Regal Movie Chain closed all 536 of their theaters in the United States on Oct. 5 due to the prolonged disruption of business as a result of closures mandated to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The theatre business was already struggling to keep up with the rise of subscription platforms like Netflix and Hulu, and now these streaming services have gained a further advantage as they enable a stay-at-home experience for viewers in a time when social distancing is crucial.
The choice to shift a slew of new releases from the big screen to streaming services has been an unprecedented one, but consumers' need for content during lockdown is overwhelming. Many even see mandatory quarantine and stay-at-home orders as an opportunity for filmmakers to expand their audience.
“In these times especially, people really need to be entertained, and with everyone spending so much time at home, you may get viewers that wouldn’t have ordinarily paid to go see the film in a theater,” says Tia Wren, a sophomore majoring in Film and TV Production at the School of Cinematic Arts. “There’s no telling when the pandemic will end or when people will even be comfortable enough to go back to theaters, so I think it’s worth releasing films now rather than waiting for an opening day that may never come.”
Attendance in film theatres across the world, except China, had already either declined or completely stagnated, with the same number of tickets being sold in North America since 1995 despite the population increase, according to the World Economic Forum. The unprecedented closures imposed across the country and the general need for social distancing are exacerbating the fiscal challenges for an already-struggling industry.
While Cineworld, Regal’s UK-based parent company, saw an almost $200 drop in its stock price during the past few months, Netflix added 10 million paid subscribers in the second quarter of 2020. AMC, the largest theatre chain in the U.S., made headlines in March when they closed down all of their 598 movie theatres. The theater giant didn’t begin partial opening until August and is now projecting losses of over $2 billion dollars in the first quarter. One can only imagine the plight of independent theaters, devoid of the backing multi-billion-dollar media conglomerates.
Even with the staggered reopenings of movie theatres after five months of complete shutdown, most movie theatres are implementing new safety protocols at the behest of their governing state legislatures. For example, many states like Massachusetts and Connecticut require theaters to reduce seating capacity by 50%, which has led to further losses.
Disney’s Mulan, which was expected to be one of the biggest films of the year with a budget of $200 million and an expected collection of $750 million, was first postponed in March before being the company’s first blockbuster to debut direct to consumer on Disney’s streaming service Disney+. This move was another step toward eliminating the role of movie theatres altogether. Other films that were expected to do well on the box office like Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, 20th Century Studios' Avatar 2, Fox Searchlight’s The French Dispatch and the latest James Bond movie No Time to Die have also been pushed to the next year.
While some movies have forgone a theatrical debut in favor of timely direct-to-consumer releases, many film connoisseurs simply don’t think it’s enough.
“While I do love streaming services as much as the next person, some films are just meant to be watched on the big screen,” said Kaohom Boonyalai, a sophomore majoring in TV and Film Production at the School of Cinematic Arts, when asked about her thoughts on the shuttering of movie theatres. “Filmmakers put in blood, sweat, and tears into their work for the audience to get the full experience in a movie theater. Watching Netflix alone in my bed just doesn’t hit quite the same.”