The Next Picture Show: A Silver Lining for Theaters
“Nobody wants to come to shows no more. Kids got baseball in the summer, television all the time.” – Miss Mosey, The Last Picture Show
“Because everything is flat and empty here, and nothin’ to do. Just remember, beautiful, everything gets old if you do it often enough.” – Lois, The Last Picture Show
I should disclose something from the outset. This is an optimistic essay about the future of movies. What? Let me go even further down the rabbit-hole of sheer absurdity: this is an optimistic essay about the future of movie theaters.
Tenet has been pushed back. Again. The movie reportedly needs at least $450 million to earn a profit – or wait, maybe that’s $800 million. Speculative marketing budgets and questionable corporate decision-making during a global pandemic aside, Tenet is a rare movie. In 2019, 11 movies topped $750 million at the global box office – every single one based on lucrative existing intellectual property. In fact, the top 18 english-language films were all based on prior IP. Rewind to 2017, when the top 15 live-action, english-language movies at the global box office all got there on the back of well-known IP. The 16th? Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, pulling in just over $525 million.
COVID-19 is catastrophic in its scope and impact. The effects have trickled down through the movie industry, but as a group, theaters may be left with the fewest options. Production schedules have left studios with a 6-12-month backlog of films, and new streaming services, VOD, and drive-in theaters give them options for creative release. But five months in, most movie theaters remain closed, and those that have begun to open face the increasing costs of safety in the COVID-era.
This is undoubtedly bad. Movie theaters serve important, central roles in community development and unification. And those that are vulnerable to temporary business disruptions are those that we need most: the arthouses that show smaller and international movies, the repertory houses that bring history to our fingertips, and the single-screen theaters that anchor smaller towns across the country. With rent coming due and nobody to fill seats, hundreds of these movie theaters will inevitably shut down.
But there’s a silver lining: fewer movie theaters could be a good thing. Before the industry-shattering Jaws, most movies opened slowly (The Godfather is one notable exception). Opening weekend was important, but word-of-mouth was everything for the box office: weekly totals would grow as movies slowly expanded into more and more theaters. But Jaws revolutionized the industry with a barrage of print and television advertising. The formula for box office success became simple: penetrate the American consciousness before release, fill every theater with your film, and rake in 35-50% of your total receipts in the first week.
As studio chief Peter Gruber put it: “These wide releases, these enormous expenditures of prints and advertising in publicity and marketing costs and expenditures. They would create this enormous swell of momentum that would create gargantuan box office from the beginning."
But for Jaws in 1975, wide release meant 465 theaters and $7 million in its first week, on a $12 million budget. Today, it means 4,000 theaters and $150 million on opening weekends. Before COVID, there were nearly twice as many movie screens in the U.S. (40,449) as there were in 1987.
So what happens when there are only 2,500 theaters and 25,000 screens? And more importantly, what happens when people aren’t comfortable packing into crowded theaters like sardines, when theaters use social distancing measures and fill theaters to somewhere between 25% and 75% capacity? A combination of fewer theaters, fewer screens, and smaller crowds-per-screening could knock the film world off its axis. Even movies that sell every ticket possible could be limited to less than half of the maximum opening weekends of the pre-COVID era.
The studios have a cache of $100 million-plus budgeted blockbusters in waiting – all the way through 2028’s Avatar 5. But after a handful begin to collapse under the weight of their own budgets, might studios change tact? Capturing the zeitgeist could become a post-release marathon rather than a pre-release sprint. And once box office returns don’t mirror massive advertising expenditures, they may correlate more with word-of-mouth. Studios who hemorrhaged cash during COVID will have less appetite for big-budget risks.
This is only one future. The shrinking number of screens could trigger an equal but opposite reaction. As seen with Tenet, studios may turn to international audiences – a direction that would push them further toward big-budget blockbusters that rely on globally recognizable IP. The massive market in China offers tantalizing returns, but requires artistic compromise that could nudge an already risk-averse industry even further toward an antiseptic, offend-nobody commodity. And a turn away from small markets could exacerbate theater closures: the elimination of thousands of screens could come primarily from communities with only one theater, rather than from the cities with dozens.
And we would be ill-advised to seek our future in the past. The world can never return to the golden age of cinema. For one, the zeitgeist now exists on Twitter and Reddit, rather than at the water-cooler. Slow rollouts fly in the face of spoiler culture, and as Netflix has proven, wide releases give movies the greatest chance of meme-ifying release and dominating internet conversation.
A long-term quarantine has offered a lesson in cognitive dissonance. We’ve learned that the world of movies continues without theaters, and that people find ways to watch new and old films at home. Yet we’ve also discovered that this will never be enough; that the theater experience has proven thus far to be irreplicable. A recent poll suggests that the vast majority of Americans would return to theaters within 1-2 months of reopening, even without a vaccine.
People like going to the movies. They’re not willing to risk their health and safety. They may see different movies than you or go less often than you – but they go, and they don’t want to stop. At some point in the next 12 months, the movie industry will find itself in a position of unparalleled opportunity. An audience that had mostly begun to take the big screen for granted will find itself hungry for a suddenly new experience. Studios and theaters can return to the old normal. Or they can act creatively and boldly to create a new normal – one that doesn’t rely on massive tentpole blockbusters.
A new normal where people don’t go to the theaters just to see the latest superhero movie – they go because they like going to the movies. They go without a movie in mind; they look up at the board, pick one of a few new releases, and then tell their friends and family how good it was. Their friends show up at the theater a month later and the release is still playing.
While we scrap and claw to hold onto the past, we might miss a future that's worth fighting for.