Are Movie Theaters Dying?

I have always said there is no way that movie theaters will ever go away due to one simple reason: Money.  The only way for a movie to make up to $357 million in 3 days is to play the movie in movie theaters around the world.  Even a modest $10 million opening weekend is more than any movie can ever make in 3 days playing on a streaming site or on video-on-demand.  Even if they raised the price to double or triple the cost of a movie ticket, a big group of people can get together to watch it (like they do for on-demand showings of sports or other live events) so the total cost per person may be less than $1 each.  The only place where every person watching pays for their own ticket is at a movie theater.

However, streaming sites and even movie studios keep implying they will continue to move away from a theatrical release for some movies or to shorten the exclusive theatrical window which is the time the movie is only playing in movie theaters.  

Example #1 – although movie theater attendance is moving back to pre-pandemic levels, movie studios are still releasing some movies in movie theaters and on a streaming channel or video-on-demand sites on the same day.  “Confess Fletch” was released in movie theaters on the same day as it was available on premium video-on-demand sites.  Universal decided to release “Halloween Ends” in movie theaters and on it’s Peacock streaming site on the same day.  When that movie didn’t meet its estimated $50+ million opening weekend (it only made $40 million), most people blamed the studio showing it on Peacock on the same weekend.  I’m sure if the movie played only on Peacock, there is no way it would have made even $10 million by itself.

The reason Christopher Nolan left Warner Bros – the studio that released most of the movies he directed including “The Dark Knight” trilogy – left the studio and made a deal with Universal to release his next movie “Oppenheimer” coming in 2023 is because Warner Bros chose to release every movie that came out in 2021 in movie theaters and on their HBO Max streaming site on the same day.  When Nolan agreed to make the movie at Universal, there was a rule that the movie will have a long exclusive theatrical run when it’s released.  

There are also rumors that Tom Cruise argued with Paramount about the exclusive theatrical window of “Top Gun Maverick” – the #1 movie of 2022 so far – and the exclusive theatrical windows of the next 2 “Mission Impossible” movies opening in 2023 and 2024 since Paramount has said that most of its theatrical releases will be available on their Paramount+ streaming site as little as a month after it’s released in theaters.  “Top Gun Maverick” was released on May 27.  It started playing on video-on-demand about 3 months later, but it hasn’t premiered on Paramount+ yet.

Example #2 – Netflix has been showing signs that it has an interest in showing their movies theatrically.  First, it bought a few movie theaters including the Egyptian Theatre (which is currently being remodeled) and the Bay Theater in the Los Angeles area.  

Then, a few weeks ago Netflix announced a deal to release “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” exclusively in movie theaters at the 3 largest movie theater chains in the US over Thanksgiving weekend, which is about a month before the movie starts playing on Netflix.  However, they said that the movie will only be showing for 1 week, it will only be showing on approx. 600 screens in the country (there’s over 39,000 movie theater screens in the US), and they will continue to not release how much money their movies make in movie theaters.  

Not long after the announcement, Netflix co-CEO and chief content officer Ted Sarandos said, We are in the business of entertaining our members with Netflix movies on Netflix”.  So, it seems that they aren’t really that interested in showing their movies in movie theaters.  Although they’re still very interested in winning Academy Awards for their movies.

Example #3 – I was looking forward to seeing the new movie “Causeway” starring Jennifer Lawrence which will open in a few movie theaters and on Apple TV on Friday Nov 4.  However, the movie was playing in ONE movie theater on Friday Oct 28.  In all of Los Angeles – which may have more movie theater screens than any other city in the country if you count every screen in every multiplex in the area (they had a lot more before Arclight Cinemas/Pacific Theaters closed during the pandemic) – the movie was playing on ONE SCREEN AT ONE SMALL THEATER.  I saw the movie in the theater on Friday.  There were only 5 people (including me) in the small theater with less than 50 seats in it.  The movie stars an award-winning actress (who is really good in the movie) but if you didn’t know that and you looked in the ONLY movie theater showing the movie it would look like it’s an obscure film that no one is interested in watching.

Probably the only reason the movie was playing in the one theater is because the Academy rules say that a movie must play in a theater in Los Angeles and New York City for 1 week for it to be eligible to receive an Academy Award.  That’s why every year (except during the pandemic) there were a few movies that played for a “special 1 week engagement” in a few theaters in December every year.  It’s also the reason some movies open on Christmas day since it’s exactly 1 week before the end of the year.  

As far as I know, “Causeway” didn’t have any promotion or advertising saying the movie would open on Oct 28 in movie theaters.  The official preview says, “in theaters and on Apple TV on Nov 4”.  According to the current TV schedule, Jennifer Lawrence will be promoting the movie on a couple talk shows before it premieres on Apple TV on Nov 4th, but she hasn’t done any promotion for the theatrical release yet.

It’s really disappointing for people like me that prefer to see movies in a movie theater.  I’ve even gone to see old movies that I’ve already seen on television in a movie theater during a film festival.  If I really like the movie, I may see it multiple times in a movie theater.  I saw the film “1917” 4 times in 4 different movie theaters.  I’ve also seen it on DVD and on streaming site, but it’s never the same as seeing it on the big screen.

Unfortunately, Streaming sites and movie studios may give up thousands or even millions of dollars of box office revenue because they would rather “entertain their members with their movies on their streaming site”.