The Post-Pandemic Future of Streaming vs. Theaters

After over a year of lockdowns, what will a return to theaters look like after we’ve grown comfortable streaming movies from home?

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As Theaters begin reopening, with 98% of AMC theaters now open, it begs the question: what does the future of theaters look like after the pandemic? We’ve gotten so used to seeing new movies via streaming such as Malcolm & Marie, The Justice League Snyder Cut, and The Trial of the Chicago 7. The ease of streaming movies has made it much more difficult for theaters to attract customers. Until it’s socially acceptable to wear pajamas into a theater, the question remains. Will people want to return to theaters or sit in the comfort of their own homes?

Before the pandemic, theaters were not just for watching movies but also for date nights, hanging out with friends, or something to do with the kids on a weekend. This was their main attraction, besides just seeing the newest Fast and Furious. With that being said, it’s just as easy to do all of those things from your couch. Not to mention, the popcorn and drinks at home are much cheaper.

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In December 2020, Warner Brothers shocked the film world when it announced it would release all of its 2021 movies simultaneously on its platform as well as in theaters. Obviously, this worried many in the film industry about what might become of theaters. Ann Sarnoff, the CEO of Warner Bros. said, “No one wants films back on the big screen more than we do. We know new content is the lifeblood of theatrical exhibition, but we have to balance this with the reality that most theaters in the U.S. will likely operate at reduced capacity throughout 2021.” This was a polarizing decision by the studio, to say the least.

There were some that cheered on the move as they, understandably, did not want to risk their health, as well as others, by going to theaters. Whereas others felt that this was the worst decision ever made by a studio. Christopher Nolan echoed this sentiment in a quote to the Hollywood Reporter when he said, “Some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service.”

It’s becoming more clear now that the move by Warner Brothers may have just been an economic symptom of the Covid-19 Pandemic. It’s understandable why movie studios would want to return to releasing movies in theaters. Studios desperately want to get back to the return on investment that theater releases provided. Suffice to say that Avatar would not have made $2.8 billion if it was released on a streaming service. This is most likely why Warner Brothers recently announced that they would be returning all movies to theatrical releases in 2022. Yet the question still remains if their consumer base will show up to theaters or if movies will be forced to return to streaming.

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Even if the studios deliver great content to theaters, some consumers may decide that it’s not worth the money. Having to pay $10–20 per month per streaming service on top of paying $10–15 per ticket at a theater, may be too expensive for consumers.

There’s a clear balance that could be found here between the consumer and the content producers. One that produces an outcome where some movies are released in theaters and others directly to streaming. Also, once a movie has run its course in theaters it could make its way over to a streaming service. Yes, this model may sound familiar because it’s how it worked for the past few years. However, this model would allow streaming services to continue producing content for their subscribers. While also allowing theaters to remain in business and provide an alternative for bigger movie releases. Streaming services could even release some of their movies into theaters at a discount to their subscriber base.

An added benefit would be a wider range of options for content producers of all different backgrounds. This could be a monumental shift in the typical bottleneck of content. Allowing access to these various avenues could create a booming film industry for years to come. As more options are available to filmmakers, there will be more opportunities for said filmmakers to release their movies. This competition has the potential to drive a higher quality of content across all avenues of release options. The only way that works is if the audience is willing, as well as financially able, to jump between these two different content avenues. After being cooped up inside for over a year, people might choose a trip to the theater over their couch. Only time will tell but the future of movies is certainly going to be interesting.

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