This story was originally published in the fifth edition of The Lion’s Tale (March 26, 2021). This is Part 2 of 2
For over a century, theaters have been the dominant medium for viewing newly released movies. While technologies such as VHS have fizzled out, movie theaters have seen a steady popularity since their inception in the early 20th century. Yet today, we are witnessing the end of this dominance and the rise of a superior technology: streaming services. Throughout the U.S and other countries, we have seen the closure of many movie theaters thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, especially in its early days. These closures were accompanied by delays of many summer blockbusters to releases in late 2020 and early 2021.
Yet this decline has actually been happening for sometime. Movie ticket sales hit a peak in 2002 but began to fall from there. In 2019, sales fell by 4.6% from the previous year. When the pandemic hit soon after, ticket sales declined by a staggering 80%.
Let’s compare this to the rise of streaming services, which saw a growth of 37% during the year 2020. This is due to one simple factor- people were locked in their houses and didn’t have the ability to go anywhere, meaning their only options for entertainment were to either sign up for a streaming service like Netflix, Hulu or Disney+, or watch paint dry.
The coronavirus situation isn’t the only thing driving people to use streaming, as the greater benefits that option has compared to going to the movie theater also play a role. You can have unlimited access to a library of movies and other content for around $7-$15 a month, or you can go to the movie theater, where you might pay $9 or more to view a single film.
One might point out the past resilience of the theater in the face of things like TV and home-video as evidence that it won’t be toppled by streaming. This raises a good question, but the answer lies in not some inherent staying power of the cinema, but in the fact that those formats had limitations and simply did not compete as directly with it. Let’s take Disney as an example. They had no reason to think the launch of their TV channel would threaten the success of their movies and have continued to conduct both businesses for quite some time.
But today, with the Covid-19 pandemic, there is something pushing Disney and other companies away from movie theaters. In order to continue to make a profit, these companies must find other means to distribute their movies to the masses, and the only entertainment industry that is currently booming is streaming. So, many of these companies have an option- either delay the release of their movies until the pandemic is over, which could come at a heavy cost, or distribute them through streaming services and make a profit through subscriptions.
When it comes to the defense of movie theaters, what usually motivates people is nostalgia. Yet, if you strip away the nostalgia, what you end up with is paying around $9 a person to watch one movie, eating overpriced popcorn and sitting in a cold, dark room with strangers for two to three hours. Streaming has already sounded the death knell for the movie rental industry, with Blockbuster filing for chapter 7 bankruptcy back in 2010. I believe it is now time to embrace streaming as the major distribution method for shows and movies.