With vaccinations rising and COVID restrictions easing, movie theaters are slowly getting their grove back. This weekend saw the debut of the first pandemic-era hit in “Godzilla vs. Kong,” a sign that people are ready, even eager to return to their local multiplexes after a year spent streaming movies at home. But there are still challenges facing theaters, many of which are teetering on the brink of financial ruin after twelve months without much in the way of ticket sales. Can movie theaters come back stronger than before or will coronavirus hasten the Netflix-ification of the entertainment landscape in a way that makes cinemas feel outmoded? Brent Lang, Variety’s executive editor of film and media, and chief film critics, Peter Debruge and Owen Gleiberman, discuss what the future holds for movie theaters.
Peter Debruge: This time last year, so many of our conversations were about when things would go back to “normal,” but now, as movie theaters in New York and Los Angeles tentatively reopen — just in time for big-screen-or-bust monster smackdown “Godzilla vs. Kong” — I’m not sure that idea even applies. The coronavirus changed the way we watch movies, and while I’ve been dying to get back into a cinema to see movies again on the big screen with a crowd, I have to admit, we’re still a long way from taking the same pleasure from that experience we did before. I’ve been to IMAX headquarters a few times in the past month to take in movies like “Chaos Walking” or “Nomadland” at maximum scale, and I’ll admit that while it’s immeasurably better than watching them in my living room, some part of my brain remains fixated on questions we never worried about before — even in a situation where someone might have been coughing or sneezing a row away. How about you guys? Are you ready to go back? In what ways can we expect the experience to be different going forward?
Owen Gleiberman: I’m more than ready to go back, and here’s my radical idea: I don’t expect the experience to be much different. True, I don’t think movie culture, any more than the culture at large, can just “go back to normal” in some mindless turn-back-the-clock way, as if the pandemic had never happened. But I went to my first mainstream movie yesterday — I saw “Godzilla vs. Kong” at a 4 p.m. show at the AMC Empire in Times Square — and I was amazed at how…not different it was. The endless trailers, the open-for-business concession stand, people joshing and laughing and — yes — munching, not to mention a fair amount of vocal enthusiasm for the movie (or, at least, the last 25 minutes of it). It didn’t feel like the dystopian multiplex.
But here’s my real point. In a recent edition of The Ankler, columnist Richard Rushfield made a startling assertion. He wrote, “Here’s the thing that’s never happening again: major movies reserved as the exclusive property of movie theaters.” He was keying off Disney’s decision to release “Black Widow” and other films simultaneously in theaters and on Disney Plus. I have to say, I think he’s got it wrong. Disney’s decision was still deeply rooted in the economics of the pandemic. And on that level it made sense. But imagine that, say, a year from now, we’re in a vaccinated, starting-to-bloom-again, post-pandemic world. The key way that movies in theaters will have a chance of working is if audiences feel fully motivated to show up for them. And that, I would wager, means exclusive theater openings. The window may be shorter, but exclusivity is value; exclusivity is money. I think that once we’re past the fearful immediacy of all this, the marketplace, even in a streaming world, is going to continue to push for the exclusive movie-theater experience. All of which is to say: There will be changes, but we should be cautious about generalizing too much from The Year of Our Lockdown.
Brent Lang: I’m a great admirer of Richard Rushfield’s trenchant analysis, but I think that he’s being too sweeping in his conclusions. Yes, windows will shrink, often by months, and more media companies will hedge their bets on dicey mid-budget movies by reserving them for the streaming services that are now a part of their larger corporate portfolios. However, these shifts in distribution models remain a work in progress, something in flux.
It speaks volumes that many of the major movies that were on tap for 2020 or early 2021 such as “Fast and Furious 9” or “Eternals” or “No Time to Die” were delayed multiple times in the hopes of outlasting the pandemic. For “No Time to Die,” that meant turning down an offer for upwards of $600 million from Netflix in favor of waiting it out until theaters were ready to welcome back Bond fans. Sure, “Black Widow” is debuting simultaneously on Disney Plus and Warner Bros. shipped its 2021 slate to HBO Max. However, that has more to do with larger corporate pressures to field genuine Netflix challengers. It doesn’t signal a wholesale rejection of the viability of movie theaters. There’s a recognition that cinemas need to have some sort of theatrical exclusivity lest they surrender all their competitive advantage. Ultimately, it doesn’t make financial sense for a “Fast and Furious” sequel to forgo a theatrical launch in favor of a Peacock bow, because doing so means turning down hundreds of millions, even a billion dollars in ticket sales. In the short term, I think movie theaters, at least the ones that haven’t gone bankrupt, will do robust business. We’re all so desperate to get out of the house and be around people, that I think even mediocre movies will get a bump (case in point, the impressive box office numbers enjoyed by “Godzilla vs. Kong”). But it could be a sugar high, one that’s unsustainable when an overarching sense of normality takes hold and hitting up the multiplex doesn’t seem as novel. That’s when the old annoyances bubble back up – getting sticker shock at the concessions stand or growing fed up with the people in front of you who won’t stop texting during the movie.
PD: In his 1960 book “Psycho-Cybernetics,” Maxwell Maltz suggested, “it requires a minimum of about 21 days for an old mental image to dissolve” — a theory that Oprah and others have reshaped as the magic amount of time it takes to form a new habit. Well, here we are a full year and 21 days into the new world order, and I’ve gotta say, home viewing has so corrupted the way I watch movies (checking my phone, multi-tasking while the TV is on, pausing and picking up movies over multiple intervals) that I’ve actually had to relearn how to focus when I’ve been fortunate enough to see things on the big screen. That remains the only way for me to truly immerse, and I’m desperate to rebuild better viewing habits.
The past year has also done something to our attention spans. It’s the Twitter- and TikTok-ification of modern life — something many of us were battling before the pandemic. I’m sure it will come back, but I don’t have the patience for certain tempos of storytelling anymore. The pace of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” for example, feels glacial to me now (not to mention far too dark to deal with amid recent events), whereas the ruthless efficiency of “Godzilla vs. Kong” — which jumps from Antarctica to the center of the earth to Hong Kong in a matter of minutes — was just what the doctor ordered. I don’t think I could’ve dealt with a three-hour version of that film (especially not with a mask on), and certainly don’t need the Zack Snyder cut of anything anytime soon. From a business sense, studios need crowded theaters to capitalize on the rainchecked tentpoles you mentioned. And I think many of us need theaters to experience them correctly.
OG: I think that’s a huge and essential point, Peter. All of us, in one way or another, are multi-taskers when we watch something at home. Whether it’s checking your texts, or simply pausing what you’re watching to grab something out of the fridge, the idea that we’re in control is the metaphysic of home viewing. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s what it is. Yet for some of us, one reason the words “cinema” and “religion” are nearly interchangeable is, in part, because of the immersive nature of the experience. At a great movie, whether it’s popcorn or art, you give up control. You’re transported. And I agree with you: This year of being away from that experience, of growing accustomed to having my attention span at once shortened and overstimulated by streaming, has just fed my hunger to go back to that experience. Everyone talks about how noisy and annoying and this and that movie theaters are, but I beg to disagree. For all the problems, I still long to return to the balm of the movie theater. The total escape of it. I actually can’t wait to see “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” again, and my ardent hope is that I’ll get to experience it on the big screen.
BL: Jason Blum, the producer of “Get Out” and “The Purge,” recently told me that he thinks that the movie business is about to experience a post-COVID renaissance, one partly fueled by the rise of streaming services looking for content, as well as by an overwhelming mania for escapism as we reemerge from our plague year. He predicts it will be similar to the explosion of high-quality TV content that accompanied the early aughts.
I hope he’s right, and I suspect that he is correct that in the near-term the rise of HBO Maxes and Disney Pluses and Paramount Pluses means that more moviemakers will get bankrolled. It would be a shame, however, if directors don’t press for some sort of theatrical release. Variety surveyed moviegoers about their awareness of this year’s crop of Oscar nominees, most of which were streaming productions, on-demand offerings, or some hybrid of a digital and theatrical release. Many people couldn’t separate their “Mank” from their “Minari,” and drew a blank when asked if they’d seen “Sound of Metal” or “Nomadland.” That says a lot about the value of movie theaters. There’s such a deluge of streaming content that it’s hard to discern what is worthy of our time. For better or worse, a theatrical release and the marketing heft that accompanies the films that opt to be shown on the big screen, signals that attention must be paid. It allows these works of art or even just the works of pure commerce to be part of the conversation, and that must be rewarding for both the moviemakers and the companies that finance these films. Streaming may be the future, but it doesn’t have to come at the expense of movie theaters.
OG: I think you’re right, Brent, and in that spirit let me make a bad news/good news prediction. The Oscars, which are coming in three weeks, are going to feel in many ways like the culmination — maybe the end point — of this COVID movie year. But after the plunging ratings that greeted the Golden Globes and the Grammys, just about everyone believes that the Oscars are going to follow suit. At this point, it’s hardly doom-saying to predict that the audience for them may be half of what it was last year. And let’s be honest: No matter how you slice it, that’s going to feel a little dire. As COVID-related as it may be, people are going to wonder whether that ratings plunge is part of the larger, slow-motion audience attrition that the Oscars have been dealing with for the last five years.
Yet if that’s indeed what happens, I think there’s a nugget of hope — the seed of a new direction — embedded in that scenario. If the Oscars turn out to have a dramatically small audience this year, part of the message will be: People sitting at home streaming “Nomadland” and “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and “Promising Young Woman” is not what the movies were meant to be. That isn’t a slur on any of those films, or on streaming itself. I think “Promising Young Woman,” to take just one example, would have been an explosive phenomenon in theaters. But the pandemic did more than just bump the streaming revolution along. It became a de facto experiment: What happens when you take movies out of theaters? Answer: They lose much of their collective magic. And that, I think, will wind up being the grand message of the Oscars — that what we saw this year cannot be the future. Not if we want movies to have a future.