Movies are such a key part of America’s identity because they’re one of our most accurate mirrors—even if we sometimes don’t quite recognize the reflection staring back at us. But we never stop looking, and (eventually) learning. And even with the country’s theaters now closed, the movies are still showing us something valuable. Or, more accurately: Our reaction to the absence of multiplex moviegoing is exposing a big blind-spot in our attempts to look ahead at possible post-virus life.
Many of us are trying to scope out that future by remembering our recent past. Last week saw a wistful, widely shared trip back to “the way it used to be” via a pair of viral videos taken during opening night of Avengers: Endgame. The atmosphere in those videos was closer to a Wrestlemania than any film screening most have attended, but that’s part of why the videos spread so swiftly: It was a reminder of how good a communal experience blockbuster moviegoing can be, despite our far more prevalent memories of the sticky-floored, dimly-lit, phone-filled-and-inconsiderate shitshow the average multiplex visit usually is.
Just stop what you’re doing and enjoy listening to the #AvengersEndgame opening night crowd react to Captain America wielding Thor's hammer.
— Scott Gustin (@ScottGustin) April 7, 2020
A lot of entertainment writers have spent lockdown doing two things: recommending films to stream, and predicting a future where America is re-opened, Hollywood pops the clutch on its blockbuster machine, and then we’re all elbow-to-elbow again as we cheer the carefully crafted crowd-pleasing delights of Marvel’s Black Widow, or EON's No Time to Die. And while a few writers have paid lip service to the idea that this aspect of our prior lives might not return, it’s almost always hand-waved away as a preposterous notion: There’s no way those movies could open anywhere but the multiplex! Disney & Co. would be giving up billions by going straight to streaming!
But why is anyone assuming these taken-for-granted billions are even there to be gotten in this future? How can major studios be “giving up” on billion-dollar-earners when such a status is much more likely to not exist for a very long time?
AMC, one of the largest theater chains in the country (they bought Vancouver’s Cinetopia chain last year), is on the verge of bankruptcy with months to go before they can begin generating income again. Cinemark, another major theatrical player, (their ownership includes theaters under the Century brand) is also suffering huge financial problems. Former Disney CEO Bob Iger had to rush back from his pseudo-retirement because Disney, of all the companies, is in trouble, especially with no real sign of a COVID vaccine coming before 2021. Even if the largest theater chains in the country manage to return with all their screens intact, what percentage of the general audience—a group whose numbers have been consistently trending downward since before you were born—will be up and at ‘em to line up in the midst of what could very well be the coronavirus’ second wave?
And even if the will is there (see: some churches this Easter), where’s the disposable income needed to fuel these presumed billion-dollar receipts coming from? When our stimulus still hasn’t shown up, when our unemployment checks still aren’t cutting it (or even anywhere to be seen, given the current state of our states’ overwhelmed employment departments), and when our rent, food, and internet/phone bills comprise all of our monthly budget?
The country isn’t staring down a recession, but a full-blown depression—and when Black Widow or Bond (tentatively) open in November, the country will likely be neck deep in whatever new federal crisis our idiot president forces into existence through his special blend of nihilism and narcissism. I’ve yet to read a compelling case for why it’s so obvious that a traumatized nation—one that will be attempting to recover from a completely preventable six-digit death toll and a 30 percent unemployment rate, and one with a horrifying possibility of re-electing the demented slumlord-in-chief who facilitated it all—will just automatically resume handing studios $150 million opening weekends. (As if that’s a thing that will obviously occur in an economically-wrecked America reeling from a pandemic the likes of which hasn’t been seen for over a century.)
That’s just America’s side of things, too. So much of Hollywood’s pre-COVID business model focused on international box-office, which needed to maintain an almost neverending expansion in order to justify their productions’ ballooning budgets. China tried opening their theaters once already, then immediately closed them again—not only because it wasn’t worth the risk, but also because nobody was going.
And why should they? The entire world will have effectively spent almost half a year avoiding other people, staying home, and making social distancing a reflex that turns out to be beneficial in a lot of ways—and discovering they can stay just as entertained while they do that! The speed at which people are rewiring themselves to enjoy those communal theatrical experiences through “watch parties” is to theater-going as chatrooms were to having a pen pal. And studios are behind this—because what other choice do they have? CBS is bringing back the Sunday Night Movie, because selling ads on the back of Titanic as social media fills hashtags with sweet #watchparty content is guaranteed cash in hand, especially when compared to trying to compete in a theatrical blockbuster market that, of late, only Disney showed any real aptitude for.
In response to Netflix becoming a major studio and disrupting industry paradigms, almost every major studio (Sony is the only exception, for now) already has its own dedicated streaming platform. These platforms have been created specifically to echo the bygone days of Golden Age Hollywood, when studios could own the means of distribution without having to deal with pesky independent theater owners and other third parties sticking their hands into the pie. Look at Disney+ and Hulu and HBO Max and Peacock and Viacom/CBS All Access: Why would these corporations build these houses and then not move into them?
It’s time to stop assuming that "Keeping Up with the Avengers" is a game we'll go right back to playing anytime soon. Or that the “normal” we end up occupying will resemble the “normal” of our recent past. Endgame probably was the endgame for a juiced-ball movie-going era that couldn’t logically sustain itself anyway. The home run derby is over.
Some multiplexes will still exist, and the Justice Department's move to relax antitrust laws preventing studios from just buying some will probably play a part in that. Whatever remaining, viable chains are left standing will likely get purchased by Disney, and the transformation of theaters into theme park rides—a transformation we made possible by our increasing disinclination to patronize theaters unless they’re screening pure spectacle—will become not just literal, but final. I suppose that sort of fun (and it is fun!) couldn’t be in better, more immaculately gloved hands. Arthouse and indie theaters will likely have a rougher go of things, but considering the niche crowds they were already serving had trained themselves to seek out cinematic sensations beyond superheroes and Star Wars, even arthouses’ survival will depend on how well they can deliver boutique, curated moviegoing experiences for those smaller crowds.
But the unthinking assumption that we have Marvel-style blockbusters just waiting for us on the other side of this worldwide pandemic is a reflection of our own short-sightedness—and a sign of many folks’ refusal to really reckon with where we’re headed, and the reality of what put us in this position.
This is not a situation we just wait out, and find everything the same on the other side. Entertainment, like everything else at that time, will be something different, the result of something our culture has collectively worked through. And hopefully the rewards of that work will be a little more substantial and satisfying than just passively awaiting the resumption of Marvel’s Phase Four.