.

According to NATO, there are 40,837 screens in the US (40,313 indoor and 524 outdoor) across 5,803 locations (5,482 indoor and drive-in 321) in the United States. That is a lot of movie theaters, and I will predict that some will be closing their doors forever in 2020. However, while all theaters suffered due to COVID, several of these theaters were already in danger before the pandemic.

In addition to those theaters that were struggling before the pandemic hit, theaters that mainly play indie films are in big trouble. As much as I love my indies, most of them don’t make much money at the box office. This has been apparent for many years. The occasional breakout hit like Parasite gives smaller releases hope, but for every Parasite, there are at least 50 films like Blinded by the Light that won’t break even at the box office.

Again, the facts are all there. All you have to do is look up all of the movies nominated for a Spirit Award in any year over the past 35 years to see how little money the majority of them made at the box office. Indie movies were already struggling to find screens and bring in audiences, so my guess is the pandemic will result in many of those arthouse theaters either closing or switching their programming to show a few bigger budget films to offset the limited box office return of the smaller titles. I believe some of those arthouse theaters will survive this, but those will mainly be located in major cities like NYC and LA, where people more frequently go to a theater to see an independent movie.

This is also a perfect time to discuss the experience of being in a movie theater. While I generally enjoy seeing a movie on the big screen, I have had my fair share of bad experiences in a theater. Whether it was a group of rowdy teenagers or sitting next to someone who can’t stay off their phone for more than two minutes, most of us have had at least one bad experience while being at a theater. And for those of us who work in the industry and attend multiple screenings a week, the odds of having a bad moviegoing experience occur frequently. Our bad experiences don’t usually stop us from going to the next screening, but that is because it is part of our job. However, that bad experience does leave a bad taste in our mouths as it often becomes a topic of discussion on social media or at another screening later in the week.

Now, imagine someone who only goes to the movies four or five times a year, and they have a bad experience. Do you think that person is going to come back? My guess is probably not, and if they do, the experience will cause them to alter where and when they go. I can speak from my own experience when I used to go to several movie theaters, but after I had a bad experience or two, I would avoid going back to that particular theater like the plague. People don’t want to pay money for a bad experience. And the more people I talk to, the more I hear about why they would rather watch a movie at home. The three most common complaints are cost, being around rude people, and cell phone use. I rarely hear someone say, “I don’t go to the movies because I saw a bad movie.” It is usually an outside factor that causes the average person to reconsider going to a movie.

So what does this mean for the future of movie theaters and Hollywood?

There are going to be a lot of changes in Hollywood. A seismic shift is already happening in how audiences watch films, thanks to streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video. As the major studios attempt to catch up to streaming giants like Netflix, don’t be surprised to see more of the content being released on their streaming service. In fact, it has already been announced in Variety that Disney is going to reorganize with a primary focus on streaming content.

But once again, this shift started way before the pandemic as many people from all across the globe have decided to stay home to Netflix and Chill rather than go to a movie theater. The major studios are just late to the party, but I am confident that they will catch up sooner rather than later. There is currently so much content available from television shows to movies that even if you only subscribed to one or two streaming services, you could watch something new every day. Not to mention that the quality of films and television shows released on these platforms has only gotten better.

As someone who swears by seeing a movie in a theater, I have ventured out to see a few movies during the pandemic. On average, I have driven 1 to 2 hours each way to see a movie over the past few months. And while I loved watching Tenet on the big screen at the Regal Irvine Spectrum and being at the Rose Bowl for the opening night of The New Mutants, when I looked at the cost and the amount of time that it took to get back and forth, I can’t honestly say that I didn’t feel like it was worth it. I could argue that it was nice to get out of the house and watch a movie without looking at my cell phone or pausing the film multiple times to do something around the house. Those are definitely perks, but the 2-4 hours in the car combined with the cost of tickets and snacks just didn’t make the experience worth it. It took me longer to drive to and from the theater than it did to watch the movie.

Going on my instincts and knowledge alone, I think Hollywood is going to completely restructure its distribution model. You will still have movie theaters, and they are still going to play huge tentpole films like No Time to Die and Wonder Woman 1984. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Hollywood isn’t going to let those movies die because they are only one piece of the puzzle. Along with the theatrical release of those major films comes various clothing lines, video games, action figures, and much more. Those things aren’t going to disappear, and those big releases bring in big bucks. Studios also get to double dip with those films because people tend to go see them in a theater and then purchase them on Blu-ray or Digital a few months later. It’s double the profit for studios, so those types of movies will keep theaters alive.

This brings me to the remaining 800 films that would typically open in theaters yet make a small amount of money. My prediction is that the bulk of those titles will be released exclusively on VOD or a streaming platform. There will probably be a few dozen films out of those 800 releases that will end up being released in select theaters nationwide because they could have oscar potential. While I still don’t think these films will have a huge box office return, given the limited number of options playing in most theaters, these films could generate some decent money simply because they are alternative programming.

Closing remarks

Going to the movies has and will always be an escape for me. I had a fairly rough childhood, but the movies were always there for me. If I had a bad day or a lot on my mind, I would head to a local movie theater, and for the next couple of hours, I would forget about everything. I love sitting in a dark theater and being immersed in a movie. I go to the movies because I like the big-screen experience. I like feeling the energy of an audience. It’s an experience and one that I will continue to partake in as long as I can.

However, after spending the past 8 months watching movies from the comfort of my own home, I can honestly say that I have gotten somewhat used to it. I never thought I would say this, but it is true, even though it is a completely different experience. I admittedly don’t find myself as immersed as I would be in a theater, but I have learned to adjust to it. I do think watching so many movies at home has totally impacted my viewing habits. I can’t imagine being willing to drive 45 minutes to an hour after this to see a small indie film.

Sure, I may go every now and again, but I don’t see myself driving an hour just to see a film like The Rental or Possessor. In fact, I recently attended a screening of Blumhouse’s Freaky and was actually annoyed I spent 3 hours driving to and from the drive-in plus $28 on a ticket to see the movie. I would have much rather stayed home and watched the movie on my tv. In fact, I even think that I would have enjoyed the film even more from the comfort of my own home.

With all of this in mind, when theaters reopen, I will happily return but not nearly as often as I did before. I have learned to value my time over the past eight months and can see myself evaluating what I am doing with it. There is no denying I will be in a theater as soon as something like Wonder Woman 1984 or Jurassic World: Dominion opens, but when it comes to seeing a documentary or an indie film with little to no buzz, I can definitely see myself requesting a link and watching it from the comfort of my couch.

Written by
Born in New Jersey, Scott Menzel has been watching film and television since he was three years old. Growing up, he watched as many movies as he could and was highly influenced by the films of Tim Burton, John Hughes, Robert Zemeckis, and Steven Spielberg. Scott has an Associate's Degree in Marketing, a Bachelor's in Mass Media, Communications, and a Master's in Electronic Media. He has been writing film reviews under the alias of MovieManMenzel since 2003 and started his writing career as a contributing critic at IMDB.com and Joblo.com. In 2009, Scott launched MovieManMenzel.com where he posted several of his film reviews but in 2011 decided to shut down the site when he launched We Live Film.com. In 2015, We Live Film became We Live Entertainment. The domain name change occurred after months of debate but was done so that he and his fellow staff members could write about anything and everything in the world of entertainment.

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