Going to the movies is a very distinct experience- from the smell of popcorn, to the excitement that bubbles up when watching a premiere for a highly anticipated movie. The scene of movie theaters, however, since the hit of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, has changed dramatically, and now has new competition: streaming services. Although the reality of theaters varies for every consumer, it is safe to say that the COVID-19 pandemic had a huge impact on the film and theater industry.
Film buff, Wyatt Kittle, has been involved in the media world for long enough to have seen the changes firsthand as a consumer.
“I have a very complicated relationship with movie theaters,” Kittle said. “I know a lot of people kind of really hate them. But before [COVID-19] there wasn't really an option, you didn’t really think about that.”
To even get movies to the screen, there is a lengthy process that goes with it. According to Regent Street Media, once a film is completed it's sent to its respective studio. From there, the studio sends it to a distributor, which is a company that distributes the film to exhibitioners, or theaters. The movie's screening is an exhibition, which is what viewers see when they go to the theaters.
Professor of Film and Media Studies at UofSC, Lauren Steimer, also has a deep history with theaters. From working and managing seven movie theaters as an undergraduate to now having a doctorate in Cinema Studies, Steimer has a valuable understanding of the exhibition, or the release process, of films in theaters and their inner workings. According to Steimer, movie theaters in the United States were already struggling prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The ticket sales don’t go directly to the exhibitor. What happens is, the exhibitor gets to have a percentage of the ticket sales, and that’s negotiated with the studios through a distributor, based on the number of weeks that it’s going to play at the theater,” Steimer said.
With all of this, COVID-19 created a huge impact on the industry. The inability to go out to theaters coupled with the rise of streaming from huge companies such as Paramount+, HBOMax and Netflix created an interesting environment for big multiplexes and theaters. This is especially true when talking about day-and-date releases for films, which is when a film is released on the same day in theaters and on streaming. Day-and-date streaming was already being pushed by studios, and while theaters pushed back, COVID-19 ended up collapsing the entire argument, and the studios won. This, however, also affects the amount of money the actors get on the backend, which gets significantly cut into with day-and-date releases.
The introduction of streaming, though, allowed for the idea that filmmakers can make films for different purposes. Longer movies, or movies with a much more unique run time, might be better suited for streaming releases.
“I think the biggest example is the re-release of 'Justice League'. No studio was ever going to release a four-hour movie to a movie theater before COVID,” Kittle said. “It had chapter titles, which is almost like an intermission, so if you’re watching it at home, you can pause it, go do something.”
There were also laws such as the Paramount Decision that were overturned. The law originally kept big studios from having theaters to show their own movies, but the law has now been overturned, and rules that studios can legally have their own theaters. While this is a change that would not be happening in the near future, it is something that could completely shift the dynamic of theaters moving forward.
“Small theaters are really in danger because the studios could- they're not going to do it right now when the market is so volatile- but, the studios could come in and have their own theaters again. Now if they do that, you’re going to see much more intense competition between them and the big chains, and then you’ll also see a lot of the smaller independents just disappear,” Steimer said.
Within the smaller theater sphere, Columbia’s non-profit movie theatre, The Nickelodeon, also saw hefty damages due to COVID-19, and board president, Summer Bender, was there through it all.
In 2019, prior to the pandemic, The Nickelodeon was doing over $100,000 a month in programming. Now, they're excited if they do about $50,000, according to Bender.
"We are at a quarter of where we were and that is one-thousand percent because of the pandemic,” Bender said.
The rise of streaming services specifically has had a harsh impact on family-owned theaters, non-profit theaters, and locally-owned theaters. In a post-quarantine world, individuals' drive to go out to theaters is already low, but to also get individuals to go and support small theaters is most likely even less.
“Society has moved towards streaming services. So many large places and movie companies are going straight to streaming at times. Netflix is a really competitive market right now. So, you had a two-fold: you had COVID, of course, which shut everything down, but then you had this whole idea of, how do you motivate people to leave their homes to watch something that they could watch from their couch?” Bender said.
The Nickelodeon, being a theater that is also known for its arthouse films and indie film showings is much more difficult to sell to the crowd. But, thankfully, Bender has noticed that members and supporters within the Columbia community don’t want the Nickelodeon to go anywhere.
“Even when they have the opportunity to go see a movie that we have at a large multiplex like Regal, they’re choosing to come to The Nickelodeon to see it instead. And that is because of the support that Columbia really has for The Nickelodeon and the organization itself,” Bender said.
Another change that has helped The Nickelodeon has been big-budget movies. These kinds of movies have companies backing them with marking already done by the companies, so it helps The Nickelodeon when drawing in a crowd.
Bender is also working to fulfill and create more opportunities within community outreach for The Nickelodeon. Giving back, getting involved and having enriching conversations with the Columbia community at large are something she is working hard to do. By offering special programming and film series, culture and communities will be supported in the Columbia area in new and important ways. One of the ideals that The Nickelodeon prides itself on is the showing of films that you want to see, but also ones you need to see, too.
“As a movie theater, how can we have critical dialogue about social and civil unrest and injustice?” Bender said.
Despite the setbacks that COVID and other natural factors have been brought on, movie theaters aren't going anywhere. All theaters are needed and wanted just as much as streaming, from ones as unique as The Nickelodeon to the big megaplexes.
“It is an experience, and it is a shared experience that you don’t get at home,” Bender said. “Having the experience of doing that with your friends and in a group is something you lose when you do that at home,” Bender said. “So do I think that streaming services are going to ruin movie theaters? Absolutely not because of that shared experience. And we as a society are communal, and so we want to get out there and we want to be together, and we want to talk about the things that we're doing and seeing. The Nickelodeon is a big part of that.”
Although the future of theaters now looks different due to COVID-19, there is a multitude of new avenues for the companies to pursue. Luxury cinemas may start becoming more popular, with reclining leather seats, or waitstaff to bring food to customers, and a much more elaborate menu. This kind of change would be bringing back the special experience that the movie theaters had in the 1920s to 1940s.
“The research that they’ve done says to them that Americans really want something special when they go to the movies,” Steimer said. "So you're going to see that they're going to really start to invest in these cinemas which seem to bring back the idea of the specialness of going to the movies."
“Theaters could trend towards younger audiences going forward," Kittle said. “I could see it being like, big studios, like Disney movies or Marvel movies, still releasing in theaters, but indie movies or smaller stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily advertise as much but still from well-known directors going straight to streaming."
While the question of if movie theaters are dying is as old as time, it is safe to say that although their future is different than expected, there are various bright outlets for megaplexes and small-owned theaters alike. There is a future help bring people together to make memories while watching the big screen.