The way we watch movies has changed a lot over the years: people used to pay a quarter to walk into a cinema at noon and be on their second pack of cigarettes by the time the newsreel was over and the homoerotic Bugs Bunny cartoon was starting. Now it's all changing again before our very eyes/VR headsets, and soon enough, people might think it's quaint that cinemas didn't always do stuff like ... 

As Cinemas Pivot To Big "Event Movies" Only, Expect Them To Get Fancier

 

Movie industry people may not always see eye to eye on things like "Is it okay to marry your girlfriend's daughter?" or "Is a bathrobe and flip flops appropriate attire for a 'casting session'?" but right now, they all seem to agree on one thing: smaller movies are going away from cinemas. And by smaller, we mean "Anything starring a character who hasn't met Batman or Spider-Man," basically. 

While movies like Spider-Man: No Way Home and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness break box office records (with a big asterisk saying "before adjusting for inflation"), the overall number of people taking their butts to the cinema is still down compared to pre-2020 numbers. That's because the pandemic simply sped up a process that was already well underway. According to a study by Statista, the number of people who strongly prefer to watch a movie for the first time in a theater vs. those who strongly prefer to just stream it flipped between 2018 and early March 2020 -- even before we realized that going to see Tenet would be a life-risking endeavor. 

Statista

Sorry Chris Nolan, the only 2020 movie worth dying for is Trolls World Tour

Now that so many of us have invested in good sound systems and DIY living room concessions stands, people are only willing to get out of the house to see the sort of movies you "have to see on a big screen" (so stuff with explosions, mostly). As a result, cinemas are gearing up to focus on those movies and let your couch have the heartwarming dramas and quirky comedies.  

Imax CEO Richard Gelfond told Insider that "less expensive movies will go straight to streaming" because the pandemic "accelerated the drive towards blockbuster movies in theaters." But, in the same article, the president of the National Association of Theater Owners points out that people will keep turning up to theaters to get things they can't get at home, like bigger screens, comfier seats, or specialized food options that are totally worth the $20 surcharge -- so theaters are leaning into that. We're going to see more stuff like fancier/even bigger accommodations or apps that deliver snacks directly to your lazy ass because that's how theaters can make the act of going to the movies feel like a special event, not just something you did because you had some time to kill at the mall before your dentist appointment.

Entrance to LEGO store.

Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine / Wikimedia Commons

It's that or stare at LEGOs for two hours. 

According to recently retired Disney chairman Bob Iger, movies will probably play in theaters for shorter time windows before Netflix starts autoplaying their trailers on you every two seconds to inform you they have them now -- but that scarcity might actually end up contributing to the mystique of the theatrical experience. As producer Anita Gou put it: "Streaming is the way of the future, but it won't kill theatrical. In fact, I think moviegoing will become more eventized, where it's like going to the theme park or a concert, as opposed to your regular viewing experience." Or, sometimes, not like a concert but literally one, because ..

Movie Theaters: Not Just For Movies Anymore

 

Somehow, it took us like a century to figure out that a giant room with lots of seats and a huge screen at the front has more uses than just showing movies. "Alternative content" (read: anything that isn't a movie) reportedly accounts for a "single-digit percentage" of what is shown in theaters today, but industry insiders estimate that it will grow to as much as 20% in the future. What does that mean? Anything from sports to video games to sports video games to music to private events. Hopefully, the room is sanitized if they get too "private." 

According to Netflix's global film head Scott Stuber, "I think theaters will evolve and host social events. They'll make deals with sporting leagues, so you can watch the games on weekends. Kids will go there to watch tournaments. And there'll be a place for big-event television." Yeah, now that TV shows are like 10-hour movies and profitable ones at that, it was only a matter of time before theaters decided to get a piece of that action, be it through airing the latest episodes of a trendy new show or marathoning some classics. "If I could watch Game of Thrones every week at a theater with my friends, that'd be exciting," says director Sterlin Harjo, who apparently never got around to finishing Game of Thrones.

Sean Bean as Ned Stark in Game of Thrones.

Warner Bros. Television Distribution

"Can't wait the watch the adventures of this guy for the next 60 hours!" 

This isn't speculation -- it's already happening. After finding out the hard way that they can't always rely on the film industry to stay afloat, cinema chains across America took side gigs like live-streaming Post Malone concerts, hosting gaming events, or privately screening obscure movies for any film nerd willing to spring up the cash. At least some of those chains are enthusiastic about expanding and standardizing this practice to turn it into a steady revenue stream. One executive from a chain that got into streaming boxing matches and such mentioned the idea of renting out the screen to people doing fantasy football drafts. We foresee a future where that's the main use of movie theaters, and "movies" themselves are a historical curiosity. Real football, too. 

On the other hand, these big rooms that once gave us so much joy can also be used to host massive work presentations and other decidedly un-fun activities. This leads us to our next point ... 

Cinemas Are Becoming More "Interactive" (For Better Or Worse)

Another idea floated by a cinema chain exec is hosting screenings that include live discussions among audience members, which is cool if you're into that ... but imagine finding out that the only showing of a movie you really want to see in your city involves having to listen to film bros trying to analyze every detail of every shot. If they ever do that with a Kubrick movie, half the audience would probably slip into a coma due to Bad Take Overload.

Title screen for The Shining showing trees.

Warner Bros. Pictures

"The tree leaves represent my wife leaving me because I won't shut up about this movie." 

And then there's Howie Mandel's "Magic Screen" technology, which bills itself as the greatest innovation in film since color by allowing audience members to have "live conversations with movie characters" (without the mental health issues usually required for that to happen, that is). Basically, cinemas are outfitted with cameras, and an actor is able to interact with audiences in real-time, either as themselves or as the dead-eyed 3D character of their choosing. Mandel introduced this cutting-edge technology by exhuming his character from a 22-year-old children's cartoon, Bobby's World.

But it's not just the guy from Deal or No Deal: others in the industry are obsessed with the concept of "story-living," in which audiences can insert themselves into the movie's plot in real-time via the use of AR glasses, essentially merging film and gaming into a hybrid medium that does neither thing well. Still, get ready for studios trying to jam the freaking Metaverse into everything, regardless of whether it actually makes the moviegoing experience more enjoyable or just complicates it for no reason (other than charging you extra for that headset). 

All of these innovations are created under the assumption that the passiveness of attending a film screening is a problem to be solved -- but to a lot of people, it's the opposite. Those pushing this technology are overlooking the fact that going to the movies is one of the few shared experiences with no social expectations other than "sit there and look ahead in silence" (which, admittedly, is still too complicated for some people). It's a way to share a common moment with a room full of strangers without the anxiety of direct interaction. It would be a shame to take that away; those with social anxiety would have no choice but to start attending silent orgies to get their "shared experience" fix (at least we know a place that'll probably start hosting those...).

Follow Maxwell Yezpitelok's heroic effort to read and comment on every '90s Superman comic at Superman86to99.tumblr.com. 

Thumbnail: Marvel Studios, Warner Bros. Television Distribution, Pixabay

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