Rethinking Theaters in a COVID-19 World

Wrenny Collamer, Entertainment Editor

People are consuming movies differently in 2020: COVID-19 has shuttered movie theaters across the U.S. and given people cooped up in quarantine more time to watch. COVID-19 seems to be a catalyst for change in consumer habits, but the transition away from brick-and-mortar movie theaters has been a developing saga for more than a decade. But even as the list of challenges traditional movie theaters are facing lengthens, new forms of virtual cinema are experiencing increased popularity, bringing new possibilities to the entertainment space.

The number of movie tickets sold in the U.S. peaked in 2002 and has fallen by roughly 25 percent since. More of what consumers want to watch is found on other platforms: streaming giant Netflix has continued to illustrate its power in the entertainment industry, with more nominations than any other studio at the 2020 Oscars. Traditional studios have made moves to loosen once interwoven relationships with theaters, shortening the time between theater and streaming releases as well as releasing movies directly to streaming platforms. The launch of Disney Plus at the end of 2019 was a culmination of this shift, signifying a clear move from the U.S.’s largest studio to stand more independent from theaters. Disney has used the service to unveil new movies during the pandemic, including “Artemis Fowl” and “The One and Only Ivan.”

A diversified entertainment space doesn’t mean that movie theaters have zero role to play. During the pandemic, virtual cinema has shown that the idea of a traditional theater still resonates with consumers. Here in Austin, Alamo Drafthouse launched Alamo On Demand, which curates movies across a broad spectrum of genres, allowing subscribers to go deep into quirky and unique areas of film. Through Alamo On Demand they are working to preserve Alamo Drafthouse’s commitment to the Austin community and mission to bring films worth watching to an audience that appreciates a diverse selection of “challenging, provocative, and insane” films.

Austin Film Society (AFS) is also taking measures to adapt to the pandemic. AFS has been hosting online movie screenings with a focus on smaller and more independent films. Screenings have included showings of “The Last Tree,” “Miss Juneteenth,” “Bull,” and “Driveways.” They have also been offering various film classes online for those interested in the film industry.

While no longer the reigning cultural and economic foundation of the movie industry, local theaters’ ability to adapt to challenges has shown their integral role in supporting the art and film scene of our city. However, national theater chains are struggling to find their niche while people are staying home. Even with many of the biggest blockbusters originally planned for this summer, including Warner Bros’ “Wonder Woman 1984,” Disney-Pixar’s “Soul,” and Marvel’s “Black Widow,” remaining slated to release in theaters with adjusted release dates, COVID-19 adds uncertainty to an industry that was already facing challenges.