After spending 2020 with many wondering if the theater was going the way of the dinosaur, 2022 has proved that it will, instead, welcome dinosaurs, fighter pilots, superheroes, UFOs and Minions for years to come.
The 2022 box office has proven that not only are movie theaters going to be able to survive the offsets of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they can also still produce business numbers like they did pre-COVID.
Now, it isn’t to say things are changing, and there is still a premium right now on the biggest fish getting more screens than ever before. The 20-plus screen film houses will still have slots for the types of movies that we’ve all feared would get shuttered to streaming, but the lights will stay on because of the franchises and the studio hits. The spectacle will keep the experience alive.
We’ve seen a 45-day window begin to take hold for the time it takes for movies to go to streaming/video on demand, and subscriptions are popping up to give folks affordable ways to engage with theaters on a regular basis. Theaters are operating with less showtimes on weekdays during school years. Premium formats like IMAX, Dolby, 4DX and ScreenX are enhancing the moviegoing experience for those who want more than what the common theater can provide.
Despite what one filmmaker recently claimed, theaters are the furthest thing from bastions of “elitism.” They still represent one of the most affordable communal experiences we have outside of going to malls, restaurants, churches and parks, and they will survive in the years to come.
Though, what will move theaters look like in 10 years? When people go to the movies in 2032, what will they experience? At least in my humble prognostications, I’ve tried to pinpoint the more likely scenarios, and a few far-flung predictions for what we may be looking at in the next decade to come.
Trimming the Hedges
The pandemic did not kill the theatrical experience, but it did begin a gradual process that’s going to continue over the years to come. The sheer volume of movie theaters dwindled in 2020, with mom-and-pop theaters struggling to stay afloat and major chains making tough calls to begin closing lesser-performing theaters, primarily in rural areas or in areas with a surplus of multiplex options.
This is going to continue. If theaters aren’t courting regular business, they could fall victim to corporate trimming. Without community support or any future governmental funds, independently owned theaters will also continue to close if operation costs begin to dwarf return on screenings.
If you have an AMC Classic in your neighborhood, for example, and a bigger, more busy AMC theater 30 miles into town is where more people go, don’t be shocked if AMC closes that smaller theater in the next couple of years. For theaters to ensure their survival, they’ve had to consolidate their brick-and-mortar investments. For small business owners, they’ll need to continue turning a profit for their theaters to withstand what’s happened and what’s coming.
Though, one thing is certain – no theater is safe going ahead if they are not regularly bringing in patrons.
Cleaning Up Their Act
The pending recession is going to force theaters to do what, somehow, the pandemic didn’t fully – take a fierce look at cleanliness.
When people’s money starts getting even more tight, entertainment budgets are always the first to go. Now, as much as this could affect streaming subscriptions, this can also affect ticket sales if people don’t want to go into a gross bathroom or a dirty theater.
People love the theatrical experience, but they hate the grime that can come with it. People don’t like going to use the restroom and for toilets to be full of waste, sinks to be clogged with standing water and paper towels, soap to be running low and floors to be dirty.
In theaters, it’s been a long complaint for sticky floors and popcorn residues in seats. People won’t want to see posters for movies that have already come out inside the building. They’ll want trash receptacles to be routinely empty, and with the pandemic still ongoing, they’ll want some semblance of added cleanliness to continue feeling safe going to the movies if the fall proves to be as rough as expected.
Independent and smaller chain theaters do a much better job of keeping their facilities clean, and the chains are going to have to clean up their act if they want to continue to court patrons that can opt to go elsewhere.
Dirty bathrooms and gross auditoriums are going to have to go for theaters to remain strong in the decade to come. That’s one thing that home is always going to have an edge on – a bathroom you feel comfortable using and a couch that isn’t covered in someone else’s trash.
Finding New Ways to Cater to Audiences
Watch for theaters to continue to find ways to make the experience more special than it has been
Private rentals should continue and might become more affordable if they continue to bring in business that would be more beneficial than a lesser-attended regular showing. Birthday parties, family reunions, private corporate events…having no one else around you can, at times, be a boost for large groups, of course. Theaters will probably continue to find ways to use their auditoriums wisely.
Don’t be surprised if theaters begin to embrace more sit-down concepts for their bars and heightened food options to give more a homey feel – make it a one-stop shop for those looking for a night out, maybe partnerships with widely known chains like Chili’s or TGI Friday’s or your favorite fast-food joint – the mall concept without the mall, if you will. It might be a smart partnership, and a way to save families on gas and haggling over what to have for dinner before the movie. Plus, theater food isn’t that great anyway.
Also, with cell phone use a continued nuisance but stark temptation, one wonders if we get “cell phone” screenings one day, offering those itching to get a hold of their cellular devices a chance to use them in a theater with likeminded phone hounds without fear of being ratted out. Disney tried a “second screen” experience that never really caught on, which indicates that while people might want to use their phones in a movie, it won’t be to sync with the movie playing on the big screen in front of them.
A 3D Resurgence?
3D movies lost their popularity in a pre-subscription theater landscape, with most movies never really justifying the added surcharge for cheap glasses that easily fog up and presentation that never really made 3D a forefront of the production.
Though, filmmaker James Cameron is set to return audiences to the maximum of what 3D presentation can do with Avatar: The Way of Water, which might reignite interest in the format and push other filmmakers to reach the new bar Cameron is undoubtedly going to set once the film is released.
If filmmakers can find a way to reincorporate 3D into movies without making it too much of a gimmick or an afterthought, and theaters can make sure the presentation is suitable, subscription models may give theater patrons an added incentive to enjoy a 3D movie.
It feels like Cameron’s technological advancements might spark a new wave of 3D envy. It might be a great way for theaters to find an old trick to bring in a new audience.
Streaming Services Playing Nice
A must in the new age of movies being on streaming services is that those streaming services sees more return than what subscriptions will allow.
Netflix releasing a Knives Out sequel alone feels like a golden opportunity for the streaming giant and chain theaters to establish a healthy working relationship for streaming’s biggest event films.
As streamers like Netflix, Apple and Amazon try to acquire more IP and establish their own franchises, they won’t just want to garner those new customers at home. Releasing a film in theaters gives them a word-of-mouth machine that the best advertising campaign just can’t, and with theaters already positioned to serve as hype machines for eventual streaming debuts, streamers might just finally try to etch a permanent spot for their biggest titles in theaters before their eventual streaming debuts.
If the streaming giants and the chains can establish a healthy window, more filmmakers might be comfortable making films at those streamers if they knew their films would get some theatrical exclusivity, and ticket sales would give streamers more incentive to make movies in the first place.
Expanding Past Movies … into Television?
This is a key one. While movies will remain the primary use for movie theaters, it would behoove both the theater industry and the entertainment industry to find new ways to bring audiences in.
Showing sporting events in theaters has become popular in the spaces of boxing and MMA, saving fans the Pay-Per-View charges and allowing them to take in the big fight on the big screen. It would be fascinating if the NFL found a way to regularly show big games in theaters, especially games centered around local sports teams. Imagine your local theater showing the Super Bowl, or theaters being available for rent for private Super Bowl or other big game parties, like Game 7 of the NBA or NHL finals. Imagine being to celebrate with other fans as that championship trophy is hoisted on the biggest screen possible?
While it might seem strange, going way back into the past for serialized showcases might also be a huge way for television fans to engage with their favorite shows in theaters. Imagine if Disney had released new episodes of Obi-Wan Kenobi the night they were set to premiere in theaters, or if Netflix had plopped its two-and-a-half-hour Stranger Things finale in theaters for one night only.
With television such a grand to-do, people would likely be willing to trek out to the theater to engage with their favorite shows in a way they might not have thought possible. What if HBO had special screenings of the Game of Thrones finale for diehard fans, with a special post-film Q&A with the cast and crew about what just went down?
Allowing big, televised events a permanent home in theaters across the country would be smart for both parties. While you can get it for “free” at home, you can’t quite experience it like you can at the movies.
‘Clerks III’ becomes a more common release strategy for smaller films
This September, filmmaker Kevin Smith, long a man to curve around the traditional model for releasing a film, is set to have his new film Clerks III play in theaters for exclusive engagements outside of his caravan tour to promote the film himself across the country.
While releasing his 2022 film Killroy is Here as an NFT is more of a response to a fad, his Clerks III strategy might be a bell weather for how smaller films are released.
Lionsgate is a regular distributor in the theatrical space, but in releasing Smith’s latest film for two nights in September rather than giving it a typical engagement, it opens up a possibility for other studios to take note and give folks an opportunity to see a film in a “one night only” capacity before an eventual video-on-demand or streaming release, which is likely where Clerks III is headed after Smith’s tour ends.
In a world where bigger, tentpole films are hogging screens and smaller films are struggling of ways to get the word out in an oversaturated streaming environment, a quick fix might be well-advertised, single night showing might be an easy way to get the word out before it plays at home.
While a bigger studio like Disney/Fox might balk at the idea of releasing an exclusive streaming debut that way, they can’t kid themselves of how cheap it would be to release, say, the upcoming Predator spinoff Prey in theaters for a night, and let the big fans come in and see it in style before it plays on Hulu the next day. For movies like Clerks III, it’s a way to keep the experience alive for that film before it finds its eventual home at home.
Particularly for films that would gather a certain subculture out for a night, Smith and Lionsgate’s strategy for the new Clerks film might prove popular in the years to come.
Fully private experiences of all kinds
Here’s where one wonders what the future really might will for movie theaters. If, say, a chain sheds a perfectly fine theater in an effort to consolidate, and a private company comes in and buys the property. What happens then?
I think a future could come of age that fully privatizes theaters for whatever people want to use them for. Whether it’s a matinee for 10 of the new Marvel flick, a special work meeting, school events, political rallies, video game tournaments, a concert for a local band, a family reunion with a slideshow and home movies or a souped-up birthday party with Shrek playing, an events company could come in and claim old theaters and turn them into multi-use gathering spaces.
This way, the “theater” becomes whatever people want it to be. Though the rental and staffing fees would probably be high, it would save folks from having to engage with larger crowds and more personally tailor the experience for whatever people want it to be in their individual event space. Theaters can be redesigned to provide a homier feel – less seating, more space for mingling. If buildings start to become available, it wouldn’t be a shock to see someone come in and capitalize on a whole new way for the “theatrical experience” to unfold for private use.
Disney Starts a Handful of Content-Specific Movie Theaters
It won’t be weird to me if, say, Amazon comes in one day and buys AMC, operating it largely as normal but labeled as “Amazon Theaters.” We will never operate in a space where someone like that, Apple or Netflix will want to solely operate a chain of movie theaters in non-New York/Los Angeles spaces and only play their movies. It would make no financial sense.
Though, here’s a wild prediction – what if Disney buys a series of major movie theaters and solely programs their catalog? Disney Cinemas could become extensions of the theme park experience, offering Mouse Heads a place to go to watch the newest Disney/Fox/Marvel/Pixar films in fan-friendly spaces, maybe even with themed events and talent appearances.
Disney fans have a way of traveling like none other subculture in the entertainment space outside of sports fans, and it wouldn’t be surprising if Disney looked to expand its reach into crafting the “ultimate” theatrical experience for its fans. While the company is firmly entrenched in streaming, they also like to make money. Setting up a handful of theaters across the county that show Disney films, new and old, and becoming pilgrimage spots for their fans, might not be as crazy as you’d think.
Best Buy Movie Theaters?
Okay, here’s my one super-crazy prediction. I said I’d include something that seemed pretty out there but go with me.
I’m going to boldly predict that, in 10 years, Best Buy partners with movie theaters to create a one-stop shop for going to the movies and taking it home with you. Wait, what?
Yes, the home of buying things for the home theater experience, opens up mega-spaces where you go see a movie, then instantly walk out and have a space where you can buy the technology that helps you recreate that experience at home. Best Buy is one of those rare big box stores that still prioritizes the experience of shopping for media-based goods, and one wonders if they would, maybe in the biggest cities, operate stores that have theaters attached.
Imagine going to AMC and seeing a great movie, and walking right into a Best Buy on the way to your car? Think of it as the world’s biggest gift shop after the roller coaster. There, reinvigorated by seeing something on the biggest screen possible, you and your family decide to invest in a new television. Or, you need to go to Best Buy for a new washing machine, but you also want to see Top Gun 7. Why not knock it out at the same time? e
It’s a wild idea, but one wonders if it would enhance both businesses. This probably won’t happen, but it’s as wild a Hail Mary as I’ve got.