Why Your Neighborhood Movie Theater's An Endangered Species
I love movies. You know what I don't love? COVID-19. Yes, yes, I know: the incredible courage it takes to come out with a take that hot makes me the only living American Hero, because Guy Fieri's Hantavirus-infected corpse has been marionetted by Ratatouille recipe rats since 2014. Anyway, I don't particularly relish being the guy who points out how a bad situation might become worse in ways no one expected, but I fear that the ongoing COVID situation might fundamentally change what we consider to be a movie.
This isn't what this article was originally meant to be about. I wanted to talk about the plight of movie theaters during the pandemic, but the further I got in my research, the more I realized there was an even more dire risk than losing the only societally acceptable place to eat Sno-Caps, a candy invented by a man dedicated to draining the joy from eating chocolate. You don't need to go far on the Internet to find opinion pieces on the death of cinemas. AMC was only able to stave off bankruptcy by taking on almost a billion dollars, and in October Regal Cinemas CEO Mooky Greindinger announced that they'd be temporarily closing cinemas across the country. Wait, hold on, hold on. I know we're talking about something important here, but the CEO of Regal Cinemas is named Mooky Greindinger? That sounds like a guy who leans on lampposts flippin' a quarter and whistlin' at boffo dames while he waits for the speakeasy to open so he can drink with his friends Stogie "Soapthief" Malone and Johnny Two-Dicks.
Okay, I got that riff out of my system. NATO sent a letter to Congress stating that "theaters may not survive the impact of the pandemic." (NATO being the National Association of Theater Owners, not the NATO you're thinking of.) According to groups representing cinemas, 70% of small and mid-sized theaters may go under without government assistance. But even with the government bailing out some theaters, it might not be enough to save cinemas nationwide. Years ago I wrote about how studios' increasingly-insane demands are choking the life from non-chain theaters -- and COVID might be the final nail in that particular coffin.
This isn't theoretical click-mongering. This is happening, all over the country, right now. You might not be noticing it if you live in a big city that mostly has chain theater megaplexes with a few arthouse theaters sprinkled in that show award-winning European films such as Thin Man Smokes Cigarette at Beach and French Lesbians, Kissing Sadly. But for much of non-coastal America, theaters are dying faster than the testchimps I assume Elon Musk secretly put on his SpaceX Rockets. Not the first time he's lied about employee safety!
For example, let's talk about Hobart, Indiana, the town where I went to high school. There's a charming little theater called the Art that is, no exaggeration, one of the most important places of my life. It's the place where I realized I wanted to work in the film industry. It's where I met some of my best friends and even my wife. One of my closest friends died there. I worked my first job there -- a combination of a concession vendor, a ticket taker, a projectionist, and occasionally a guy who fights the raccoons that took over the stockroom. I've seen, no question, thousands of movies there. With a very few exceptions, it no longer shows films. Instead, it's now a combination restaurant and performance venue where baby boomers can choke down corndogs and watch a Bon Jovi cover bands. The Portage 9, another theater, is literally a crumbling ruin after a brief stint as a flea market and, somehow, a barbershop. It used to be a 90s-tastic place where divorced dads used airhockey tables and tickets to see Jackass to win their son's love -- now it looks like the setting for a Saw movie. The Portage 16, a larger and newer theater with an IMAX, will almost certainly not be reopening at all. The remaining theaters in the area are mostly owned by AMC, whose future is uncertain. I don't think it's sensationalist to say that there's a possible future in which movie theaters, like decent pho or jobs, no longer exist outside of big cities.
I wanted to get a better understanding of how COVID has affected theaters, so I called up a friend of mine who is currently managing a theater and has managed them in the past. They requested anonymity out of fear of studio retaliation, so I'll refer to them as the Cinema Phantom because it sounds totally kickass. (In a proud tradition of informants started by Deep Throat I was originally going to refer to them by the title of a porno, but for some reason they took umbrage at being called The Little Spermaid.) Now, I went into this interview feeling pretty confident that I knew what the fate of cinemas nationwide was going to be. The conclusion that I walked away with was that films may be facing a fate that is even darker.
Before I get to my conversation with the Cinema Phantom, allow me to talk about what I originally feared the fate of cinemas would be. This might sound a bit conspiratorial, but part of me believed that over the past two decades or so studios have been intentionally trying to destroy movie theaters. COVID may have been the coup-de-grace studios were praying for, but blows had already been dealt. For example, in the early 2010s, just as the national consciousness was introduced to the psychic trauma of raw denim, the film exhibition industry switched from film projectors to digital. Digital was both cheaper and, as a side benefit, continued the proud film industry tradition of screwing over a union. These early digital projectors, according to the Cinema Phantom, could cost as much as $75,000. Deep-pocketed big chains could shell out this kind of cash no problem, but little mom-and-pop theaters across the country couldn't afford the expense and shuttered. But that's just one example. Theaters have been in a precarious situation ever since studios started focusing less on mid-budget films and betting everything on increasingly-expensive tentpoles. When one of those fails, such as Cats, it hurts theaters since they have fewer films showing.
But why would studios want to destroy theaters? Isn't that like off-brand sodas like Professor Pepp trying to destroy 7-11 or mule butcheries trying to destroy McDonald's? To answer that question, we have to go back to 1948. That was the year that United States v. Paramount ruled that, among other things, movie studios owning theaters counted as a monopoly and was therefore illegal. Over the years studios have spent money lobbying to erode this law, whittling it down to virtually nothing during the Trump presidency. In late 2019, the process was started that will overturn antitrust laws. So now, theoretically, let's say that there's a studio that has been buying up properties left and right for a decade. This totally made-up hypothetical studio is now in a position for near-total vertical integration: they create the films, they fund the films, they distribute the films, and now they even control how people see the films. It's probably not great that there are now fewer laws regulating business than there were in goddamn 1948, when “child labor laws” meant “the laws that dictate the aluminum content of the chain you could legally beat your child-employees with.”
There's not really any proof of this, but if studios chose to purchase the theaters that have lost value like a burlap sack of Beanie Babies, they could buy them for pennies on the dollar -- a trivial expense for multi-billion dollar corporations. If, like me, you're starting to feel some burnout on movies where someone flies around and shoots energy beams at someone else shooting different-color energy beams, the idea of a theater showing only those films and a yearly Star War is horrifying. It will be the death of independent cinema on theater screens.
While it is possible that studios will start buying theaters, it's possible that they'll simply let theaters die. With streaming being ubiquitous as exposed buttcrack at a Magic: The Gathering tournament, it's fair to say that theaters need studios to make money but studios no longer need theaters. And credit where credit is due: the Cinema Phantom told me that the relatively high prices Disney charges to stream their new films on Disney+ is one of the only things that's kept theater doors open. Disney films are generally profitable for theaters because of their broad demographic appeal, because families come to see them together, and because kids demand packages of Buncha Crunch the size of a goddamn shoebox. While that's a grim possibility for the future of cinemas, the Cinema Phantom raised a point about the future of film that I hadn't even considered.
I'm going to quote the Cinema Phantom here, with a few adjustments made for clarity and to remove any potentially-identifying information -- I don't want Disney to fire a Criticism Missile the Imagineers cooked up after them or to have the Official Mickey Mouse Club Death Squad sent after them. What the Cinema Phantom said that really struck me was this (emphasis mine):
[Losing cinemas] will fundamentally change the way people make movies. Let's say you have fifty million dollars. Is it better to make one fifty million dollar movie or ten five million dollar TV episodes? Ten TV episodes are a better bet of profit than one movie is. The entire format of a feature is a relic of cinema exhibition. The Snyder Cut is over four hours -- will people watch that all at once? Is the Snyder Cut a movie, or a series? Does it matter? What we think of as a film is dictated by the exhibition experience.
That last sentence gave me a sinking feeling that lasted long after our conversation. It's like hearing we found a lump or No, saying you broke into the zoo to teach an orangutan to drive "as a bit" is not a valid legal defense. Because the more I thought about it, the more correct it seemed. What we think of as a film is a continuous story that's usually somewhere between ninety and one hundred eighty minutes long, Shoah and hobbit movies notwithstanding. Too much shorter and people wouldn't feel like they got their money's worth. Too much longer and people would get fatigued and leave, because they are cowards -- oh, you think The Irishman was too long? I watched all of Empire in a theater because I am a lunatic. The whole idea of the "theater experience" is becoming less novel as large TVs with great visual fidelity become more affordable. If the alternative is watching a film in the comfort of your own living room for free, is it really worth paying twenty bucks to watch a movie on a screen only marginally larger than your TV if you have to sit near old women loudly questioning the plot of the film, a screaming child, and a guy eating a package he snuck in of what smells like boiled whalemeat? And does that even matter? In 2020, 30% of people watched TV and movies on their phones, proving conclusively what every retail and service worker already knew: that 30% of the population are complete psychopaths.
Let's say you're a bigwig at a studio. You just finished filing paperwork with the LA City Council to make it legal for you to shoot your assistant with a BB gun if she gets your lunch order from Tender Greens wrong. It's time to greenlight the next big project, a gritty horror re-imagining of Where's Waldo where the answer is RIGHT BEHIND YOU. Would you rather it be a movie or a limited series? For the same budget, you could either have a captive audience for two hours or ten. If it's released as episodes, depending on the shooting schedule, you could even make adjustments if audiences really aren't responding to a certain plotline or character. Not to mention that if you follow a weekly release schedule like WandaVision or The Mandalorian you get the benefit of a Twin Peaks-esque water cooler effect: that is to say, week to week, fandoms will discuss episodes, speculate about what happens next, and inevitably draw unspeakable porn of it. I remember seeing articles talking about Game of Thrones in literal, actual newspapers. This is effectively outsourcing advertising to consumers. And if your "limited series" turns out to be hugely successful, well, by the nature of the medium it's much easier to make a second season of TV than it is to make a movie sequel. But Hollywood would never bank on cynically continuing stories that are concluded, right?
I'm convinced that the line between TV and movies will begin to blur for the reason the Cinema Phantom told me: the media we get is a function of how we consume it. In a few months, there's a good chance that COVID vaccinations will have reached a saturation point where people are going out to the theaters. In fact, there might even be a bit of a boom in ticket sales. But, as the Cinema Phantom pointed out to me, the groundwork has been laid -- if studios can cut out the middleman of film exhibitionists, why wouldn't they? The collapse of cinemas will be a slow process, and movies will always be around in the same way that horseback riding and those dumb bikes with one big tire and one little tire will always be around; kept alive by a dedicated group of hobbyists, purists, and obsessive weirdos (like me).
There will be directors who demand to have their work shown in cinemas in traditional "movie" format -- if Quentin Tarantino saw someone watching a film on a phone he'd probably beat them with a sock full of batteries, and you know what? I'd help. The holdouts will be regarded as admirably devoted to their craft, then as amusingly old-school, then as obdurate luddites to be kept happy because their work makes money. I can say this with confidence because we've seen this before with the debate on shooting on filmstock versus shooting digitally. In 2017, 92% of films were shot digitally despite some big name holdouts like Christopher Nolan refusing to let his art about a man dressed as a flying rodent punching burglars be debased by being shot digitally. I've worked with filmstock before so I could probably write a whole article on why I'd rather have redhot knitting needles jammed into my nostrils than shoot mechanically, so I'll just say this: the coming generation of filmmakers will have no nostalgia for the "traditional film format" any more than the current generation of young filmmakers have nostalgia for filmstock.
The more I think about the future of cinema, the more it seems inevitable that it will become more like TV. I don't know how I feel about that. I love movies. There's something almost sacred about them to me, but I also understand that the way we consume media has changed and will always be changing. I'm fighting against the tide here, like with my love of physical media -- another thing we'll probably see largely phased out in my lifetime. Loving the traditional movie format is probably irrational nostalgia, but dammit if the thought of losing it doesn't make me sad. In seventy years, when a descendant of mine is boarding the ship to Mars, they'll ask "Why does Grampa refuse to leave without those weird discs labelled By Brakhage: An Anthology and Adventure Time: The Complete Series?"
"It doesn't matter," another will reply, "The Musk Consciousness won't let him on the Epic Bacon Mars Colony because Grampa made fun of him back in 2021."
William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter and Nicholl Top 50 Finalist looking to get staffed. He is also 50% of the podcast Bad Movies for Bad People, the world's FIRST and ONLY comedy podcast about movies (available on all major podcast platforms!). He is on Twitter.
Top image: Razoomamet/Shutterstock