If theaters are open, should we risk it? Why can’t the theaters stream too?
There’s scarcely an industry or aspect of life that has yet to be massively altered by the COVID-19 crisis. Movie theaters have simply had to close while the pandemic has raged on. Popular cinema chains like AMC, Cineworld, and Regal had planned to reopen throughout July. However, the evolving nature of the Coronavirus has caused even those tentative plans to change. As of this posting, several big states—most notably California—have pushed those dates even further back. If theaters open, most likely all will have strict occupancy limits that could be as low as 25% capacity. Safety, cleanliness, and masks will be primary concerns for most that dare venture into the theaters. Sadly, all it would take is one reopened theater becoming an infection hotspot to send folks back to their couches.
The Washington Post’s Steven Zeitchick wrote a great article detailing the many challenges movie theaters could face as they reopen. Many people (myself included) are hesitant to venture back out into these enclosed spaces. It makes solid sense that movie theaters are ranked as one of the most dangerous activities during the pandemic. Even if it’s to escape the pandemic mentality with the new Mulan or Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, the risk is high. The data on this pandemic changes daily and with it people’s attitudes toward public exposure. Cinemas are certainly at a crossroads, and the fate of the entire industry hangs in the balance.
Some new releases are already online
Studios have been making moves since early into this pandemic to combat the losses at the box office. Studios have been delaying or cancelling theatrical releases in favor of allowing them to be streamed immediately. Trolls World Tour going straight to streaming landed AMC and Universal in a public spat. This ended with AMC refusing to show any Universal movie in the future. This kind of thinking has already proven to be not only laughable but also very short-sighted.
One can only speculate as to the tense conversations happening in boardrooms around the country about how to stay afloat. Households, meanwhile, have to decide if a trip to the movies is worth the risk when theaters do open. This crisis, unfortunately, doesn’t appear to be winding down any time soon. This first test of opening the theaters will tell how willing people are to increase their risk for entertainment’s sake. The answer though might be too simple to work.
The Streaming Movie Party
A few weeks ago on the Mindgap Podcast, we talked about the concept of group streaming. Recently, Amazon has added the Watch Party add-on to the Prime Video experience. This allows people with Prime accounts to watch the best movies on Amazon Prime in a group of invitees. Amazon isn’t the first to come up with the idea of streaming movies with a group of people. There are at least 30 browser extensions and apps currently in existence that allow people to share a movie experience with friends and family. What’s important about Amazon Watch Party is the platform and notion gaining major backing and legitimacy.
Polygon has done an excellent write up on a handful of the best ways to stream content with friends. They mostly have a common core of features such as live text-based chat, video chat, and even avatars. Some feature virtual seating for avatars like you might see in a brick and mortar cinema. Studios are already electing to forgo theatrical releases altogether for some new releases like Palm Springs. Some are also pairing a digital release with the theatrical release to please both crowds. My question is, what’s to stop theatres like AMC or Regal from selling virtual seats to a summer blockbuster?
Streaming new releases nearly happened already
Back in 2016, Sean Parker—the guy who introduced so many of us to piracy via Napster— tried to do just this with Screening Room. The idea was direct streaming similar to on-demand for a short rental period. The idea had powerful industry backers such as Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. Ultimately, the theaters and studios weren’t convinced people would pay $50—the price they floated—to watch a new movie at home. The industry now has a chance to dust off this idea they once scorned and make it a life-preserver.
The technology for streaming new movies in groups exists. If under the lease agreement from the studio, the theater is allowed to show the movie to a paying customer in a format of their choosing, why wouldn’t one of the giants make this leap? AMC, Fandango, and others offer streaming current movies as digital rentals for around $5-7. Is the theater experience something so unique and worth preserving? Would the exclusivity of getting to be in a private digital watch-room enhance that experience? Can theaters overcome their streaming stigma, if it means avoiding complete extinction?
The digital movie theater experience
If you want to keep it something unique and special, some movie theater rules need to still apply. Firstly, there would be no pausing. You want a snack? You had better get it before things start or deal with missing a portion of the film. The same goes for bathroom breaks. Live chat has to be included and limited emojis and effects can be integrated to make the experience special. In the spirit of capitalism, a movie like Mulan can even have ads for toys and merchandise as a static header to the whole thing. Imagine having a Reddit style AMA session after the film with one of the stars—for a price of course— to really deliver a one-of-a-kind experience. There are countless options to make this experience a revenue driver at a time when revenue is slipping away.
It seems like we’re so tantalizingly close to preserving this experience without people in various parts of the country having to put themselves at risk to do so, and draw revenue for the theaters to keep them alive for the duration of this pandemic. With so many movies to stream, none of them brings a sense of novelty anymore. For many, their Netflix movies list acts more like background noise than as a true viewing experience. Creators like Christopher Nolan may feel their films deserve the theater experience, but can the industry afford to wait for that? Will studios and theaters looking to scrape every box office buck they can out these productions let another revenue opportunity pass them by?
Can or would it really happen?
The legal entanglements, or perhaps even just stubbornness, could all keep something like this from becoming real. The question exists: will people pay to watch movies in theaters online? Rising ticket prices have pushed countless people to wait until a movie is streamed anyway. With little else out there to compete with such a unique experience, isn’t it worth a try? The cinema is looking more and more like a dinosaur these days. It may take a home run like this to save even a vestige of the tradition. This could bring balance to the industry and add a new and ongoing aspect of the whole concept of the movie theater experience.
Even if theaters are open, they may not stay that way for long.
In a consumer landscape dominated by the concept of wanting everything faster and more conveniently, doesn’t it feel like this would’ve just happened organically in 5-10 years? Isn’t it worth a shot in the near term, to not only make movie-going safe but to also broaden the audience and revenue streams? When the theaters are open again, I don’t want to hear a cough in the back row and regret bringing my family. There are aspects of theaters streaming new releases in a digital theater that work for the public who want to see new films in theaters and theaters themselves. I’m calling on you, AMC, Regal, and Cinemark to make this happen. Now is the time to change the movie theater experience, preserve it, and keep the theater alive.
How much would you be willing to pay to stream the latest movies in a digital theater? Can the industry be saved if theaters are open at only a fraction of normal capacity? Is the theater experience worth saving? Comment below, and let’s keep the discussion going.