Winners and Losers in the Battle to Save Movie Theaters
Updated: Jul 20, 2019
At a trade show in Barcelona last month, major Hollywood studios paraded footage of their upcoming films for 2019-2020 in front of a packed audience of European theater owners and programmers.
Attendees were treated to exclusive trailers and clips for “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Wonder Woman 1984,” “Gemini Man,” “Bond 25,” “Minions: The Rise of Gru,” “Playmobil: The Movie” and more.
The medley of animated films, superhero spin-offs and live-action franchise installments – which journalists are restricted from describing in detail or reviewing – said a lot about how Hollywood thinks it’s going to get you off your couch and into theaters.
They’re promising unique “big screen” experiences with familiar characters, explosive action and the latest technological advancements that will blow your socks off at the movie theater (and that you can’t get at home).
Hollywood is feeling the heat.
Studios are producing fewer but bigger films and facing increased competition from online streaming platforms. Ticket sales at US theaters went down abruptly at the start of 2019, and one of every three tickets sold went to just one studio: Disney.
Meanwhile, Netflix reported a record 9.6 million new subscribers in the first quarter of 2019, bringing it close to 150 million globally, and is producing more and more original films and series.
Competitor streaming services, including Disney Plus, HBO Max, Apple TV Plus and NBCUniversal, are all launching in the next year.
The losers in the race to save theaters are smaller, character-driven and foreign-language films with no experiential reason why they can’t be enjoyed equally on a big or small screen.
Take the recent example of Lulu Wang's family dramedy "The Farewell," which has received rave reviews and has actually sold more tickets per screen in the US than "Avengers: Endgame."
The problem is that "Farewell" has so far premiered on just four screens compared with "Endgame's" 4,662.
No foreign-language film has broken past $12 million at the US box office in the last decade outside of Bollywood films and the partly US-set Mexican comedy "Instructions not Included."
They're getting edged out of theaters year after year by the same names – Avengers, Star Wars, Spider-Man, Toy Story, etc. Six of last year’s 10 top grossing films were superhero movies.
People are talking about “franchise fatigue” and “sequilitis" as several sequels haven't met expectations this summer, like “Dark Phoenix,” “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” and “Men in Black: International.”
The Hollywood Reporter critic Todd McCarthy blasted summer 2019 as a “landmark low in major studio creativity.” The Guardian's Guy Lodge rebuked Disney as "the principal architect of an ever more uniform and homogeneous popular cinema."
If the studios continue down this predictable, risk-averse path, they may actually drive viewers away from theaters.
The small screen has the potential to be the savior of the kinds of films that audiences with "franchise fatigue" crave, including discoveries like “The Farewell” and also foreign-language movies.
Streaming has a few key advantages. First, it's much more accessible, in terms of convenience as well as cost. We know this well in one-theater towns like Ellensburg. Disney Plus is launching in November at $6.99 a month, while average movie ticket prices in the US are now over $9 a pop.
In a New York Times survey of Hollywood insiders about the future of movies, director Ava DuVernay compared the number of people who saw “13th,” her Netflix documentary on mass incarceration, with the number – four times smaller – who went to theaters to see her film “Selma,” about the 60s-era, Dr. King-led civil rights marches.
“If I’m telling these stories to reach a mass audience, then really, nothing else matters,” she said.
In other words, size (of screen) doesn’t always matter. Younger generations already seem comfortable watching pretty much anything on a smaller screen.
Second, as other Times interviewees noted, Netflix is bringing back some genres that Hollywood had largely given up on, like romantic comedies ("Always Be My Maybe") and documentaries (Beyonce's "Homecoming"), and opening up opportunities for filmmakers of color and female directors traditionally under-employed in Hollywood.
Third, the online option to watch content dubbed into English, especially useful when the screen is too small to comfortably read subtitles, could contribute to a significant change in American audiences’ attitudes toward foreign-language films and series.
Netflix has already cultivated a global audience for foreign-language shows thanks to popular series like Spain’s “Money Heist,” Germany’s “Dark” and Brazil’s “3%.”
The much-publicized success of the Oscar-winning foreign-language Netflix film “Roma” may help inspire more Americans to give non-English/non-US films a watch.
And cases like these naturally excite international filmmakers and showrunners, who see the potential to reach an elusive global audience – whatever the size of their screens.
As the streaming landscape expands, the potential audience for independent, international products will only grow, offering an antidote to "sequilitis."
A version of this article ran in The Daily Record. Click the image below to find online.