Are movie theaters dying? It’s a question that first plagued the public in 2020 when COVID first hit, shut down theaters for a period of time, and led to a rise in popularity for streaming services. Movie theaters opened again a year later, but to this day have received decreased attendance. Evidence for this can be found in the article, Movie Theater Attendance Far Below Historical Norms: “In 2021, those who attended a movie saw 3.6 films on average, compared with 6.9 in December 2007 and no fewer than 5.7 in any other Gallup survey.” Does this mean that streaming is killing movie theaters?
Streaming services do create more competition for theaters. According to the article, Streaming Services Are Killing Movie Theaters, when some movies first release, they are sometimes theater exclusives, meaning the only way they can be seen is in theaters. This allows theaters to make more money because it forces customers to spend their money at the theater if they want to see a theater exclusive movie.
If a movie releases on a streaming service the same day it releases in a theater, an event the article states is becoming more common in recent times, odds are most viewers will use the streaming service instead. The aforementioned article states: “This [movies releasing in theaters and on streaming services simultaneously] as a whole is causing many theaters dire problems and forcing some to even close completely.”
But, just as there is evidence to suggest that streaming is killing theaters, there is just as much evidence pointing to the opposite. The article, Netflix isn't killing theaters: people who stream more, see movies more, cited a survey saying as much: “In fact, according to a study by EY’s Quantitative Economics and Statistics group, the people who go to see movies in theaters more frequently are also the people who consume more streaming content.”
However, COVID could, arguably, also have increased the public’s want to go to the theater. After more public spaces began opening again, more and more people wanted to leave the house and go outside and do something. Going to the theater could be another way to get out of the house and see people. Humans are social creatures who are driven to socialize with other people. Evidence for this can be seen in the article, We Humans Are Social Beings - And Why That Matters For Speakers and Leaders, “We are most comfortable when we’re connected, sharing strong emotions and stories, and led by a strong, charismatic leader who is keeping us safe and together.”
On April 15, I interviewed eight people, seven of them ranging from ages 9-16 and one older viewer who was 77, about their preferred movie-watching experiences. The responses I received were in favor of theaters; five of the interviewees (one older and four of younger) preferred watching movies in theaters while only three of the younger interviewees preferred streaming.
The reason six of the interviewees preferred theaters over streaming included a communal aspect, with one interviewee stating they liked the feeling of being with people, especially friends, in the theater.
I would have to agree with this sentiment since, in my opinion, movie theaters provide a unique experience compared to streaming and are fun to go to. Seeing a movie on the big screen, with its enhanced sights and sounds blasting around the whole room, can allow viewers to become more absorbed in the action. A larger screen can also give viewers a closer look into the finer details of a movie, like set-pieces, costumes, faces, and so on.
Preparing to go to the theater turns seeing a movie into an event in and of itself. I remember how amazing it felt seeing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part Two (2011) and Star Wars: the Force Awakens (2016) in theaters on their opening nights.
At both premiers, the theaters were absolutely packed with excited fans of both franchises. People were dressed up in costumes and replaying trailers of the movies, even clapping or gasping at certain scenes in the movies. I distinctly remember my mother being the first to clap when a certain scene in Deathly Hallows: Part Two happened, and her clapping started a whole chain of people clapping.
This is not to say streaming services don’t have benefits. These services provide immediate access to entertainment without worrying about commercials, the ability to pause a movie or show if need be, and give viewers more of a personal experience when watching something with family or friends.
Another benefit of streaming is that it defeats the hassle of rushing to the theater to get to a movie and buying food, drinks, and possibly condiments. Finding a seat can also be a struggle, especially if all the seats are taken because the theater is packed with too many people. The ability to pause a movie or show is beneficial because it allows viewers to take a break without fear of missing important scenes.
Streaming services have always been popular, but that popularity dramatically increased with COVID. Movie theaters and other public areas like restaurants, malls, and so on were closed, leaving streaming as one of the few entertainment options viewers could use if they wanted to watch movies.
According to the article, How COVID Changed the Movie Theater Business, the COVID outbreak made movie-goers hesitant to return to theaters since theaters are packed with people, and COVID can spread very easily between people. The article, Indoor Air and Coronavirus (COVID-19) | US EPA, states that “Spread of COVID-19 occurs through airborne particles and droplets [...] of respiratory fluids that contain the SARS CoV-2 virus into the air when they [people] exhale [...]”.
With more time at home and more time to watch movies, streaming services have also given rise to “binge culture”. Binging means to overindulge in a certain activity like eating, drinking, or, in the case of streaming services, entertainment.
One of the most popular streaming services that launched in 2006 is Netflix. Netflix releases every season of their television shows at once meaning viewers can, and often do, watch every episode in one day. Its adaptation of the 1990 BBC series, House of Cards (2013-2018), popularized binge-watching and, according to the article, Pro and Con: Binge-Watching, “[...] marked a new era of binge-watching streaming content.”
While binge watching allows access to more content at a faster rate, it can lead to less retention of the material being watched. The human brain can only retain so much information at a time. According to the article, The Brain Break: How to Study Smarter!, “[...] the brain is only able to maintain true focus for around 45 minutes before it begins to lose steam.”
According to the article, Pro and Con: Binge-Watching, Attempts to continue working after this will “[...] exhaust the focus circuits in your brain. It can drain your energy and make you lose self-control. This energy drain can also make you more impulsive and less helpful. As a result, decisions are poorly thought-out, and you become less collaborative.”
While binge-watching doesn’t require literal work, it does require viewers to sit in one place for undefined periods of time. Sitting for too long, especially if one makes it a consistent habit, can lead to physical health problems like the ones listed in the article, Binge-Watching and Your Health: What To Know: “[...} cardiovascular[/heart] disease, depression, sleep problems, and behavioral addictions.”
In addition to the previously mentioned physical health problems, mental health problems can arise, too. Feelings of depression, stagnation, and anxiety are just some of them. When one has seemingly unlimited access to content on a daily basis, it can be easy to skip making plans with friends or family and watch everything alone. But, there are ways to remedy these side-effects.
Breaks can play a big part in remedying the side-effects of binge-watching. Viewers can get up, stretch their legs, and allow their brains time to wind down and absorb the content they just watched.
Leaving time between episodes or movies can also increase retention and suspense. I remember watching a couple episodes of the second season of Stranger Things (2016-present) with my father when I was still in college. The second season had just come out, and we had been watching it on a semi-weekly basis. Specifically, I remember we had just finished the fifth episode of that season and then stopped since it was a late school night for me.
Waiting to finish the season made me more eager to return to the show, especially since that particular episode ended on a cliff-hanger that I still remember being surprised by.
A similar event happened when my father and I finished Lord of the Rings: the Two Towers (2002) when I was in high school. Increasing the time in between each episode and movie also made it fun to speculate what would happen in the next one.
Not all streaming services release episodes or a series of movies at the same time. Disney+, for example, releases episodes of its Star Wars spinoff show, The Mandelorian (2019-present), on a weekly basis.
So, are movie theaters dying? I don’t think so. While there are those who prefer streaming a movie over going to the theater to see it, there are likely more people who prefer the opposite. Even with the popularity of streaming services, there are people who go to premieres of movies in theaters, which could provide viewers with a more unique and social experience. Given the evidence, I’d say movie theaters are going to be around for a long time.
Edited by: Mary May
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