Post-Covid Moviegoing

The landscape has changed, but is it all the pandemic’s fault?

Ever since streaming services started to take over the landscape of film and television consumption for the casual watcher, the discussion around the movie theater experience has shifted drastically. For some, they have started to realize how convenient it is for a streaming service to let them watch their favorite new films without even leaving their room, but for others, the convenience of streaming has just highlighted the magic of sitting in a theater with strangers.

For both sides of the discussion, this change or affirmation in viewpoint was gradual, and although streaming services were creeping upwards in importance, putting movies on the big screen was still the foolproof manner of making profit. However, the impending doom for the in-person theater experience was expedited in the past couple years — everything suddenly changed when the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the world.

Moviegoers were confronted with the realization that streaming movies after they were released to theaters was not only far cheaper, but safer — especially given the health risks of attending a packed showing. Thus, once the pandemic occurred and people were forced to stay at home, some never went to see a movie in a theater for a long time.

“Americans watched an average 1.4 movies in a movie theater in 2021,” a Gallup study states. “This includes a historically high 61% who did not visit a movie theater at all.”

Even though the worst of the Covid pandemic ended years ago, the film industry does not look the same as it did before, and many are clamoring to return to the old ways of going out with friends and having a special viewing of each new film.

Many Hollywood filmmakers are trying to reverse the damage that Coronavirus inflicted on the theater business, with directors like Christopher Nolan, James Cameron and Denis Villeneuve demanding viewers see their new films in the cinema.

“We need what movies can offer us,” writes Nolan in an opinion piece for the Washington Post. “When this crisis passes, the need for collective human engagement, the need to live and love and laugh and cry together, will be more powerful than ever.”

To some extent, this strategy seems to be working: Avatar: The Way of Water, Cameron’s 3-hour epic that was released in December of 2022, has already worked its way up to the top 5 grossing films of all time. 2022’s Top Gun: Maverick was the highest grossing movie of Tom Cruise’s long and prolific career, and movies that aren’t sequels or remakes (Nope, Everything Everywhere All at Once) made a good amount of money as well. Steven Spielberg, the director of such previous blockbusters as Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark sees Top Gun as a turning point and credits Cruise with reviving movie going.

“You saved Hollywood’s ass and you might have saved theatrical distribution,” Spielberg exclaimed in a video captured by documentary filmmaker Kartiki Gonsalves. “Seriously, Top Gun: Maverick might have saved the entire theatrical industry.”

However, when adjusting for inflation, films from the mid-1900 generated far more revenue than the money-makers of today. Business Insider compiles lists of the top grossing movies and points out that adding the adjustment for inflation evens the playing field for older success stories. When films like Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz released in theaters, they were a world phenomenon the likes of which people had never experienced.

Meanwhile, nearly 100 years later, society is inundated with blockbuster movie after blockbuster movie, making them immune to the wonder of seeing stories come to life on the big screen. Theatrical releases must sell themselves as more than a small screen, at home experience and better than their large screen competition.

A recent Wedbush financial report by Alicia Reese explained that moviegoers have “repeatedly shown that they are willing to return to theaters for quality content and altogether skip any content that is not deemed theater-worthy.”

2023 will test this theory with many big movies such as Barbie, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3, The Little Mermaid and Air scheduled for release –yet in a New York Times article written two weeks ago, journalist Nicole Sperling noted that “year-to-date ticket sales are down 25 percent from before the pandemic.” Attracting movie goers back to theaters remains a daunting task especially for independent and non-sequel films.

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Air has the star power to attract interest, but as Sperling points out “with many moviegoers requiring a spectacle before buying a ticket, a film that is shot primarily in office buildings and never actually shows the face of the actor playing Michael Jordan could be a difficult sell.”

The 2020 pandemic forced the world to retreat back into their homes and watch movies on Netflix for almost 2 years, speeding up the fall of the theater experience. After the pandemic, more than half of the independent theaters in the United States closed permanently, leaving only the large corporations (Regal, Cinemark, AMC) to run the business. But even they started filing for bankruptcy during the pandemic, leaving avid moviegoers with a fear that the theater experience was disappearing faster than expected. Will “going out to the movies” disappear completely?

Concession stands are left unmanned as theaters struggle to hire staff.

Movie theater concession areas stand empty as movie theaters struggle to compete with home viewing and other activities.

The short answer is: no, but it may look different than the landscape we are used to. Jason Fraley, the Entertainment Reporter for radio station WTOP, is hopeful about the future of movie going. As a critic and movie buff, Fraley experienced the scarcity of theater films during the pandemic, and also realized the safety and convenience of staying home and streaming. Several of the theaters he frequented for screenings have even closed, but despite the setbacks Fraley remains optimistic.

“People thought that maybe moviegoing was dead, but I actually think it will come roaring back,” Fraley said “[Production companies] are valuing a theatrical release again — I’m glad to see that.”

Watch a clip from an interview with WTOP’s Jason Fraley on the future of movie going.

Taking the family out to see a movie is no longer an cinema-exclusive experience — it now has to involve some other activity to do with friends or many average patrons will simply stay home and watch something on HBO Max. In order for theaters to thrive once again, they must embrace this changing mentality and stop operating with the mindset that filmgoers only go out with one goal in mind.

Fraley too sees a growing trend in movie theaters to offer more than film viewing and predicts this trend will lead to less movie screens overall. “I think moviegoing will exist, I just think it will be fewer locations and those locations will have modern or nicer perks,” said Fraley.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close