The Future of the Cinema Experience: What Now?

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I remember around the time that streaming started that a friend of mine told me that some day we wouldn’t go to theaters. I told him that I would be surprised to see the day when people weren’t excited to sit in a large dark theater with their favorite snacks to watch something new. Fast-forward to 2020, and it’s time to think about the future of the cinema experience.

When the COVID-19 shutdowns began there was little doubt that things would quickly go back to some version of normal. The conversation began with speculation about the new release dates for a number of anticipated blockbusters. Speculation began to revolve around titles like Mulan, Onward, Scoob!, Wonder Woman 1984, and Tenet. Soon we started to see new release dates announced, and things seemed to be looking up. Then it all shifted.

With the VOD (video on demand) release of titles like Onward and Scoob!, the studios seemed to be accepting the idea that this shutdown might not be quick and easy. These releases likely cost the studios millions of dollars in lost theater revenue. Additionally, it’s likely that these films were seen by far smaller audiences. In addition to the financial losses, the creative people behind these films will be largely forgotten unless the award season takes the time to address films that very few people saw.

The Fox Theater in Westwood. Taken in June of 2020.

More recently still, Disney announced that Mulan will be released September 4th through VOD at a rental cost of $30.00 on Disney+. While they will still attempt to release this film in theaters as they are able to, the financial hit they’re going to take will be massive. Disney will be relying on the subscribers of a streaming service to put out more money to watch a new release. While a family might spend much more than $30.00 to go see a movie, they’re also getting a more unique experience in a theater. Most homes aren’t equipped with large screens and professional sound equipment. Popcorn at home never tastes like a theater’s does. (I’ve tried and failed to replicate that unique flavor.) Most of all, there’s something special about being in a setting where cell phones aren’t (typically) a major distraction. The theater is a place where you can ignore other things and focus on the experience the film is bringing you.

So what’s going to happen when things get back to some new version of “normal life”? The pessimist in me wonders what theaters will survive the financial disaster brought on by the extended shutdown. That part of me also wonders whether or not people will have the money to return to the theater when and if they do reopen. The optimist in me thinks that the cinema experience is an institution in this country, and throughout the world. Movies survived World War IIĀ  and the Great Depression, so why not this?

The Aero Theater in Santa Monica. Taken in June of 2020.

The reality is that no one knows what this is going to do to the film industry. The realist in me expects to see far fewer small-budget films shown in the theaters when they reopen. The studios will reserve those for VOD, while reserving the screens for the blockbusters. There will still be smaller theater chains that show foreign films and the classics, but that’s not something available to every community.

This might seem like a trivial thing to consider while the world battles through a pandemic. I thought it might even be insensitive to write this. Then I remembered a letter I saw in the baseball hall of fame. In January 1942, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner of baseball, sent President Franklin D. Roosevelt a handwritten letter, asking if major league baseball should be suspended for the duration of the war. He wrote in part, “The time is approaching when, in ordinary conditions, our teams would be heading for Spring training camps. However, inasmuch as these are not ordinary times, I venture to ask what you have in mind as to whether professional baseball should continue to operate?”.

Times were different, but the comparison seems appropriate. During the war people were sacrificing for the greater good of the war effort. There was little unemployment as people were all called to serve in some way or another. Still, there seems to be something applicable in the response Roosevelt wrote the next day.

“I honestly feel that it would be best for the country to keep baseball going. There will be fewer people unemployed and everybody will work longer hours and harder than ever before. And that means that they ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.”

Roosevelt continued with: “Here is another way of looking at it. If 300 teams use 5,000 or 6,000 players, these players are a definite recreational asset to at least 20,000,000 of their fellow citizens. And that, in my judgment, is thoroughly worthwhile.”

(See this link for more about the letter: https://baseballhall.org/discover-more/stories/short-stops/keep-baseball-going)

So I would argue that the recreation and entertainment provided by the arts will be essential to the building of morale among the people of the world. We know there will be new rules to follow, but people will obey them if it means that they get a couple hours of escape in their lives. We need the arts back as soon as possible. Not only does it serve a worthy purpose in the world, but it also employs millions of people.

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