The Devolution of Movie Theaters: Will They Stand Up to Streaming Services Post-Covid?


Kage Blakeney

This is an illustration of a movie theater sign, which alludes to movie theaters reopening across the country. San Bernardino businesses, such as movie theaters, might start reopening with restrictions as soon as March 17, with San Bernardino’s COVID-19 cases dropping. Some of the films that are the most looked forward to in March 2021 are Zack Snyder’s Justice League and Godzilla vs. Kong.

Caitlynn Kelley, Editor and Journalist

Many industries have been hit hard by the COVID-19 Pandemic, such as clothing stores and restaurants, but many of them have not been hit as hard as the film industry. The film industry during the pandemic lost more jobs than the restaurant or hotel industries. Many movie theater companies, especially small ones, are being devastated by the pandemic. Due to movie theaters most likely not being fully reopened in 2021, Warner Brothers decided that they were going to release all of their 2021 movies on HBO Max while simultaneously being shown in theaters. One of Warner Brothers’ films, Wonder Woman 1984, was released to HBO Max and shown in theaters on its release date. During the pandemic, many streaming services, such as Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, and Disney Plus, delivered a lot of original shows and movies to their consumers. Amazon created 24 original films, which is triple than what they usually put out on their streaming service. Despite streaming services playing an even larger role in the entertainment industry during the pandemic, actor Tom Hanks believes that movie theaters will survive and that the role that streaming services have played during the pandemic was predictable. 

The film industry might take a while to bounce back from the pandemic. Raya and the Last Dragon, a Disney movie that was expected to do well at box offices did not do so well after all. It only got $8.6 million box office turnout, in contrast to Warner Bros. poorly rated Tom and Jerry, which got around $14 million at the box office. Many believed that would predict the growth of the movie industry in the future. This may be due to Cinemark’s spat with Disney over having the movie on Disney +, while also distributing it to movie theaters. However, Cinemark decided to play Tom and Jerry, which was available for free to HBO Max subscribers. 

Despite negative outlooks, there is still a chance that movie theaters will return back into the fray of society, despite streaming service’s dominance in the film industry. In China, there have been movies such as Hi, Mom and Detective Chinatown 3 that have shattered records. Hi, Mom might become China’s second highest grossing films of all time and Detective Chinatown 3 beat the world’s record for the largest opening market day, even beating Avengers: Endgame. Even though China was able to quell down the COVID-19 faster than the US, that still does not mean that similar trends will follow in the US. Also, other countries that have had lockdowns, such as Spain, France, Japan, and Korea, still had a demand for movie theaters when their countries reopened. 

Senior Zachary Martin detailed about some of the movies that he has watched on streaming services, “I want to experience the drive in [theaters]. I haven’t seen a lot of movies that have come out recently. The only one that I saw recently was the new Tom and Jerry movie. I watched it on HBO Max. HBO Max is essentially the Warner Bros. version of Netflix or Disney+. I just watched Godzilla 2, the newer one that came out, and I am currently watching The Client. Last night I was watching A Time to Kill.”

Drama teacher Mr. Page talked about the last movies that he saw, “The last one that I saw that recently came out was Soul, which is on Disney +. I also saw Mulan, which is on Disney + as well. I recently watched Gemini Man on DVD.”

Junior Jesse Hernandez states that the most recent film he has seen is Soul on Disney +.

Regarding movies that he wants to see, Martin says, “So, this month they are coming out with Zack Synder’s Justice League, which is a director’s cut of the Justice League movie, and it should be coming out on March 18th. The Godzilla vs. Kong movie is coming out soon. No Time to Die is a movie that is coming out this year in November. I am really excited for that one. Spiderman 3 with Tom Holland is coming out in December. That movie [Spiderman 3] is at the top or the second movie that I want to see. If they don’t come out in streaming services and if they aren’t in theaters, I will rent it. If I like it, I will go out and buy the movie.”

The movies that Page wants to see this year are “the Raya and the Last Dragon, Black Widow, and the Godzilla vs. Kong.” He stated that he does not go to the theaters much anymore, only once in a couple of months if that. He usually likes to watch the action or Marvel movies on a big screen.

On movies that he is planning to see this year, Hernandez says, “Some movies that I plan on watching are Space Jam (for sure), Tom and Jerry, and Mortal Kombat.”

“I know that the movie industry has been pushing off releasing movies until movie theaters can open up,” stated Page, “[The movies] that were supposed to be released in 2020 are going to be released in 2021.”

A lot of films and TV shows have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cinderella was moved from February 5, 2021 to July 16, 2021. Also, the Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It  was moved from September 11, 2020 to June 4, 2021. 

Some of the major films coming out in 2021 aside from the two mentioned above are Black Widow, Godzilla vs. Kong, and Cruella

Several states have started reopening movie theaters across the United States, even big cities. 

New York Governor Cuomo stated that movie theaters would be able to reopen on March 5, 2021, nearly a year after quarantine started in the US. Museums, restaurants, and other institutions have reopened, but he was wary about reopening theaters due to people staying in the same room with poor ventilation. The capacity of each room will be capped by 25%, social distancing guidelines must be followed, and high quality ventilation systems are needed to be installed. Due to Gov. Cuomo’s declaration, AMC stock rose 14.9% in late afternoon trading and 9.6% in after hours trading on February 22nd, 2021.

Movie theaters in Philadelphia, Chicago, and other cities across the US have been open for a while, but they have not had a lot of business at the theaters, due to there not being a lot of movies to watch there. Movie producers are waiting for theaters in Los Angeles and New York City to reopen, since they are huge entertainment hubs, and are able to help predict whether their movies will do well nationally and internationally. When New York City reopened theaters on March 5, 2021, that started a new chapter for US theaters. 

Despite NYC and eventually LA theaters reopening, that might not change the course that Hollywood has been taking recently with movies, which has been releasing them straight to streaming services. The time frame for when movie theaters have movies before they get released to other platforms has been eradicated entirely, especially with the Warner Bros.’ contract with HBO Max, which releases movies to both the streaming service and theaters simultaneously. However, those in the film industry believe that the mark of having movies in theaters helps to show that a movie is of quality, whereas all different types of movies (bad and good quality ones) are able to be showcased on streaming services. 

Indie movie theaters in New York closed on March 13, 2020, and many were planning to reopen on March 5th or in April. Indie movie theaters have to deal with low profits and cannot rely on big blockbuster movies to help them sell tickets. Many indie theaters are going to offer socially distanced food ordering, so customers will have to interact with salespeople. Owner of Nitehawk Cinema Matthew Viragh makes the case for movie theaters competing with streaming services. Viragh believes that movie theaters offer you an experience that streaming services do not. In theaters, you are able to escape the life that you have at home, and just enjoy the atmosphere of the movie. General manager of IFC John Vanko states that the theater will not offer concessions, in order to have people’s masks on at all times and to avoid people talking without their mask on while eating. Vanko just wants a safe and enjoyable return for all theater goers. 

Beforehand, Gov. Cuomo did state that movie theaters were at the end of his list of facilities that he wanted to open up. Cuomo stated that they are not as important as other facilities that need to be open, and many public health experts agreed with him. An Atlantic article talked about Gov. Cuomo’s hesitancy, and addressed how he has never seen movie theaters as clean as they are right now. Many of the movie theaters that have opened up are utilizing high quality ventilation systems, allow patrons to buy food at a distance, clean movie theater rooms, and require moviegoers to socially distance themselves. The article also talked about how usually people at the movies do not speak to each other, and just eat and watch the movie. 

On March 2, 2021 in San Francisco, Mayor London Breed stated that movie theaters, among other services, are allowed to open up in 24 hours. She still warned those planning to go to movie theaters or do other activities that they must follow social distancing guidelines. San Francisco county has moved from being in the purple tier (most restrictive) into the orange tier (substantial risk). Movie theaters may fill up 25% of their capacity, or 100 people.  San Francisco county and other counties in the Bay Area during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 immediately shut down, and have been more apprehensive about opening up than Southern California counties. While the Bay Area is reopening more facilities, many counties in California are still in the dark when it comes to reopening, such as San Bernardino, San Diego, and Los Angeles counties. Cinemark and AMC movie theaters reopened in San Francisco and Santa Clara counties in the Bay Area. 

Los Angeles county’s movie theaters may open up in a week, due to cases decreasing. LA county would have to wait for one week from March 9, 2021, to qualify for the substantial risk (red) tier. Movie theaters then would be open at 25% capacity or allow 100 people per screen. For LA county to qualify for the red tier, they must have 7 cases per 100,000 people daily. LA county is at 6.9 cases per 100,000 people and L.A. is at 5.2 cases per 100,000 people. 

Governor Newsom just stated that LA county, San Bernardino county, and Orange county will be able to enter in the less restrictive red tier when 2 million vaccines have been distributed to disadvantaged communities. Newsom said that California should hit that threshold as soon as March 13. This means that LA county movie theaters might be able to open on March 13. Moving into the red tier would include opening up theme parks, businesses, and movie theaters. Also, instead of hitting 7 cases per 100,000, California counties will have to hit 10 cases per 100,000 in order to qualify for the red tier. 

On San Francisco reopening up their theaters, Martin states, ”I feel that San Francisco is taking little steps to reopening, and I hope everyone in California follows behind.”

Page believes that if San Francisco will be able to reopen their movie theaters without incidents, other counties in California will follow along, “If San Francisco will be able to open up under Gov. Newsom, this means that the rest of the state will follow suit. Part of the reason why theaters haven’t reopened is because of Gov. Gavin Newsom, and his stay-at-home orders.”

Hernandez thinks that maybe if movie theaters in San Francisco open up and all goes well, movie theaters around San Bernardino will open up as well. “Although it’s at a high risk, this could possibly work,” he states.

Cinemark has released its list of movie theater locations that have reopened. On March 3, 2021, it shows that many Cinemark theaters around the Bay Area have reopened on March 5, 2021.

Martin has had great experiences at the movie theaters that he went to during the COVID-19 pandemic, “I seriously don’t mind [going to movie theaters]. I went to Phoenix, Arizona, I believe, and I watched the new Wonder Woman movie at a movie theater. It was an awesome experience. I believe that California can follow New York in opening movie theaters…. However, I’m not very sure how movie theaters are able to put in ventilations systems. The Cinemark movie theater company has been open for a while in various states. Through social distancing, they have been keeping people safe. They were opened for a bit in California, but then Newsom had a stay-at-home order, then he lifted it recently. Hopefully, by sometime, we can have things reopened again.”

Concerning opening up movie theaters during the pandemic, Page talks about it may not be a good idea for right now, “I know that this is off topic, but part of what creates the pandemic, or one of the effects of the pandemic is that it creates fears of people. People have become germaphobes. People are still afraid of the virus. People are still afraid even when they’re vaccinated or even if people are social distancing. Movie theaters aren’t able to operate theaters. They can’t afford to run theaters half full…With people’s fears and social distancing, movie theaters won’t survive. Theaters have to wait [to open] until they’re ready to open 100% or to not open at all. Same goes with schools. People are afraid to come back to schools. A certain number of students will come into schools, and a certain number of children will stay at home to online learn.”

Regarding whether he believes if all of California’s movie theaters will open up anytime soon, Hernandez states, “I think it’s cool that New York is re-opening their movie theaters, but I don’t think California would do it. For the simple fact that they aren’t even allowing people to enter churches or places to worship their gods [Governor Newsom is now allowing churches to open up, but only are allowed to have a 25% capacity, and singing is not allowed], I wouldn’t expect them to open movie theaters. Although it would be nice, California is trying to keep their population alive, and they don’t want their COVID-19 numbers to spike again.”

Hernandez continues, “I think we should open movie theaters though, because then it will allow people to choose what they want to watch instead of having to choose a streaming service that is showing one movie, but then another streaming service is showing another movie. That’s another reason why they wouldn’t open up movie theaters, because they already have so many streaming services, that are showing a bunch of movies, and it would start to take away money from those streaming services, so the streaming services, are most likely the ones voting to not open up movie theaters.”

Also, San Bernardino county might not stay in the purple (most restrictive) tier for long, due to the availability of ICU beds and decreasing positivity rate among all populations. San Bernardino county may qualify to move to become an orange (substantial risk) tier county. Red counties in California signify counties that are at the second most restrictive stage. Red tier counties, like San Francisco county, are able to reopen certain businesses (movie theaters, etc.), but with restrictions. However, it will take a while for San Bernardino to become a red tier county, because they still need to go under watch for a couple weeks to see whether at risk populations cases will keep on going down. 

Concerning San Bernardino almost getting out of the purple tier, Martin says, “I think that these steps help us to get back to normal which is all I really want.”

On when San Bernardino should open movie theaters, Page says, “I think that this is wise to take caution to wait until we’re in the correct tier. We must be prudent when dealing with people’s lives. People’s lives are more important than business. I would hate to open up too soon and cause an increase in the pandemic. That is what the schools are doing as well. They want to make sure that the children and adults are safe before reopening.”

Concerning San Bernardino moving to the orange tier, and even on reopening California again, Hernandez says, “I feel like it could be a good thing to reopen California, but it can also be a bad thing to reopen California, because a lot of our counties are still in the purple and orange tiers, so we are still at high risk of cases being spiked.”

Despite movie theaters suffering during the pandemic, and still needing to reopen, streaming services have been playing a huge role in the film industry. Streaming services, while antagonizing to them, are convenient to use for many. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, streaming services were already gaining an edge over movie theaters. The MPA’s 2019 report stated that home or mobile entertainment streaming services grew 14%. Worldwide, the film industry amassed $101 billion dollars, with streaming services accounting for 58.3% and theaters were responsible for only 1%. 

Surveys have shown that people are watching more TV than they did before the pandemic, and also were more likely to subscribe to streaming services. 

A whopping $112 billion dollars is expected to be spent on software and streaming services. Also, $41 billion is suspected to be spent on streaming service subscriptions. 

In February, Martin Scorsese, a prominent film director, in an interview told Harper Baazar about how streaming has devalued cinema. He notes that streaming services help filmmakers a lot by giving them a platform for their movies. However, he states that it is based on algorithms or genres that introduces the audience to what they may like. This reduces the viewer to a consumer, and Scorsese questions what this means for cinema as an art form. He disputes the perception of elitism in curating. He affirmed that curating helps to bring films from around the world to a larger audience. Also, Scorsese critiques the movie industry, and how it only cares about profit, not the subject matter of films or wants of viewers. 

Martin does agree with what Scorsese said, “I think [Scorsese] is right. That is what movie theaters are made for. Not everyone has great quality surround sound and TV. There are people that don’t care, and they just want to watch a movie. There are some people that do care, and don’t have money for surround sound and a high quality TV. Movie theaters are made to have movies on a wall.”

Concerning how algorithms impact what viewers see, Page details, “Streaming services use an algorithm based on videos that you have seen. It captures you in a genre. People just start watching what has been recommended for them. I don’t know how the algorithm works. I get recommendations that are different from what I watch.” He prefers to watch DVDs for the freedom of choice.

Hernandez agrees with Scorsese’s argument, and talks about how streaming services are able to lure in customers with certain movies or shows, “I agree, I feel like the streaming services are limiting their customers to only a select few movies, rather than if you were in a cinema, or movie theater, you would be able to choose which movie you would like to watch. So now they are starting to use certain streaming services to show movies, and it has people like ‘Oh that movie is coming out on HBO max, but I have Disney+, and I don’t want to go pay for that streaming service,’ so basically they are controlling our money, and what we are able to watch.”

On curating, Martin details what he knows about it, “I know what film makers have gone through to create an experience of being in a make believe world, a documentary, a historical fiction movie, or a true story (a movie that portrays a true event without the same people). Film makers share expressions through their movies, and viewers get to experience their emotions through a movie theater. It should be done there instead of in your room on a tablet or on your phone.”

Additionally, there are some big predictions for the film industry in 2021. One of them is that home viewing of major films, which was exacerbated due to the coronavirus pandemic, will become the new normal. Films, such as Mulan and Trolls World Tour, which were going to be theatrically released, instead, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, were released at home. Films, instead of being released to theaters on their first day, will be released for at home viewing. When movie theaters reopen, there will be technological advancements, such as distanced ordering of food and drinks, and of course, people needing negative COVID-19 tests to be admitted into theaters. When the pandemic is over, streaming services will remain the dominant place for entertainment, and will create a lot of original content for users. 

These predictions have become true for many movie theaters. Theaters, across the country, are encouraging social distancing by having customers use apps to buy concessions.

There are also predictions on how theaters and streaming services will coexist post-pandemic. Theaters and streaming services will both play a big role, but streaming service companies will purchase struggling theaters, and will be able to release movies out to them around the 3 month period (theaters receive movies three months prior to it airing). Around 20% of American adults surveyed by What If Media Group stated that they were not planning on going back to the theaters when the COVID-19 shot became available. Also, 10% of American adults stated that they are not very sure on whether they’ll return or not. 

The CEO of Disney Bob Chapek has stated that many people are now used to watching movies from streaming services, instead of going to theaters and watching movies, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He states that he does not want to end theatrically releasing movies; he alludes to how consumer’s behavior has changed a lot, and that will definitely affect how things proceed in the film industry. 

Regarding the CEO of Disney Bob Chapek’s statement, Page says, “I believe that Chapek is right. People are turning to streaming…This also relates to schools. Students are saying that they are enjoying learning and working at home. Also, now [people] are used to watching movies at home. I have also started to use streaming services during the pandemic.”

Concerning whether the theater industry will have a hard time with business when they reopen, Hernandez states, “I believe that if they open theaters, many people will start to fill them up. While people would be going to the theaters, the streaming services and programs would start to lose money, but they wouldn’t completely crash, because some people are anti-social, and they wouldn’t want to go to the theaters. I do not believe that the theater attendance will decline, because a lot of teens like to go to the movie theaters, almost every Friday, Saturday, and even Sunday you would see the movie theaters filled with teens. So the teens would be the downfall to streaming services.” 

There have been many deals made between movie theater companies, streaming services, and movie theaters alike. Comcast’s Universal made a deal with AMC and Cinemark on how they would allow movies to be rented by them for 17 days, unless certain movies were box office hits during the weekend, those movies would be allowed to stay in theaters for a while longer. Also, AMC and Cinemark might get some of the proceeds that Universal will get when they stream their movies. 

Regarding the deal with Universal, AMC, and Cinemark, Martin gives his input, “I think that this is all interesting. This company [Universal] is trying to see what works to get more money to become a monopoly. They are trying to see what is best for their company, figure out how to get more money, and how people want to view these kinds of movies.” 

Page talks about the process of movies going to movie theaters, and how that will change during the pandemic, “I know that the movie industry is trying to help the theater companies, so that they can show movies beforehand. Before, you had to wait a certain amount of time. The movie would have to first run theaters, and then the second run theaters (dollar theaters), then they’re allowed to bring the movie on DVD. The movie is not allowed to be on DVD beforehand, that would get rid of the theater’s business. This helps to allow theaters a certain amount of time to have movies. That will dramatically change due to COVID-19, and I believe that movie theaters won’t survive.”

Hernandez believes that Universal’s contract with Cinemark and AMC is not fair to consumers or movie theaters alike “because then people wouldn’t be allowed to see everything unless they went to the theater for a week straight,” he states, “…they should be allowed to stream a movie for as long as they would like, and it should be their choice to stop streaming a movie or continue to stream a movie. By Universal restricting so much access to movies, it’s basically taking away a movie theater’s rights.”

Later last year, Warner Bros. did announce that they would add their whole 2021 catalog of movies on HBO Max, and would have an immediate theatrical release, and a HBO Max release. On HBO Max, streamers could watch the movies from Warner Bros. for 31 days, and the movies would still be available in theaters, until they are ready for home entertainment. Some of the movie catalog from Warner Bros. this year includes Matrix 4 and Space Jam: A New Legacy. 

Martin gives what he thinks is the outlook of movie theaters, and his opinion on using streaming services when movie theaters have reopened, “I think that eventually we will reopen [theaters], and we will slowly start coming back to theaters. Streaming services have been convenient to use, since movie theaters weren’t open around the world. It does keep people safe, and I am not sure how they would bring in more money, but it just has been more convenient. I wouldn’t watch a movie on a streaming service, I would go to a movie theater to watch a movie that has just come out.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many film festivals are going online. Some film festivals that are planning to have online events this year are the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, the Berlin International Film Festival, and the New York International Children’s Film Festival. 

Concerning going to film festivals, Martin says, “I am not really planning on attending any film festivals. I don’t know where to start looking. I am not very interested.”

Page states, “I don’t have any plans on going to film festivals in person or digitally. Before pandemic, I [had] never been to film festivals. I have been to music festivals, however.”

Regarding if he is going to attend a film festival, Hernandez states, “No, I honestly don’t even know what a film festival is, let alone be attending one.”

Movie theaters still have not opened up in the High Desert. Till then, theaters’ future in the High Desert is uncertain.