Last week, Warner Bros Studios issued a statement that their first run theatrical releases for 2021 will be released simultaneously on the streaming service, HBOMax, as well. This includes potential blockbusters such as “Wonder Woman 1984” (debuting this month at Christmas), Denis Villeneuve’s latest version of “Dune”, “Suicide Squad,” “The Matrix 4” and others. This announcement shook feathers, and even threatens to unleash a few suits by major theatrical chains who feel somewhat betrayed by the announcement. Yes, such theatrical and streaming day-and-date releases aren’t unprecedented, but this is the first time that a major studio is planning to do so with all of their big ticket theatrical releases.
To Go Out or Stay In?
This is a rapid acceleration of the decades-long oscillation between home viewing and the theatrical experience, brought on by the current need for public safety during the global COVID-19 pandemic. In my own 50-something years, I’ve seen this ongoing rivalry take many interesting detours, but it always comes down to the tug-of-war between staying home versus going out for entertainment. Up until this year, I’d thought I’d found my personal equilibrium; with my wife and I usually going out to the movies for fresh space operas, superhero flicks, rare arthouse treats or favorite rereleases–preferring to watch most everything else on cable, streaming or DVD/Blu Ray.
But then the COVID-19 pandemic happened, and it changed everything. Movie theaters began closing en masse, and drive-in movie theaters (a once-popular but long dormant form of mass moviegoing) suddenly became viable again. I’ll confess, I’ve never been big on drive-in movies, since I don’t generally think of sitting in my car for 2-3 hours as a ‘night on the town.’ All the same, I missed going to the movies so much that I seriously considered it.
Before my state’s latest lockdown (which went into effect the week of this column’s publication), a few movie theaters were beginning to reopen, with promises of patron mask-wearing and safe-distanced assigned seating (assigned seating has become commonplace in multiplexes over the last few years). However, despite my personal temptation (I really wanted to see Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” theatrically), most health experts are still strongly advising against theatrical attendance, as well as indoor dining (which was usually a part of a night at the movies for my wife and I). In short, it looked like the old days of going out for “dinner and a movie” weren’t coming back anytime again soon… at least for my wife and I.
One of the greatest shames of this (beyond the obvious tragedies of mass death, social isolation and unemployment from the COVID-19 pandemic), was that in recent years, the moviegoing experience had reached unprecedented sophistication and comfort. Movie projection itself has transitioned from celluloid reels (which sometimes snapped, crackled and popped) to all-digital 4K presentations. Over time, old 35mm film reels would tend to fade or become brittle–this was a real problem if a movie remained in wide release for longer than expected. I still remember going to see “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989) on opening weekend at a local theater with a friend, and the film just snapped at the exact moment where Indiana (Harrison Ford) and his father (Sean Connery) were strapped to chairs in a burning room! When the film was repaired, some 15 minutes later, the movie inexplicably jumped to the Jones’ boys escaping on a motorcycle (it wasn’t until the movie came to video months later that I learned how the movie’s heroes escaped!). Save for the occasional hard drive failure, movies these days generally run pretty smoothly, with relatively minor downloading glitches instead of broken film reels. While 2-4K digital presentations don’t usually offer the full resolution of IMAX or 70 mm film stock, such differences are negligible to the average moviegoer.
As movie theater technology and comfort reached their current apexes, the pandemic rendered all of these advances useless. Until most of the population is vaccinated en masse, or new public safety measures are fully in place, the days of $20-$100 million opening weeks simply aren’t coming back anytime soon–at least for the next 8 months or more. Ever since the releases of “JAWS” (1975) and “Star Wars” (1977) the the summer movie season has been a staple in American pop culture, but is the era of big blockbusters finally being ushered out?
One of the biggest scourges to pre-pandemic theatrical viewing I’ve seen in my lifetime is the prevalence of smartphones. I’m not knocking these wondrous little devices, and I carry mine with me everywhere, but when I used to go to movies? The damn thing got turned off. Period. I can live without a smartphone for two hours (hell, I didn’t even own a mobile phone until my early 30s). Sadly, I used to attend many pre-pandemic movies where people would whip out their phones and carry on as if they were at home–having loud conversations, taking selfies (with flashes) or texting on glowing screens which, in a darkened theater, resemble an invading swarm of giant fireflies. Sure, in my youth, we had the occasional talker, seat kicker or sticky floor to contend with, and all of these still exist, but now they are accompanied by the smartphone jerk as well. Sometimes you’d sit in your assigned reclining seat, only to realize just as the lights dim that you happen to be sitting right next to one of these movie-house menaces. I’ve had more than a few potentially great movie experiences utterly ruined by inconsiderate people and their pocket-size digital accomplices. Which brings me to my next point…
Home Viewing: Competitor to the Theatrical Experience.
Since the late 1970s, there have also been entertainment delivery via home video. Beginning with Sony’s Betamax tape-based format, followed by the more popular (though technically inferior) VHS format. As a teenager in the 1980s, I used to see VHS machines used in school, and the picture looked like crap; muddy images with muffled sound didn’t exactly sell me on the format. My family would buy one later, and I would buy my own VHS machine in the late 1980s, but it was used more for time-shifting or recording whole series rather than archiving.
Personally I was more into videodiscs, and I remember buying my first laserdisc player in the late 1980s (upgrading to a combo laserdisc/CD player in the 1990s). The picture was more than double the clarity and sharpness of a VHS, with sound roughly equal to those heard on compact discs. I quickly became a laserdisc snob, and began to build a sizable collection of about 100 or so laserdiscs (most of which I’ve since sold on eBay or still have somewhere in storage). Laserdiscs also began the trend of showing movies in their native widescreen aspect ratios (called “letterboxing” in those days) which is common today; even streaming content (such as “The Mandalorian” or “Star Trek: Discovery”) is often shot in wider native ratios than the devices on which it’s typically screened.
While laserdiscs were more commonly purchased than rented (an expensive hobby, granted), one could watch a movie once by simply renting it on tape. Video rental stores began popping up in the 1980s (when I was still in high school), and reached their own apex in the 1990s and early-2000s, when going to rent a movie at the local Blockbuster became almost as ritualized as going to the movies for some families. Later, there were specialized video rental stores (including one near my old bachelor apartment) which rented laserdiscs, as well. Soon DVDs appeared in 1997, and another mini-revolution occurred, as their relative low price and popularity began to phase out VHS (and my beloved laserdiscs). Video rental stores made a relatively painless transition between renting VHS tapes to renting DVDs. High definition Blu-Rays emerged in 2006 after beating out HD-DVD in a short-lived format war, and were available for rental as well.
In the late 2000s came streaming, and Netflix pioneered that field with a large movie library as well as original content, such as “Orange is the New Black” and “House of Cards.” People no longer had to drive to the video store to rent a movie or return a tape/DVD. Almost overnight, video stores went the way of the Furby, as other studios began to wade into the streaming pool. Now we have Amazon Prime video, HBOMax, Hulu, DisneyPlus, CBS-All Access, Peacock and many others. All of these shows and movies stream in crisp high definition and look orders of magnitude better than the VHS tapes or laserdiscs of yesteryear. Binge-watching is also a thing now, with audiences watching multiple episodes of a series in one viewing without ever leaving the couch to change a tape or disc. Arguably the greatest downside of streaming technology is having to subscribe to multiple services for only one or two desired shows. Multiple streaming services (like multiple premium cable channels) gets expensive, and during the current economic recession, there’s a lot of streaming password sharing between friends and families.
Pandemic Home Theater.
The pandemic has forced movie geeks like myself to get their moviegoing fix in some other way. My relatively small house doesn’t have space for a dedicated theater room, and my ‘big’ TV is only 43″ (109 cm), so it’s not exactly an ideal replacement for the theatrical experience… no matter how much I dim the lights, or crank up the sound system. Since buying a larger TV not an option for me, I was very tempted to re-embrace the drive-in movie, despite my own disdain for sitting in my car for several hours. But thanks to our friend Alison, we discovered a better (and relatively inexpensive) way. Portable at-home digital projection.
One night this past May, Ali invited us to her back patio one night (wearing masks and safe-distancing) where we watched a stream presentation of “Knives Out” (2019). Alison hooked up her AppleTV streamer to her new Vankyo digital projector, and I was hooked. Casting an image on a large blank wall outside, with sound coming from a surprisingly strong bluetooth speaker, we bundled up in the mild May evening weather and enjoyed a car-less drive-in movie. I didn’t just want one of these projectors…I needed one. By that time in the pandemic, I was missing the movies something fierce (sticky floors and all) and this felt like the next best thing. In some ways, it was better. Instead of being at the mercy of strangers’ behaviors, I was surrounded by considerate people whom I knew and trusted (no phone jerks). With this device, I could still enjoy the communal experience of a movie night among friends. A week or so later, my wife and I bought the exact same projector ($120 then–about $80-90 now) and we also plunked down $129 for a collapsible 80″ screen, which we could set up outside, or even in our home office (which now doubles as our de facto home theater room). Our little Vankyo Leisure 3 projector isn’t a high-end model–it’s meant for backyard or family viewing on a budget. There are far better projectors (digital projectors are a whole subculture, in fact), but for our modest entertainment needs? This little device more than did the trick.
This past summer, my wife and I plunked down $24 to stream “Bill & Ted Face the Music” (2020) and we invited a couple friends over to watch. We later paid around $30 to watch the 2020 remake of “Mulan” Yes, $24-30 is a mite steep, but it’s also the cost of two high-end (one time) movie tickets–and we can stream these movies as many times as we want; a near-forever rental, just like an iTunes purchase. For both movies, we took the collapsible screen to our back patio (outdoors is safer during COVID, along with our masks). Watching those two movies on a large-ish screen with a small group of friends under the stars was about as enchanting as any night I’ve ever had at the cinema. Popcorn is still an option, too. There is also a certain pride that comes from setting up the projection equipment myself–like ordering takeout food versus grilling it on the barbecue.
My wife and I now enjoy our weekly projection viewings of “The Mandalorian” (which plays like a mini feature film), and occasional movie nights. Around Halloween, I set up the projector in our driveway, inviting our neighbor’s kids over for a masked outdoor viewing of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993). We also took our projector over to my in-laws for a masked garage viewing of “Blazing Saddles” (1974) this past Thanksgiving (we all needed the laughs). For now, my moviegoing itch has been salved with this relatively inexpensive setup of ours, which marries the best of all worlds; viewing movies at home, but with a larger screen as well as the shared communal experience of a night at the movies.
To quote Terminator 2’s Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), “The future, always so clear to me, had become like a black highway at night. We were in uncharted territory now.” I don’t know exactly how COVID will shape the future of the moviegoing experience, but based on my own personal experiences this past year, I think that going to the movies will become more of a specialty experience… more like immersing one’s self in an amusement park ride than passively watching a story unfold. My art teacher wife now reaches her students via Zoom-conferencing from our home, and while not ideal, this approach is a helpful stop-gap until the pandemic ebbs. If a skill as specialized as teaching art can be done remotely (however inconveniently), it’s safe to assume that most first-run movies can be streamed at home as well. Watching a first-run movie, at least in the short term, can be done more safely with ever-larger smart TVs (which are increasingly cheaper, even for high-end 4K sets), or for those craving a more portable theatrical experience (like myself), there’s always digital projection.
Personally I think the era of multiple $100-200 million movies being released every year might be coming to an end, as the economic fallout from the pandemic will force everyone (including movie studios) to tighten their belts and do things a lot smarter. For example, rather than waste resources with expensive location shoots, I suspect future films will take a page from Disney’s book and use large wraparound LED-screens to simulate outdoor environments, as is done for “The Mandalorian.” Yes, the initial investment for such technology is very expensive, but compared to shooting in uncontrollable natural environments (during a pandemic), it’s a much cheaper and safer option in the long run. And once the investment is made, those large expensive wraparound screens can be used for multiple productions. Filmmakers using this technology would have the benefit of natural-looking lighting, freer camera movement (unlike a green screen) and the comfort/control of an indoor studio.
Summing It Up.
So my guess, for whatever it’s worth, is that the post-pandemic future of entertainment will be largely streaming-based, and it will be made using smarter technology. If and when this horrible pandemic begins to recede, we may see theaters make a comeback in a more specialized way, but as some post-pandemic consumers learn to make do for themselves (as my wife and I have) there may simply be less need for so many of them. The mass closure of multiplexes will be a painful transition, no doubt, as was the rapid closure of once-popular video stores not so long ago. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated an evolution that I suspect was going to happen sooner or later.
In the meantime, with over one and a half million COVID-19 deaths worldwide, I can’t stress enough the importance of mask-wearing, safe-distancing and obeying lockdowns. If we all pull together and do our part to look out for each other, we can put this horrific, nightmarish experience in the rear-view mirror someday. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll see you at the movies, in whatever form they may take.