Movie Theaters Will Look Vastly Different If They Survive COVID-19

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Netflix in late 2019 secured a lease on the Paris Theatre, a historic one-screen cinema in New York City that shuttered earlier that year. 

Netflix/Marion Curtis

Movie theaters were my second home in high school. Thanks to a strange set of family circumstances, I spent my senior year crashing on the couches, futons and guest beds of a half-dozen friends. Since I didn't have a room of my own anymore, I often found alone time in matinees after (or during) school. I went to dozens and dozens of movies over the course of seven or eight months.
Sure, these viewings were occasionally awkward, as when a middle-aged mouth breather perched directly behind me in an otherwise empty theater, five minutes into Black Swan. But I still feel a great nostalgia for that time -- for the cool air, creaky seats and dimly lit anonymity of the movie theater.

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Now, thanks to [ mass closings] and [ skyrocketing debt] for theater franchises during [ COVID-19], the future of the businesses that offered me so much comfort as a teen is in peril. In uncertain times, one thing seems increasingly clear: The theater industry must change to survive. Here's how movie theaters might look in the future.
A continuing, active independent theater scene
Independent theaters often forge [ deeply personal connections] with their customers, and while they've struggled during the pandemic, their loyal customer bases may be the key to their survival as bigger theaters fold or find new business models.

I spoke to Leslie Aberson, president of [ Apex Entertainment], which runs two independent theaters in Louisville, Kentucky. Apex theaters have opened at 30% capacity, screening classic films like Jurassic Park and The Goonies, to considerable success.

"I believe, based on this initial turnout, when [Christopher Nolan's new blockbuster film] [/news/tenet-trailer-offers-more-clues-to-new-christopher-nolan-mind-bending-movie/ Tenet] opens," Aberson said, "we're going to see a huge resurgence of business."

A tech-giant takeover
How exactly this will look remains to be seen, but tech and streaming giants like Apple, Amazon and Netflix have either [ considered] buying theaters or [ already committed to doing so]. While wholesale corporate takeovers are probably a long shot, Silicon Valley has the capital to buy out floundering theater franchises and incorporate them into their existing integrative business models -- and doing so could dramatically reorient the movie theater landscape.

How would that look? Maybe Prime members would get exclusive offers and discounts at Amazon theaters, just like at [/news/amazon-to-buy-whole-foods-for-13-7-billion/ Whole Foods]. Or maybe a premium subscription at Netflix would earn subscribers "free" visits to Netflix theaters, where algorithms set movies and showtimes according to the region. Or perhaps Disney would include large merchandise shops in their theaters, selling Mulan dolls to children as they wait in line for tickets.

Tentpole flicks like Disney's Mulan and the latest James Bond film could lose their production companies hundreds of millions of dollars if they forgo theatrical runs.


For film lovers, this vision of the future might seem bleak, but as Ben Fritz argues in The Big Picture -- his book exploring the future of film -- it's a future that properly understands media conglomerates' priorities: "Disney may have been generating record-breaking profits from its Marvel, Pixar, and Star Wars films and live-action remakes of animated classics, but ultimately its movie studio existed to launch and maintain franchises that sold toys and T-shirts and drew tourists to theme parks."
Picturing the future
While the world -- and many markets, including the film industry -- remains unpredictable in 2020, theater lovers and business owners at all levels will be grappling with the challenges of a post-quarantine world. In all likelihood, we won't see a single answer to the problems posed to movie theaters by COVID-19, but we may well see a reshuffling of the existing ecosystem, in which drive-ins, independent theaters and big-brand cineplexes all play an important part.

But as independent theater president Alberson told me when asked about the future, "I have a feeling [that regardless of other changes] we'll all be working together more."