GRIFFIN HICKS

GRIFFIN HICKS  

Movie theater chains have been dying since the advent of Video on Demand but Covid-19 may be the final nail in the coffin.

I remember going to Blockbuster Video as a kid browsing the array of films with my grandfather. Picking out movies based on the way the cover-art looked. Usually a cashier, who fancied himself a movie expert, would give us his own takes on what we should rent. The whole thing was an experience. When I was young, the video store was like Wonka’s chocolate factory. 

Of course, then Netflix and Amazon came along with thousands of titles available online. Within a few years, Blockbuster was bankrupt. Now there’s only one location left somewhere in Oregon. But that’s the way of industry. Before Blockbuster, there were local mom and pop video stores. Before DVD, there was VHS and Betamax. Consumers will always flock to what’s most convenient and cheap. 

Yet somehow, theatres have managed to stick around for over a hundred years, even through the invention of TV, TEVO and in-home entertainment systems. How is it possible that theaters have tuckered on so long past their expiration date? Tickets and concessions are overpriced, audiences are obnoxious, and screening-rooms are unsanitary and uncomfortable. What is it that continues to drive people in?

Theaters have used every trick over the years to keep patrons lining up. First, there were epics like “Ben Hur” and “Lawrence of Arabia” shown on ultra-wide screen Panavision. The idea was, television can give people talk-shows and sitcoms but only theaters will be able to offer audience-members a truly grand viewing experience 

As TV continued to advance, theaters started implementing more gimmicks: “3-D”, “I-MAX”, “Dolby Surround Sound”. The landscape of films has changed as well. Now, the big studios only make mega-blockbusters to entice viewers out of the house. Maybe people won’t flock to see “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” but they’ll come out in droves for “Avengers: Infinity War”. 

Summer is typically prime box-office season when studios and theaters rake in the most money. This summer, Disney was slated to release the live-action “Mulan” and Marvel’s “Black Widow’, Warner Bros had “Wonder Woman 2” as well as Christopher Nolan’s new sci-fi time-travel flick “Tenet” and MGM’s new Blond flick “No Time to Die” was scheduled to come out in March. Thanks to Corona, these films have been indefinitely delayed. 

Universal was the first studio to dip their toe into releasing new movies directly onto Video on Demand. First, they put out “The Hunt” and “The Invisible Man” on VOD mere weeks after the movies’ initial theatrical release. This went against the typical 70 to 90-day window between theatrical and digital release; an unspoken rule between studios and theaters. Next, they completely skipped the theatrical releases of “The King of Staten Island” (the new Apatow comedy starring Pete Davidson) and the animated film “Troll: World Tour” and put them straight onto VOD with a rental price of $19.99. According to reports, both films blew all expectations. Within the first three weeks, “Troll World Tour” had raked in nearly $100 million in rentals; generating more money than the original did during its entire five-month domestic theatrical run. While this maneuver was just a response to the new pandemic marketplace, supposedly its something execs have wanted to experiment with for a long time. With at home rentals, studios retain 80% of the profits instead of just 50% with ticket sales. This pandemic has shown the studios that the VOD-only approach works. Executives at the other major film companies are looking closely at Universal’s success and thinking strongly about following suit. 

As far as theaters go, chains have been desperate to bring in audiences. Without new releases, they’ve had to resort to screening old classics like “Back to the Future’ and “Star Wars’. While they’ve taken further measures to sanitize screening-rooms and social-distance viewers, most people would rather rent at home than take the chance. In a recent interview with the LA Times, John Fithian, the president and chief executive of NATO (the National Association of Theatre Owners), said that theaters can’t wait a year for a vaccine. “This is existential for the movie theater industry. If we go a year without new movies, it’s over.”

It seems theaters may at last be facing the final curtain. The average American family of five can wind up spending $100 at the movies after tickets and concessions. Compare that to $19.99 at home and it’s no comparison. Many families’ home theater setups rival those of the multiplexes. Plus, at home you can pause to use the bathroom or run to the fridge. You can stretch out on the couch with a blanket and a cup of joe. The convenience of home-viewing is eons better than the theater-going experience.

Movie theaters will always hold a special place in my heart just like Blockbuster. I’ll miss the flickering light of the projector, the smell of over-buttered popcorn, that sticky goo that’s always on the floor. 

I doubt we will ever see the compete eradication of cinemas, but the days of the mega-chain multiplexes seem to be at an end. For better or worse, the show must go on. 

To help your local theaters survive this pandemic, you can reach out to your state representatives at saveyourcinema.com 

Griffin Hicks is the intern for the Reporter. Email him at griffinhicks75@gmail.com.