The State of Film and Theaters

This past weekend I drove about an hour to the nearest movie theater showing the very limited theatrical release of Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion, the sequel to his hit film Knives Out. The much anticipated follow up was only released in 600 theaters across the country for a single week mostly to still qualify for award consideration and placate the talent involved. Now, there are several factors responsible for this situation, and many similar like it, but it all ends up signaling a disturbing trend concerning the state of theater, films, and the industry.

For some time, there has been a view that the theater industry has been slowly dying and that the prestige of films has been eroding. Granted there has been a steady decline in theater revenue for some extended time for a multitude of reasons, many being the cause of the current downtrend. So, right off the bat, virtually everyone wants to blame the Disney corporation, and specifically the Marvel Cinematic Universe, because their films seem to dominate the average theater in terms of showings and revenue returns. I can certainly understand that take, but, again, the discussion of downfall of the theatrical experience and prominence of cinema is a conversation that is older than the MCU. Summer blockbusters, and the willingness of theaters to push them, have been a staple since the 1980s. Indie and arthouse films have always been a little bit overlooked because of the low turnout, interest, and revenue. Franchises, particularly financially successful ones, have been the bread and butter of Hollywood since its inception. The issues that are plaguing the theater and film industry are not new by any means; they have simply been exasperated and enlarged with current technological advances, economic policies, and the plethora of available films and stories.

This is not to say that what Disney is doing is good. Obviously, one or two companies having the entirety of creative output in theaters does not bode well for anyone. But, to be fair, that has been true for awhile, it just wasn’t as explicit before. Even most arthouse or independent films that were seen in theaters were produced, financed, or distributed by the larger conglomerates. It just so happens that Disney was successful where other corporations failed. Why they were is a mixed bag of various factors that won’t be delved into much here, but suffice to say it was smart planning and a lot of luck that cannot be so easily replicated. And if any other company could, they would do so immediately. While it is comforting to have a single boogeyman to blame for these acts, that is sadly not the case which is why getting rid of Disney wouldn’t do much. It all comes down to money and access.

Yes, Disney tries to take up as many screens as possible, but the reason for that is because of demand. Theaters know that the big blockbuster put out by Disney, WarnerBros, etc. get butts in seats and gets said butts to buy snacks for the two hour plus films. And these are the movies that audiences come out for. There are also some other projects like Horror that has a profitable audience, but the big money that drives companies is found in the blockbusters. Add to this supply and demand issue the ongoing streaming wars with every studio wanting to squeeze very possible cent out of their properties for themselves and you get an accelerated downturn. There is hardly any space between a film’s premiere and its arrival on a streaming platform. Before there were a few weeks and months of continuing conversation and press between a film and DVD/BluRay sales that would help pad the eventual return on a film, so even a poor box office performance was not the death knell it is now. How many films got their lives and success and status from physical copies, rentals, and showings on television that just don’t exist now? How many opportunities are lost because risk adverse companies are led by people that don’t understand anything outside of a number going up by any means is good?

Look, I don’t know what the solution to the current problems is outside of control being wrestled from the few hands that have it. There are a number or reasons why theaters and entertainment media is how it is. There are no singular, easy solutions to resolve those issues. What I do know is that there are hundreds of incredible, well made, engaging films being released even now under the current conditions. They center unique voices that have been historically ignored or outright suppressed. There are more quality films and television series than ever before; they just are not getting the attention or budgets of the past. Thus, it is even more on audiences to seek them out and shout their praises, so that others may find them as well. I cannot do much, but I know I can at least do that.

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