As Brent Lang and Rebecca Rubin aptly pointed out in their Dec. 30 story, the mega-success of “Spider-Man: No Way Home” — with global ticket sales of nearly $1.4 billion to date — reminds us that movie theaters “still create a kind of grand cultural happening that simply can’t be replicated on Netflix.”
While that is certainly the case, I remain personally troubled by the fact that so many other year-end releases, including “West Side Story,” “The Matrix Resurrections,” “Nightmare Alley,” “The King’s Man,” “King Richard,” “Belfast,” “C’mon C’mon,” “Spencer” and “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” among others, failed to lure crowds to multiplexes.
I adore John Fithian, leader of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners, and I have always shared his love and faith in moviegoing and its ability to survive challenging times, particularly over the past two years, when COVID-19 and the enormous popularity of streaming wreaked havoc on exhibition. However, I confess that I am not quite as confident as he is that the enormous success of “Spider-Man” is “such a good harbinger for the future of the theatrical business coming out of the pandemic,” as Fithian was quoted as saying in Lang and Rubin’s recent article.
Given all the other recent box office disappointments, it seems to me that the Marvel spectacle might be more an aberration than an indicator of what Fithian views as “a turning point for us.” I would like nothing more than for Fithian to be right and for me to be proven wrong. Yes, this year’s box office revenues increased more than 91% from 2020 (a 40-year low!), but they were down more than 61% from pre-COVID 2019. I was happy that we could report that frequent moviegoers — those who go to theaters once a month or more — “have returned in force.”
But, as someone who certainly qualifies as a frequent moviegoer, I have not gone out to a Saturday night movie as I would do practically every weekend prior to the pandemic taking hold 22 months ago. I’m still petrified. That said, last week I did venture out to an early matinee of Paul Thomas Anderson’s coming-of-age movie “Licorice Pizza,” knowing the large theater where the film was playing would be practically empty at that time, which it was.
I found that being back in a theater and once again having that collective experience, no matter how limited, was exhilarating and it raised my spirits enormously. So, yes, it is unequivocal that, from a cultural point of view, nothing can replicate my favorite ritual. That’s not to say that I don’t consume a lot of great content on Netflix and the like, and don’t enjoy the convenience of the remote control, particularly during these still scary times when omicron is spreading rapidly through the population even among those fully vaccinated and boosted.
There’s absolutely no question that out-of-home moviegoing has been significantly upended by the ongoing health crisis and heightened consumer love for the proliferation of top-notch content across streaming platforms.
Now, the question is whether audiences will ever return to theaters with the kind of zeal that so many have shown for “Spider-Man” — or will that film prove to be the rare exception rather than the rule. As I said earlier, I’m rooting for Fithian to be 100% correct in his prediction that 2022 will truly be a Happy New Year for moviegoing!