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Are Movie Theatres Doomed?

Has the Black Widow movie exposed a lack of confidence for selling tickets to the popcorn eaters?

July 2021

The suggestion in the article at Wolfstreet is that Disney is on the verge of discovering the link to cutting movie theaters out of the loop of selling a movie to a popcorn-eater. This strikes me as far-fetched, though I understand it seems tantalizing since it is a dream that production companies have sought as a promised-land of super-profits every since each iteration of technology comes along promising to free them from subservience to the theater chains, though none have yet to do so (the "captive audiences" of the pandemic hardly counts as a technological revolution).

The numbers look good for Disney+ to grab in that reported $60 million for home video rentals, and probably much more as the novelty of seeing Black Widow at home persists for a little while, but is there any reasonable person who believes at-home buyers are going to spend $30.00 for other movies every, say, weekend, while also maintaining the payment of the cost of subscription? And even if that were possible (and I doubt it is) then the bigger problem facing Disney or any other major production company making movies for the small screens of homes is the competition which will flood in from other production houses. Black Widow had no real competition and it has name recognition built upon the magnum-sized franchise of the Marvel MCU films that ran in theaters and coalesced together a mammoth audience, not to mention an audience that has been waiting for this specific movie to come out as it skipped past previous release dates, one after another, due to pandemic restrictions. How much can that special situation be repeated for additional, future films? What production company wants to run marketing campaigns that span years unless the payoff is a solid shot at their film joining the billion-dollar club?

An obvious problem is Marvel movies down-sized to living room screens are not going to have the same impact, and will be primed for getting beat at their own game by smaller production houses that could can face down the big studios within a better competitive, for the smaller-shops, arena, charging less money and using hungrier actors, directors and writers. There's also the sheer degradation of the movie spectacle mutating into a mere TV show, no matter how it is hyped as a big-deal Hollywood project.

This situation seems eerily similar to the one that faced Hollywood before, back when TV sets proliferated around the country in the late 1940s and into the 1950s. The Hollywood response then was to shift things to a paradigm where TV sets couldn't compete: theaters made their screens bigger, wider, and the sound better, meanwhile Hollywood studios through money into visuals and locations that recalled the mammoth super-epics of the silent era, yet now with color and mega-stars that roamed all over the celebrity-starved media of the country, grooming interest in coming titles. It's true that in almost every area of this formula Disney+ (or HBO Max, or any other screening service) can compete by gathering together stars and spending money on CGI and hiring great stuntmen, but there's one remaining thing they can't ever beat, and that's the sheer physically-dominating size of a giant movie screen and the big loud sound system (and the junk food eaten outside of the home. People try to maintain a better discipline over their food choices within their domestic sphere, but when they're at a movie theatre and its thus a special occasion, limits get removed, which should not be underestimated as a drawing factor for people tired of healthier home fare).

The principal of location to see an "event" picture shouldn't be lost on a company like Disney, which after all specializes in theme parks requiring people to exit their homes to reach the entertainment destination. Changing that combination into just staying home risks movie-makers losing even more ground to an alternative entertainment vehicle that is already primarily home-bound and has been steadily devouring more and more entertainment dollars at the expense of every other institution that has to compete for the disposable income of the consumer: gaming. If Hollywood can't concentrate on who their real "enemy" is (and its not movie theaters), then at best all they're going to do is win a victory over themselves.

The goal of outfoxing the theater chains looks like a dubious project considering what's being lost. If the ticket-buyer can be convinced to settle for smaller and quieter, and if teenagers can be made to give up on going to movies as a place to be free from their family homes, and if couples can retreat from theaters being a relatively "cheap" highlight of an evening out together, then maybe sitting at home and watching a Hollywood film made just for that occasion has a chance of becoming a habit, but "smaller but at the same price as a movie theater" sounds like a business model designed by accountants, not showpeople.

Bottom-line, convincing the consumer to "downsize" willingly and to keep paying the same (or higher prices) sounds like a terrific long-shot. But if Disney (and other streaming services) can force a situation where all the competition is knocked out of the way (including the theater chains), and they're the only choices left, they can foist whatever they want onto a consumer facing fewer and fewer entertainment choices, and it is bound to bring a profit, but then comes the obvious question: does it please the consumer? I don't see how.

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Original Page July 2021