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What movie theaters will look like in the future

Nicole Rifkin for Quartz

💡 The Big Idea

Theaters hoping to survive the coronavirus pandemic are rebooting the moviegoing experience. Here’s the TLDR to our guide on how movie theaters are avoiding extinction

🤔Here’s Why

1️⃣  Even before Covid-19, the movie theater industry was changing.

2️⃣  With Hollywood trying to figure out what a “streaming movie” is,

3️⃣  the pivot to online will completely change the in-person movie experience.

4️⃣  The industry is looking to Asia to help map out its future,

5️⃣  while the survival of independent cinema hinges in part on the survival of small cinemas.

📝 The Details

1️⃣  Even before Covid-19, the movie theater industry was changing.

On Christmas Day, the biggest Hollywood movie of the year will debut on the internet in the world’s biggest market. Wonder Woman 1984—the sequel to the 2017 superhero blockbuster Wonder Woman—will be available to subscribers of the HBO Max streaming service on the same day it premieres in theaters. Instead of watching it on the big screen, where virtually all films of its kind have been seen throughout history, Covid-averse US audiences will just cozy up on their couches and hit play.

Theaters have survived technological revolutions before: They fended off the advent of TV, outlasted Betamax, the VCR, and DVDs, and combated improvements in home theater systems. (They even survived the 1918 pandemic.) But this time is different.  Even before the pandemic, the US film industry was struggling to reverse a trend of slow, but steady decline. Now, consumption habits have irreversibly shifted to hand-held devices and at-home experiences. The coronavirus has devastated what was an already struggling theater industry. Hollywood noticed and is adjusting priorities.

2️⃣  Hollywood is still figuring out what a streaming movie is.

Theatrical distribution will be just one of many ways studios will release movies in the future—and it may no longer be the predominant one. But figuring out what releases should go on which platforms is one of the biggest challenges facing Hollywood. Stories will soon span media, and consumers will have to both stream and visit the theater in order to see them unfold.

3️⃣  The pivot to online will change the in-person movie experience.

There will still be a place for the movie theater in five, 10, and 20 years into the future. What that place is—and what theaters will look like—is a matter of debate that won’t be settled quickly. What is clear is that theaters will change.

Innovations like shorter windows for films to show exclusively in theaters, a big infusion of cash from new owners, new business models, and theater experiences that feel more like theme parks will keep audiences coming back for a night at the movies, even if there are fewer theaters to choose from. “The big screen is the raison d’etre for this industry,” said Neil Begley, a senior analyst at Moody’s who covers the US film studios. “There is a place for it, and that will be lasting.”

4️⃣  The industry is looking to Asia to help map out its future.

As North American ticket sales have stalled out, audiences in Asia are enjoying the theater more than ever. “In China, which got a hold on the virus, the box office is now eclipsing pre-Covid levels,” said Eric Wold, a senior analyst at B. Riley. “It’s selling more tickets even with capacity restrictions—based on their own films, without Hollywood titles. It shows consumers do want to come back.”

As the theater market becomes increasingly globalized, Hollywood is incentivized to make movies to appeal to the world’s emerging markets, not just Americans.

This data suggest that, once the pandemic is over, the movie theater industry’s best hope is more of the world’s countries moving into the middle class.

5️⃣  The survival of independent cinema hinges in part on the survival of small cinemas.

Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu—a number of India’s 1,500 languages also have their own independent film industries, presenting complex stories to regional audiences and their diaspora. But on streaming services, these small-budget productions can’t compete with the mass appeal of big-name Bollywood stars in films from major studios. India’s niche movie producers need theaters to continue, a struggle emblematic of the challenges facing small theaters and independent filmmakers across the world.

REUTERS/Niharika Kulkarni

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