Last week, Warner Brothers took a big swing at the “In Case of Emergency, Break Glass” box and announced that they were releasing their entire 2021 slate direct to HBO Max simultaneously with a theatrical run. No more pushing dates back, no more hedging bets, or trying to predict when the world’s biggest markets would sufficiently recover from the COVID-19 epidemic to allow movie theaters to operate at full capacity. Just a move that, were it to become industry-standard, could threaten the already precarious position of movie theaters in an environment where streaming has become an increasingly attractive option.
The decision sent shockwaves through the industry, with many seeing a larger shift towards streaming as a turning point in the movie theater’s battle to maintain profitability and relevance. However, while doomsayers would have us prematurely weeping at the graveside of our favorite local theaters, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the film industry has been predicting its own demise for almost as long as it’s been around.
While attendance numbers and box office dollars fluctuate, show business is a robust industry full of creative people capable of adapting — especially when money is on the line. The birth of television in the 1950s terrified the major studios. If people could be entertained by famous actors in the comfort of their own homes, why would they ever go back to the theaters?
The response then was to make movies more of a spectacle, to create an experience that couldn’t hope to be replicated by a mere 13-inch black and white television set. Audiences were treated to epic blockbusters like Ben-Hur, Spartacus, and Lawrence of Arabia, full of sweeping vistas, expensive set pieces, casts of thousands, and Cinemascope. The studios tried every gimmick they could think of to get butts in sets, from rudimentary 3D to the significantly less successful Smell-O-Vision. Rather than being cowed by the potential of television to cut in on their profits, they were creatively ambitious enough to recognize an opportunity to redefine what film was capable of.
Netflix first launched its operation’s streaming arm in 2007, followed in short order by several competitors and seemingly unlimited funding for original programming. Again, the film industry struggles with that same quintessential problem that plagued it over fifty years earlier: how do we make people go to the movies when staying home is so much easier?
The studios reuse some of their solutions from the 1950s, as 3D makes a comeback, and tentpole films, this time in the form of superhero franchises, are a key element to every box office lineup. But there’s also a veritable revolution in the physical cinema experience, as many movie theaters attempt to replicate the comforts of home. Plush recliners, assigned seating, and a more expansive food and drink menu accomplish two main things. First, they narrow the gap between the relaxing sofa at home and what was formerly a small, thinly-padded movie theater seat covered in a layer of popcorn butter. And most importantly, it made going to the theater feel like an event.
That’s what’s at the heart of all of this: the simple idea that there’s something about the movie-going experience that home-viewing can’t quite live up to. Of course, any cynic can bemoan the state of cinema, complaining that Disney has taken over everything (it has) and superhero movies suck up all the oxygen to the point where it’s an uphill battle for non-franchise films to have much of an impact at the box office (they do.) These are serious issues the industry will need to reckon with. But at the same time, we’re currently occupying the same calendar year as the first non-English language film to ever win the Best Picture Academy Award. There is an undeniable appetite for original filmmaking, which has been neglected in recent years but would thrive if nourished.
On the surface of it, the pivot to streaming for 2021 feels like a retreat that will have major ripple effects moving forward. But despite all of this, the concept of people not going to the movies in person feels like something unique to this year rather than a harbinger of the future. No streaming service replaces the energy of seeing a film on a massive screen with a live audience. After a pandemic that saw our social connections severed more than ever before, it’s hard to imagine film fans not stampeding back to the movie theaters en masse as soon as it’s safe to do so.
For many, there’s no replacement for the communal cinematic viewing experience. Will some be swayed by the lure of Netflix and Hulu? Sure. But arguably no more than the millions of people who stayed in to watch their favorite shows in the days of must-see TV. Without minimizing the very real financial straits many movie theaters are in right now (funding to support the arts through the pandemic would be greatly appreciated), WB temporarily moving towards streaming in the midst of a once-in-a-century public health crisis is not cinema’s death knell. Movies and the theatrical viewing experience are so much more enduring than that.