The pandemic was one of those great disruptors that spurred the growth of digital engagement. Streaming really took hold last year, and the streaming wars have crowned some clear royalty, with Disney+ taking the lead position. Netflix may still have more subscribers. Amazon Prime and Apple+ may get some attention. Disney+ is the darling of the streaming world, featuring the best, most talked about content and dealing the challenge to the traditional move theater experience.
Disney+ rolled out content that leads two categories. Their episodic content from Marvel and Star Wars define the new “watercooler” conversation (assuming you have a watercooler at home). They’ve also blazed the trail for simultaneous releases of big-budget blockbuster movies. It started with “Hamilton” and was followed by movies like “Soul,” “Raya” and of course, most recently, “Black Widow.”
Marvel content is box office gold, but this time you need not venture into the box office to see it. The opening for “Black Widow” was one of the best since the pandemic began, but Disney proved it could generate significant revenue at home as well -- difficult news for the theater owners to accept.
At-home releases make sense. You can sit on your favorite couch, get your own popcorn and pause when you need to run to the restroom, sacrificing none of the most important moments of the movie. You can rewind to capture an Easter egg you might have otherwise missed, and the parking is way more convenient.
Of course, at-home delivery doesn’t mean theaters are dead. There are some movies that you may still want to go see on the big screen with the massive surround system. Some movies are simply meant be watched in that environment, but the choice is yours. At-home will absolutely eat into the theatrical experience, so theaters are going to have to find additional ways to use their space.
Theaters offer a communal experience to leverage. Some theaters specialize in second-run, audience-interactive experiences (think “Rocky Horror Picture Show” for a new generation). Theaters have toyed with narrowcasting concerts and creating group experiences for the folks who can’t travel to see their favorite acts. I still think these experiences are great chances for theaters to thrive.
And what about group experiences like sporting matches, or even other communal experiences like church or other types of worship or therapy? If you can gather together groups of like-minded people and offer them a chance to be in a large room, with the focus of entertainment coupled with the chance to engage one another, you have a winning formula.
Like most of the great disruptions in history, the result is rarely black and white. Change is never 100%. Nothing is “always.” Theaters will survive, but the ways in which they are used can change.
The question is, will theater owners embrace the change and lean in on it, or will they fight it like the newspaper industry originally fought the web and digital? It took years for newspapers to come to terms and start to thrive again. I hope theater owners learn from the past.