Remember Blockbuster? The King Kong of video rentals. Pick up a VHS or DVD to watch for a couple bucks, then bring it back… maybe a few days past due. Blockbuster was built on procrastinators. It made hundreds of millions a year from late fees.
Then Reed Hastings happened. The $40 late charge that hit him for one movie would change the movie industry. He came up with a way to eliminate late fees. And he called it Netflix.
The beginning of Netflix was the beginning of the end for Blockbuster. Since Blockbuster faded out 10 years ago, the Netflix effect also has done damage at the box office. In North America, movie ticket revenue year to year has generally stayed flat.
Then Armageddon happened, with the wide release of a frighteningly real horror movie called “Pandemic Panic!”
Movie theaters were never meant to last forever. They’re one phase of the evolution of entertainment, not its culmination.
It was always thus. People enjoyed moving pictures first on a kinetoscope. Then penny arcades and nickelodeons. One contraption gave way to newer and better technology. Now we have streaming, where movies play through digital devices, anytime, anywhere. Increasingly, visual entertainment will be strictly internet-based.
Movie theaters, though, have not changed all that much in decades.
Apart from outlier boutique bijous like iPic and Alamo Drafthouse, where you can eat and drink in a recliner—and which are few and far between—the cookie-cutter cineplex has upgraded its seating, but so what? It’s still not more comfortable than your cozy couch.
Comparatively, a well-equipped home theater offers proportionally big-screen entertainment with immersive sound, total privacy, and no sonic booms leaking through the wall from the adjoining theater.
Even before the pandemic crept into our lives like invasion of the body snatchers, streaming was happening. Led by Netflix as the juggernaut, the virtual library of visual entertainment is prodigious. There’s very little you can’t watch whenever you want to.
Reeling from the devastating financial impact wrought by COVID, theater owners, like Regal Cinema (at Cortlandt Town Center), have had their sights set on a rebound, although they realistically don’t expect it to take hold much before the latter half of 2021.
Then WarnerMedia happened.
That’s the company that makes Warner Brothers movies, from the Cagney crime classics of the 1930s and the high-flying Batman franchise to this week’s hotly anticipated “Wonder Woman 1984.”
It’s also the company that owns HBO Max, the new streaming service that recently made a—excuse the expression—blockbuster announcement that shook the very foundation of movie theaters.
HOME THEATER, LITERALLY
That theater foundation is a lot more wobbly after WarnerMedia committed its entire slate of 2021 movies to be shown on HBO Max at the same time they can be seen in theaters. There’s no overstating what a shock to the system that inflicts.
The entire history of Hollywood is framed by the first “window” that places movies in theaters for a minimum number of days before the film can go to subsequent distribution windows, in a sacrosanct sequence, such as video-on-demand, DVD, movie channels.
WarnerMedia just took a big rock and shattered the theatrical window for all its movies next year, leaving the studio’s movie exhibitor “partners” (like Regal Cinema or AMC) exposed to the direct, first-run competition of HBO Max.
As if to worsen the wound, “Wonder Woman 1984” can be seen at home Christmas Day on HBO Max starting at 9 a.m., even before its first showtimes in theaters later in the day. The movie is included at no extra charge for subscribers of HBOMax (who pay $15 a month to watch anything on the channel at any time, a la Netflix).
Other Warner movies on the way next year with same-day release to HBO Max and theaters include a “Dune” remake (Timothée Chalamet), “Space Jam: The New Legacy” (LeBron James), “The Matrix 4” (Keanu Reeves), “The Suicide Squad” (Margot Robbie), and a pair of Crazy Rich Asians sequels adapted from the other two books in that trilogy.
Further out in the HBO schedule, probably after 2021, is Game of Thrones prequel series “House of the Dragon.”
Despite WarnerMedia proclaiming that the dual release plan is only definite for its 2021 movies, almost nobody in, or invested in, the movie industry believes that there is no turning back at this point. The road ahead is one-way.
Most interpret the bold move as Game Over for a sizable number of movie theaters, with the assumption other movie studios will follow Warner into the breach that will swallow up theaters faster than expected pre-pandemic.
“What the pandemic has done,” according to Turner Classic Movies (also a Warner property), “is allow studios and streaming services to aggressively shrink what might have initially been a five-year transition into a mere couple of months.” It notes that there now are 6,000 theater locations (with 40,000 screens) in the U.S., adding, “Two years from now (2022), those numbers stand to be radically diminished.”
Other numbers make that movie theater projection seem inevitable. A year after its launch, Disney+ already is on track for 2021 to have 100 million subscribers. At an annual subscription rate of $70, that’s 7 billion Disney dollars a year. In 2019, the total box office for all movies distributed by all studios in North America was $11 billion.
It’s not hard to see why Hollywood is so enamored of embracing subscription streaming services to sell its movies direct to homes, even at the cost of antagonizing theater owners.
In the grand scheme of things that are developing in the entertainment industry, though, the plight of today’s movie theaters are not even the main attraction. They’re a side show.
At their inception 100 years ago, the major Hollywood studios realized they could control not only moviemaking but movie showing, too. That’s why to this day around the country there are historic former movie palaces with names like Paramount (in Peekskill), Fox and Warner. The studios ruled from one end of the pipeline (production) to the other (exhibition).
Now the studios themselves are being ruled, by the titans of tech, who are running the show, because they got bank. Big bank. Bottomless bank. WarnerMedia answers to A&T. NBCUniversal is owned by the country’s largest cable operator, Comcast. Apple, worth a cool $2 trill, is launching its own content studio. Trillion-dollar Amazon keeps cranking out original movies and series, showing them on its own streamer, Prime. And, in the same sense, Netflix is more a tech company than a Hollywood studio.
“Tech guys could care less about movie theaters,” says Scott Galloway, New York University professor and futurist. To that cold analysis, add WarnerMedia’s CEO pointing out it’s what the customer wants that matters, and he believes they want the choice of seeing a first-run movie in the comfort of their home, without waiting months or even weeks for the movie to finish its run in theaters.
There will come a time soon enough when the word “Hollywood” will reek of a relic, not unlike Blockbuster sounds to the ear today. That’s not a value judgment. It’s simply acknowledging the unstoppable thrust of progress. Technology doesn’t have time for sentiment about things like movie theaters past their prime; it’s way too busy inventing the future.
NYU’s Galloway succinctly sums up what he sees as the onrushing role of technology in radically redefining mass entertainment.
“The next Spielberg,” he says, with utmost conviction, “will come from TikTok.”
Bruce Apar is a writer, actor, consultant, and community volunteer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 914-275-6887.