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Are we experiencing the death of the cinema?
October 4, 2021
There is no going back. Back in the early days of the pandemic, I frequently heard people discussing their own predictions of when things would “go back to normal”. As time has passed and the pandemic has dragged on, these forecasts gradually ceased as more and more people have realized that the world we had known before COVID-19 spread all throughout the globe is truly gone. With the recent emergence of the delta variant, it is increasingly unclear when the pandemic will come to an end, but modern society will be quite different when it does.
Already, everything from the national political landscape to the way in which we are educated has undergone significant changes, and the film industry is no exception. Like the rest of the American economy, the most obvious change that the American film industry has experienced is the serious financial struggles it has endured. Begging in the spring of 2020, lockdowns were instituted across the country to curb the spread of the virus. This forced theaters nationwide to shudder their doors and deprived Hollywood of its usual place to debut its summertime parade of hundred-million-dollar blockbusters. As lockdown set in and summer approached with all of America hunkered down and infection rates rose, movie after movie was postponed.
After it became clear that the end of the pandemic was truly nowhere in sight, more and more films began to make their way onto streaming services. The rise of on-demand streaming media is a phenomenon that long predates the first recorded case of COVID-19, and as it became clear that the video streaming model pioneered by Netflix was the way of the future, many major studios began announcing that they would be pulling their content from Netflix and launching their very own streaming platforms. On October 10, 2018, WarnerMedia announced HBO Max, with Disney CEO Bob Iger closely behind with his announcement of Disney+ just one month after that, and NBCUniversal declaring the arrival of their regrettably named Peacock streaming service in January 2019, and finally with Paramount rebranding CBS All Access as Paramount+ after their merger with ViacomCBS.
The name of the game in the streaming business is exclusivity. Instead of streaming services competing for customers by offering better features or a more user-friendly interface, each service essentially operates its own mini monopoly by ensuring that one of your favorite franchises, films, or shows can be viewed exclusively on its service. Film studios having their movies available exclusively on their own service was always the plan here. What was not originally the plan was having films debut on a streaming service and in theaters simultaneously, or even on streaming exclusively. But with theaters closed early on during the pandemic, this was the only option for studios.
Even now, with theaters open again, box office returns are a fraction of what they once were as people are still hesitant about going to the theater after the radical normalization of streaming media that occurred during the pandemic. While Disney is requiring consumers to cough up an extra thirty dollars in order to view their new releases on Disney+, Warner Bros. is releasing all their new movies at no extra cost on HBO Max. While it is unlikely cinemas will go away entirely, the availability of tentpole blockbusters on streaming media will continue to be a major hurdle for movie theaters, one it is still unclear whether they can overcome.