We have heard it before: The Movies are dead! Nobody goes to the movies anymore! Now that we can rent movies from Blockbuster and watch them on our 29 inch televisions, who wants to go to the movies? Someone better check with Blockbuster how that turned out. Blockbuster went from a booming business to bankruptcy quicker than Ishtar at the local theater. The movies were safe and came back even stronger than before. I’m not sure even the most optimistic movie executive thought of the day when a movie would make over 100 million dollars in a single weekend? If they did, I’m sure Waterworld 2 would have been greenlit back in 1996 (yes, Kevin Costner we know Waterworld has turned a profit).
Then came the internet and pirating issues. You could walk down the streets in NY on Times Square with a guy selling any movie listed on the movie marquee. Surely this would kill the movies! I remember buying a VHS of Austin Powers right in front of a theater showing the movie, which had just come out the week before! Had real packaging and looked just like the one that arrived in Blockbuster 8 months later. Wasn’t too bad either if you don’t mind half a head blocking most of the picture and not being able to tell if that was Elizabeth Hurley or Phyllis Diller playing the female lead. Nope, pirating didn’t kill the movie theaters; they kept taking in millions per weekend. Most movies made their money back in the first weekend of release, except for maybe Hudson Hawk (Sorry Bruce Willis stick to Die Hard sequels).
Today we have Netflix and they are actually releasing films that would normally show up in the local movie theater. If that isn’t bad enough, Disney recently launched Disney + with all of their Marvel, Star Wars, and even Disney original movies to watch anytime your heart desires. They even pulled in 27 million viewers to watch the hit Broadway musical Hamilton during the first weekend of its release! Not even Netflix and mighty Martin Scorsese with Joe Pesci giving an Oscar worthy performance in the Irishman could make a dent in the box office take (next time keep the movie under 5 hours Marty).
Then came March 2020. Something has finally rocked the box office and is likely to be its biggest threat ever! Not Heavens Gate 2, not even another Transformers movie! In fact, it’s nothing to do with movies, movie quality, or even theaters themselves. Going to the movies now is the most luxurious experience ever with leather recliners, 4k digital screens, and food delivered to your seat at the press of a button so you can nosh till the credits roll. The biggest threat to ever hit the movies is Mother Nature! An international pandemic coupled with a failed leadership response is not only killing the movies, it’s killing many of our neighbors (currently over 160,000). Could this spell the end of movie going as we’ve come to know it?
Most people became aware of this like I did. In March, watching a basketball game and during the commercial they played a trailer for the upcoming James Bond movie starring Daniel Craig. It looked like an epic farewell to Craig and I thought to myself “maybe I’ll catch this opening weekend.” The commercial ends and after a lot of confusion on the court, players begin heading back to the locker rooms. Reality quickly set in. It was reported one of the players had tested positive for what we now know as COVID-19. A virus was about to change the world as we knew it. My first thought was this is just some over-reaction. After all, the President of the United States was just on TV saying this was no big deal, just a few cases and soon they would go away and it would disappear. This is not meant to be a condemnation of leadership, although it could be, but rather a picture of a new scary reality about to wreak havoc on our country.
There were reports out of China and then in the United States beginning with New York. From there the news, along with the virus, quickly spread around the world. A global pandemic was shutting down the country store by store and movie theater to movie theater. In my opinion, going to the movies in the midst of a pandemic seems a bit irresponsible considering the suffering so many individuals and families are enduring. While COVID cases continue to rise in many locations as of this writing, going to the movies seems like a ridiculous thought. But as this pandemic is teaching us, no one and no place is 100% safe.
Is this what kills the movies? Will people ever feel safe enough to go to the movies again? If they do, will it be enough to sustain theater for the long term? Some movie theaters began slowly reopening in early June following CDC protocols requiring masks and social distancing. But are enough people willing to take the risk? It seems movie executives don’t think it’s worth the risk. That Bond movie I was ready to go see? It isn’t even on the release schedule at Sony anymore. Big blockbuster movies like Wonder Woman and Mulan have been delayed significantly and some indefinitely. Many small theaters have closed their doors for good after holding out as long as they could. Unfortunately, no new movies means no new revenue. The current state of going to the movies is unclear at best. Some independent theaters have been showcasing “classic’ movies in an attempt to bring people out. Even a few drive-in theaters have made a likely short-lived comeback. But in a time where many people have a big screen TV with 4k resolution and comfy chairs, going to the movies is becoming a harder ticket to sell. Time will tell what the future holds for small town theaters and big chain movie cinemas. But when Mother Nature decides it wants to shake us off like a bad case of fleas, as the late great George Carlin once quipped, we may want to think twice about going to the movies. With reports of a second wave due this fall, could this be the winter of our discontent? Or will we see you at the movies?