Theatres Will Die, Not Cinema

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I have seen dozens of movies in the last year, and not one of them in a theatre. Watching a film in a theatre seems like a lifetime ago. Honestly, I don’t miss going at all. The movie-going experience is uniformly terrible.

Our local mega cinema charges 15€ per ticket. There, to watch a single film, we pay more than two months of the subscription fee for Netflix. (Or a month of Netflix and a month of HBO Max or Disney+ or AppleTV+ or Hulu, or whatever service you like.) We also get Amazon Prime Video free with our Amazon Prime shipping plan. Our Netflix plan is the Premium Plan, which allows four people to watch simultaneously – for a month. We can also rent a movie on iTunes or Amazon Prime for .99 cents. The newest films might not be available soon, or even on one of our subscribed streaming platforms, so maybe we will wait, then buy the DVD, rip it, and play it over Plex in the house.

Streaming is here to stay and only keeps growing. Disney+ is growing like crazy on the back of Star Wars. Netflix spends $17B per year on production. Warner Bros. will release all its content simultaneously on HBO Max and in theatres. The big names in production know what the future holds and are investing accordingly. This is strong medicine for old-school Hollywood. The end is near for exclusive theatrical releases, it’s just hard to accept for so many people entrenched in an outdated system.

And now we have Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve and their inane comments this last week. They don’t like their new movies going streaming simultaneously with the theatre release. Villeneuve is particularly out of touch with this quote from his hysterical open letter, referencing the upcoming film Dune:

My team and I devoted more than three years of our lives to make it a unique big-screen experience. Our movie’s image and sound were meticulously designed to be seen in theaters. -Denis Villeneuve

If he is spending three years on getting the visuals and audio perfect for a theatre, well, good for him, but that’s stupid and entirely wasteful. It’s undoubtedly a super-majority of the people who eventually watch Dune do so at home or on a mobile device, probably with cheap earbud headphones. This is the reality that Disney+ and Netflix, and now Warner Bros. is living.

Nolan was even more transparent, mainly complaining about the financial deal that he isn’t going to get, he thinks. I find it funny a film director talks about ethics to a movie studio executive. That’s like the lioness asking the antelope to run slower because, you know, she’s hungry and tired and needs to feed her cubs soon. Cleary Warner Bros. wasn’t nice. Whatever.

Do they own it absolutely, because they paid for it or they financed it? And that is not a purely legalistic question; it’s a question of ethics as well. It’s a question of partnership and collaboration. They did not speak to those filmmakers. They did not consult them about what their plans were for their work. And I felt that somebody needed to point out that that wasn’t the right way to treat those filmmakers. – Christopher Nolan.

Just this week, AMC Theaters announced they would exhaust their cash reserves in a few weeks. The theatre chain has a $400M monthly commitment to rent all those theatres with nobody inside and no films to show and is likely in a death spiral to insolvency. And the landlords will follow suit with their losses and bankruptcies with nobody to rent out substantial megaplex-sized spaces.

Simultaneously, famous directors are hand-crafting bleeps and bloops for 170mm cinema experiences, and the technology industry presses forward like gangbusters. They care not a whit for theatres, nor do the millions of people who buy smart TVs and connected TVs and curved TVs, plus surround sound systems, and tablets, and smart speakers, and whatever else the consumer electronic world cooks up. I don’t have the data, but I could guess that someone who spends a lot of time playing Apex Legends, or Fortnite, or any of the multitudes of games on the insanely hard-to-get PS5  watches movies on their game consoles as well.

I respect these directors for their creativity and art, but to be so out of touch with the clear evidence showing theatre audiences are shrinking, home video is growing, and the pandemic further pushes film-making and film-showing industries down is strange.

Streaming is the only future for film and the sooner the creator embraces the strengths and works around the weaknesses of the medium, the more success they will have. The greatest director of all-time hasn’t been born yet, and it’s a pretty sure bet they will never make a film to play in a theatre.

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