(CLICK HERE to read my full article/essay in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)
I’m not sure the movie business has ever been in a weirder place than it is right now. Watching movies has never been easier than it is today. Streaming services have literally put entire catalogs of feature films right at our finger tips. We can watch them on our big screen televisions, on our tablets, or on our cell phones. We can watch them in the comfort of our living room, on an airplane, or in a hospital waiting room. Streaming has forever changed the way movie lovers consume content.
But what about the way we once watched movies? What about the movie theaters? It goes without saying that streaming has cut into the movie theaters’ business. Just how much is hard to say and it usually swings on a variety of factors (ticket pricing, size of markets, etc.). Yet while many movie houses and theater chains are feeling the impact, they are kept afloat by a select group of movies that fans will flock to no matter what. And while this steady trend helps theaters, it highlights a bigger concern – one that could have a far-reaching impact on the kind of films being made.
A couple weeks back Steven Spielberg’s sparkling and critically acclaimed musical adaptation “West Side Story” opened to a paltry $10 million at the box office. As of now it has only managed $50 million. Considering the lackluster returns on other 2021 movie musicals like “In the Heights” and “Dear Evan Hansen”, no one was expecting record-breaking numbers from “West Side Story”. But for a movie needing an estimated $300 million to break even, it’s safe to say expectations were higher. Within hours after the disappointing numbers went public, articles began springing up citing the reluctance of audiences to go to theaters due to COVID concerns. Sounds reasonable and it’s an explanation that would be easy to digest if not for one thing – “Spider-Man: No Way Home”.
Only one week removed from “West Side Story’s” underwhelming debut, “No Way Home” (the latest installment in the ludicrously lucrative Marvel Cinematic Universe) has shattered records bringing in an astonishing $253 million domestically during its opening weekend. To add some context, this is the third Spider-Man movie to star Tom Holland as the beloved webslinger. The first film brought in $117 million on opening weekend back in 2017. The second film raked in $92 million back in 2019. Both were pre-pandemic releases.
Suddenly the pandemic hesitancy excuse being made for “West Side Story” and other films doesn’t hold as much water. Clearly people will still go to the theaters. But they’re not going to see “West Side Story” or Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel” or Guillermo del Toro’s terrific “Nightmare Alley” which just opened and could only muster an abyssal $3 million in its first weekend. Without question there are variables at play. For example, there are older moviegoers who would likely go see those films if not for COVID concerns. But differences in numbers this massive seem to indicate something else is going on.
To get a better grip of the situation all you have to do is look at the 2021 box office numbers and see how many of the top grossers of the year were franchise movies. Obviously tentpole blockbusters topping the charts is nothing new and they happen to be an important part of the movie business. But with the infusion of huge crowd-pleasing interconnected moneymakers like the Marvel films (and we get several each year), they seem to have completely taken over. And there’s no sign of that changing any time soon.
What does that mean for movies that aren’t bound to the franchise model? What does that mean for filmmakers willing to take chances and make something fresh and original? What does it mean for them getting funding? How long will companies be willing to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into projects only to take a bath, even if the director is Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, or Guillermo del Toro? Those may sound like questions for the studios to wrestle with, but they very well could effect the kind of movies we get going forward. Could we be heading to a place where original mid-budget movies are too big of a gamble?
So what’s the cause? Are we finally reaching that point where the influx of big-budget star-studded franchises has diluted the tastes of audiences? Deep down I don’t believe it’s a clear this-or-that issue. There are several things that factor into the equation including the pandemic and the increased popularity of streaming platforms. But I also believe something has changed with a fairly large segment of moviegoers.
With the exception of cinephiles who more-or-less watch some of everything, it seems a large number of people simply have little interest in seeing movies that aren’t franchise connected. Sure there are a few exceptions, but the numbers are pretty telling and the potential consequences are concerning, especially for someone like myself who loves small and mid-budget features just as much as I love blockbusters. What will it take to get people to try other movies? I don’t know, but studios have to be feeling it. And at this rate you can’t really blame them if they decide to cut their losses. I hope we never reach that point.
I would love to hear your thoughts. Please share them in the comments section below.
As we have said, some films HAVE to be seen on the big screen. That lends to large action films and Science Fiction (I saw Tenet, Dune and West Side Story on the big screen). Historically, people went to the movies because that was the only place to see them. You and I are old enough to have grown up practically in a movie theater. I love the experience.
Watching the streamed version doesn’t seem to bother most people. I will say, I don’t like paying $20 to see a new release at home. For the majority of films, those that I think will be mediocre or probably good, I can wait six months for it to be free on Netflix or at least the rental price is better (I rented The Last Duel for $5).
I loved that I could see The Power of the Dog on Netflix straight away. I don’t have Disney or the other ones (too much clutter! ) So for me, I think more and more people will be selective about what they go to the movies for.
If and when I retire, I’d like to live within walking distance to the cinema. I’d go there weekly to see movies on the screen. I don’t know if there will be any by then!
There seems to be a big trend toward creating your own in-home theater. How do you feel about that?
If you have the money, in-home theaters are nice. But for me, there are no match for the movie theater experience. Still, what worries me most are the losses studios are taking for movies that aren’t franchise bound. I can’t help but think if this trend continues they’re not going to be as willing to give a Spielberg, a Del Toro, or a Ridley Scott the money they need to make the kind of movies they make. I pray we never get to that point.
When I try to imagine what cinema will be like in 10 years…
I just watched The Power of the Dog (great fucking film) and I would love to go to the movie theaters more as I’m glad there’s 2 theaters close to me right now though I haven’t been to the new one and parking is a big issue there. Still, I prefer to be safe at this point given that my mother had COVID this past Thanksgiving (she’s fine now) and just got her booster shot (still waiting to do mine). I would love for films to succeed but it has to be the right films.
I definitely understand some of the hesitations in regards to the pandemic. But I do think something has changed in a lot of moviegoers. There just isn’t any enthusiasm to go see movies like The Last Duel or Nightmare Alley. That really sucks.
I saw Nightmare Alley this past weekend and enjoyed it. It’s a shame it’s not getting seen by a lot of people.
It really bums me out. Out of all the movies that made my top 10, it’s the one I’m most anxious to see again. Yet it does seem like too many people passed over it.
I prefer the original film a bit more but I think Guillermo’s version has the better ending.
We need more Marvel in our cinemas ❤️
I think there are a few reasons for a decline in attendance. Steaming as you say, and most people have a HD or 4K big screen tv now, so the picture quality at home is great, just smaller. I think for most people a movie is escapism, so going to see a downer isn’t all that appealing. Nightmare Alley – perceived as downer, Spiderman – perceived as a good time. Plus I think if people are going to make the effort to get out to a theater, they want an experience they don’t get at home. The average drama probably plays well at home, Dune not quite the same experience at home as in the theater.
Also seems like the real prestige pictures have drifted towards the art house film (Moonlight, Birdman), and the more mainstream drama doesn’t get made as often. And TV can do those long form dramas like Breaking Bad and The Sopranos that movies obviously can’t do. Watch those on tv, save the movie trip for the big event movie.
Something like all of that anyway….
I’m afraid you’re right which essentially means the movie theater experience is sure to suffer. I have a nice 4K UHD television but still nothing beats the big screen for me. It’s always worth the trip. But I do think something has changed in the way people perceive it. I think more and more people are just as content to stream something on a phone or tablet than go to the theater. And if that’s the case, and these mid-budget movies can’t make money, I’m worried they may start investing their money elsewhere.