Let’s Stay in Tonight: Movie Theaters and COVID-19

Movie going will be a foreign concept, like renting a VHS tape on a Friday night.

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Black and white drive-in theater

Will COVID kill the movie going experience forever?

Remember video stores? Of course, you do! We all fondly remember the excitement of heading into the local video store and relishing the discoveries found within. I think this is especially true of the horror fan—the genre film fan—because horror was, no doubt, king of VHS for a very long time. The market simply could not get enough grotesque films with lavishly lurid box art on their shelves. But, the video stores are gone today, and only a niche of folks who still collect VHS for the purpose of nostalgia remain.

This was the same fate of the drive-ins. Once the epicenter of genre and independent film, the bastion of Americana and true pop culture, this moviegoing experience is now, sadly, a novelty. Joe Bob Briggs may say the drive-in will never die, but it certainly has not been doing very well in its old age. And, it seems movie theaters may be next on the list.

The reason for the reflection on these all but forgotten means of media consumption has to do with the recent news that Universal will be bringing brand new features to VOD (Video on Demand) services in the next coming days and weeks due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States forcing theaters to shut their doors for a little while. But, will it be just for a little while?

Will streaming replace the movie-going experience?

The move Universal is making could very well cause a ripple effect throughout the film industry, with other studios likely following suit should the plan be successful, and in these uncertain times, there’s no reason why it wouldn’t be. This truly is a historic moment, but one must understand how unfortunate that history will potentially be, as this could be the final nail in the coffin of the movie theater.

Despite the digital rental move being called a temporary solution by the studio as the country deals with this pandemic, there is little doubt that film studios have been investigating the profitability of such a change in distribution for quite some time. It’s why everyone is getting into the streaming game. The studios know that many Americans have been staying away from theaters anyway thanks to rising ticket prices. Streaming ensures that studios can cut the middleman and get money for their product more directly. 

I understand pushing release dates back further and further is not feasible as a long term solution (and who knows how long theaters will be closed), so the VOD move does make sense given the circumstances, but perhaps the studios should do more to help the theaters while their doors are shut,  which, as of this writing, has not been in the news. To be clear, I’m not saying Universal is using the current crisis as an excuse to push something like this through, but it’s like opening Pandora’s Box.

Once we’re out of the woods, it’s a safe bet that Universal, and all the studios who will follow their example, will continue to release films on VOD closer and closer to their theatrical release dates, maybe even on the same day, which will cripple the theaters. It would take time but many would begin to close, and in my lifetime, they would all be gone. 

One wonders what such a change would mean for the horror film. Horror has always gotten the short end of the stick in terms of theatrical distribution. Even in the aforementioned glory days of the video store, many of the best genre titles on the shelves were indie features that saw limited releases or even went straight to tape.

How will genre films hold up?

Genre films still deal with that treatment today with indie features forced to find audiences on streaming services or short engagements at smaller, specialty movie houses, and studio flicks are doomed to fail, dumped in “dead months” with little marketing like the recently released gem, Underwater. Films like these inevitably gain new life as cult films on the VOD, streaming, and home video markets anyway, so perhaps the loss of a theatrical release would mean very little to the future of horror. Genre fans are always hungry for content, and they will buy. 

However, the question then becomes how long before genre films, specifically independent genre films, (and really all of independent cinema) are buried underneath the barrage of releases by the studios, much like they are now in the theatrical system. A big part of the reason why smaller horror productions prove to be so successful on-demand and streaming services lies in the fact that there is not as much immediate competition there from the studios.

A hot genre flick with great word of mouth theoretically can, and often does, land on the “home market” while big-budget blockbusters of the summers are still in theaters, months away from VOD and streaming. In that way, these services act as an alternative for film fans interested in alternative films, especially in terms of genre films.

The loss of the moviegoing experience boils down to more than content and products and money. I’ve seen plenty of folks applaud Universal’s plan since it was announced. Even film critics I otherwise admire have called this the next logical step for the industry, which simply astonishes me because I feel that is far from the truth. Film is an experience, and the best way to have that experience has always been collectively. There certainly isn’t anything wrong with watching films alone.

It doesn’t negate your enjoyment or understanding of any particular work, but there is nothing like going to the movies on a Friday night and sitting in packed theaters to see something on the big screen like it was always intended. There’s a magic there that adds to the experience like nothing else. The difference is akin to reading a play versus seeing it expertly performed, or listening to your favorite band on your headphones versus seeing them play on stage while you and countless other fans jump and mosh and sweat on top of each other. We shouldn’t ever want to lose that kind of ritualistic, collective experience.

I feel that this magic is especially unique to the horror film. We settle into our seats to see the latest creature feature, slasher sequel, or exhibition in the eldritch with the expectation of being scared and nauseated together on our nights out. If horror is the genre through which we safely indulge in our fears, then it stands to reason that we would want to share in that indulgence with other people, because the best way to confront and take control of our fears is united. Audiences feed off of that energy. 

As a film programmer, I’ve seen it firsthand at events of my own. Back in October, we showed Re-Animator, one of my favorite films, as a part of our Halloween celebration. I have seen this cult classic hundreds of times, but never in a theater, and let me tell you, the experience was almost otherworldly. Gory and infamous moments I was well acquainted with took on new meanings as I heard attendees squirm in their seats and gasp in the throes of their shock.

It spoke to the effectiveness of Re-Animator’s ability to enthrall and disturb audiences, effectiveness I never quite understood before as my enjoyment of this particular film was always from a retrospective point of view—appreciative of the ingenuity and style of its production, strong yet zany performances, and even zanier sequences of slaughter. Seeing it with an honest to gosh audience in the most sacred of cinematic gatherings, though? Goddamn, this film just worked, and that is the truest test of any genre film’s quality.

I recall the fervor around the release of Cloverfield back in 2008. I was online every day for months trying to solve the mystery with other people on the message boards and forums just as excited as I was. My excitement reached a fever pitch on 1-18-08, the almost mythical day of that film’s release. I rushed to my local theater to grab tickets with my dad and brother, and we sat shoulder to shoulder, watching the events I had spent countless hours fantasizing about unfold in real-time before my eyes.

Similarly, there was the anticipation leading to Paranormal Activity, the reputation of which seemed to grow like an urban legend. There was a sort of nervous energy in the theater on opening night, because there was a picture that was scaring the hell out of people everywhere it showed, and now it was here for me and my fellow moviegoers. We all got our money’s worth that night, especially the couple behind me, who seemed to scream during every single scene. I only screamed at every other scene. I’m not sure if either film would’ve left the same impression on me had they been available to me to watch at home alone as opposed to the cinema.

These aren’t the only memories I have like that, of course. There are countless. There are date nights and first kisses stolen during boring second acts, skipping school to go see anything that was playing so we didn’t get caught by truancy, getting high and going to see The Devil’s Rejects, buying a group of high schoolers tickets to Halloween (2018) because every kid should get the thrill of seeing something they’re told they can’t—these are cherished memories of mine, memories we all identify with in some way or another and wouldn’t have without that building in townhome to screens, seats, soda, and skittles. 

Times change. People move on.

But, I can hear it now: “Jesse, you’re being too emotional. Times change. People move on.” As an employee of a cultural institution dedicated to film, yes, perhaps I am a bit emotional. In recent years, I have dedicated my life to the industry of cinema at the service level. Lots of people in the American workforce have. The decline of the movie theater means the loss of jobs. That’s hard facts. Sure, independent and repertory houses like mine may survive, but there’s so few of them as it is that they will become even more of a niche interest than they are now, and would likely struggle and die because of it, though it may take longer.

And, yes, people move on, very quickly, and years from now, the general public will have moved on from the moviegoing experience entirely and won’t get the point of going out to see a movie. Going to movie theaters will be a foreign concept, like renting a VHS in a brick and mortar store or seeing a movie in your car, under the stars, and it will be forgotten. The magic will be lost.

UPDATE [04/28/2020]: NBCUniversal announced that Trolls World Tourexceeded our expectations and demonstrated the viability of PVOD.” NBCUniversal CEO, Jeff Shell, went on to say that the studio would be releasing future releases to both theaters and PVOD services, ignoring the previously agreed upon 90-day window and, effectively, cutting movie theaters out of the equation.

It is mentioned in the article linked above that the animated film benefited immensely from its plentiful advertising budget, meager competition, and the sheer volume of families at home hungry for content, qualifiers that should be acknowledged, but, regardless, the writing seems clear and legible on the wall. NBCUniversal has found success, will continue to pursue it, and every other major studio will follow their lead. Pandora’s Box: opened.

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