As the digitization of media lurches forward at an unprecedented speed, movie theaters are becoming a dying breed. Particularly in recent years in correspondence with the COVID-19 pandemic, more films have been heading straight to streaming services instead of playing cinemas beforehand. Warner Brothers released its entire 2021 slate of films (including movies such as Dune and Godzilla vs. Kong) day-and-date in theaters and on their streaming service, HBO Max. Disney placed three feature-length Pixar films (Soul, Luca, and Turning Red) on its streaming service, Disney+, instead of in theaters. Countless other films intended to play in theaters were sold to different platforms.
To some, this may simply seem to be a cautionary measure taken during a time when people getting together in an enclosed space was the last thing that they could do.Yet, this trend- of only blockbuster movies getting people to theaters, of more movies landing on a phone instead of the silver screen- was already occurring prior to COVID-19. For example, The Irishman, directed by Martin Scorcese, went directly to Netflix instead of theaters in 2019. The trend has only become more apparent in 2022, even as the majority of Americans are vaccinated and the pandemic seems to be winding down. COVID-19 did not cause the endangerment of movie theaters; it simply hastened it.
To many people, this may seem like a minor issue, or even a positive development. Why should I want movie theaters to exist? Why would I go out of my way to purchase absurdly expensive popcorn and an even more pricey ticket when I can simply stay at home and pick from the thousands of options on my chosen streaming service? For example, if I wanted to go with 3 of my family members to see a new movie in my hometown, an individual ticket would cost around $16, meaning that the total bill would come in around $65. Adding in snacks and drinks, the total bill could come to around $85 or more. Why would a family spend $85 on a movie when they could watch something at home at an exponentially lower cost? Some people may not see movies and entertainment as valuable in any sense, and thus would not care where and how they are distributed. However, while these people have valid claims, and movie theaters have started to seem vestigial in the streaming age, they still contain value- and deserve to be kept alive.
Many people have started to dislike going to the movies for a plethora of obvious reasons. The amount of time it takes to drive to and from one, the endless advertisements/trailers that make the experience an hour longer than necessary, and of course, what feels like $10 per ounce of popcorn. However, we should take a deeper look into the benefits of movie theaters before negatively generalizing them. Around half of the income from box office business goes to movie theater chains themselves, and as an indirect result, their employees. Movie theaters, across America and the entire globe, employ hundreds of thousands of people. Before Covid, theaters were employing around 150,000 people in the U. S. per year. After COVID-19, movie theaters are estimated to only be employing around 90,000 people in the U.S., and they may never reach pre-COVID heights again. While these jobs may not have the loftiest salary, they are still critical for many people, whether in providing for themselves or in starting to gain experience in the workforce. A personal example is my dad’s first formal job working in a one-screen cinema. While he did not receive desirable pay from the job, his time at the theater taught him extremely valuable lessons about having a job: the importance of being on time, always being on top of your responsibilities, etc. So while movie theater jobs may not be the shiniest form of employment, they still serve a purpose for many individuals around the world.
As more movie theaters have closed around the country, more of these jobs are lost. Around 600 theaters were permanently closed in recent years. To put that into perspective, there are around 12,000 theaters open in the U.S currently. A personal example of this was found in the Oxford community when the theater our school had taken trips to for 20 years closed suddenly some months ago. Streaming services do not employ people in the way that theaters do- they essentially cut out the middle men so as to benefit the most powerful people and businesses in entertainment (studios, stars, platforms). Netflix, one of the most well-known entertainment services on the planet, only employs around 11,300 people (as of 2021). Thus, while streaming services may be cheaper than theaters, they come at the price of tens of thousands of lost jobs. While the expensiveness of a theater is certainly an undeniable nuisance and detractor, we should still go to them, on the principle of helping businesses, and especially employees.
A deeper qualm that some people may have with theaters ties to the idea of movies themselves: why does entertainment matter? How do movies themselves contribute to society in a meaningful manner? How is watching random celebrities run around on a screen for two hours important? However, people with these questions most likely did not see movies in theaters before the streaming era. Whether we like it or not, entertainment will always be a part of life, whether it qualifies as a necessity or distraction. The film industry will not die, as much as evolve into a streaming service based system. And as an option for the consumption of entertainment, there are many reasons theaters are better than streaming. If COVID has taught us anything as a society, it is the importance of community and being around others. Studies like the one linked above show a direct correlation between poor mental health in children and increased screen time during the pandemic. These conclusions confirm a widely assumed truth: humans are social animals, and isolation is unhealthy for us. The pandemic opened our eyes to the dangers of isolation, which is why we need to focus on reconnecting with one another physically- not just through our phones. In the moment, it may be easier to stay at home and watch something on your phone, but theaters, no matter how epic the movie they are presenting, are a more memorable experience. Watching a horror movie with a terrified audience, a large screen, and a blasting speaker will always be more visceral than watching one at home. Watching a comedy may be a more enjoyable experience with an enthusiastic audience than at home by yourself. Examples such as these may not be universally applicable, but they can still happen, and show how watching a movie in a theater can be more worthwhile than watching one by yourself. As a matter of fact, movie theaters are specifically designed to enhance a storytelling experience: the immersiveness of a theater, along with its restrictions against talking and phones, do their best to focus the audience entirely on the story being presented in front of them, transfixing them on the show in a way that a small device fails to replicate. Studies have shown that movies have a quantifiable effect on capturing the attention of different viewers when watching together. The above article states, “When people watched [a] tense bank robbery scene from Dog Day Afternoon, there was a significant correlation in activity across nearly 70 percent of their cortex.” These results prove that cinema (especially without the distractions that come with watching on a home screen) has a unique effect of fully enrapturing viewers into stories.
In many ways, the slow death of movie theaters isn’t a particularly critical or urgent problem. Humanitarian crises are raging throughout the world every day, and if anything, one could argue that escapism should be more of an afterthought. In general, most people will always be able to access entertainment and stories. However, if movie theaters do in fact die off, there will be a massive loss. Tens of thousands of hard-working employees will have to find new jobs in an unstable economic landscape. The undeniable ability of movie theaters to magnify the stories they present, and completely immerse willing audiences into their worlds, will never be replicated. Thus, while people still have the ability to see a variety of movies in a theater- or see movies in a theater at all- we should take advantage of it, and see them. Cinemas cannot survive on blockbusters alone; they need more people, seeing more movies, to feasibly continue. As more and more forms of entertainment and media (music, books, news outlets) rapidly adjust to the digital age, we need to remember the importance of choosing to be around others in a physical space- not through our devices. One of the simplest ways to do that? Seeing a movie.