Streaming is Making Theaters Obsolete.

Is That Okay?

Since its inception, one of cinema’s main challenges has been what is the best way to get people to see these pieces of art. Alongside film’s evolution through the years, film distribution evolved as well, which means that there have been numerous challenges from a variety of perspectives as to the best way to get the correct audiences for the right films. Initially the options were very limited. In today’s world though, one can feel overwhelmed with the variety of options.

The Changing Methods of Distribution

In addition to traditional theaters, there are DVDs, cable, streaming, and now even premium streaming options where newer films are doing simultaneous releases where they are digitally released alongside their theatrical run at a premium cost. Additionally, with social media being the cultural force it is today, a film having a hit release is no longer needed for it to end up seen by audiences. Instead, a carefully curated algorithms and memes can create the engagement that production companies desire. Memes like the bird box challenge that emerged at the same time as Netflix’s original film Bird Box (2019) can create a sense of being in on something, and for those outside of these inside jokes, it is hard to not join in when your whole social media feed is references to something you are not a part of.

Consequently, this trend of alternate distribution methods and social media has called the role of movie theaters more into question than ever before. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the already troubled model of theatrical distribution, and there are now more theaters than ever before re-evaluating their longevity, and the trends are grim. For high-budget features, the theatrical mode has always been the norm; for low-budget films however, the ones that are more experimental and daring independent films, as well as documentaries, have had to go a slightly divergent route to be seen by audiences. Oftentimes, before the 1970s, movie theaters would broadcast “double features” where a more mainstream, high-budget film would be paired with a smaller, lower-budget film to follow after it. This was a way for audiences to see more niche movies at the time such as That Certain Thing (1928) and Ladies Crave Excitement (1935). An alternative to these double features though are going to more specialized and underground theaters that would show things off of the beaten path. With the advent of TV however, many of these films would soon get the chances that they deserved, albeit with slight caveats.

From Cable to Streaming

In the 1950s, soon after cable came into everyone’s homes, local television stations from around the United States would air low-budged genre films to fill programming space in late-night time slots. This trend would be coined as “The Midnight Movie.” These screening were not as a form of support for these films though, and instead, these films were routinely picked at and mocked by hosts like Zacherley and Vampira. Some hosts would play into the camp of these films while others purely presented them as vehicles for colorful commentary and quips, be it an older film like Freaks (1932) or Glen or Glenda (1953). Something similar has been occurring since the 1930s where different theaters and traveling road shows would show controversial exploitation and foreign films like The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) under the guise of them being oddities. In the 1970s this trend picked up speed as different, more independent movie theaters across the United States followed in the footsteps of the Elgin in New York City. This iconic theater had midnight showings of cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowky’s new film El Topo (1970), and this influenced other theaters to show films in a similar vein. The most well-known “midnight movie” to have come from this trend would be The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), a film that was completely forgotten after initial release. It was only until it was shown as a midnight movie that it became a cult sensation across the United States. These counter-cultural and underground ways to support films are extremely noteworthy, but currently the commercial industry of mainstream films still does not view this as a way for films to find their audiences and be successful. Films that fail commercially, are still viewed as failures even if they find success as midnight movies. They only eventually gain commercial praise a few decades later when they are remade and repurposed like Rocky Horror Picture Show has been.

Streaming was first introduced in the 1990s as video on demand, but it began to be the mainstream trend it is today after Netflix was introduced in 2007. As it came into prominence and presented itself as a viable alternative to theaters, many of the patterns of distribution that had existed for so long would begin shifting. Throughout this period, mainstream, high-budget films would still see success in theaters and then again later as new films accompanied by a studio’s backlog went to streaming. Another thing that was happening with streaming is that TV shows were changing. With streaming, viewers could watch an entire show at once, binge it, instead of weekly. This format helped usher in more thoughtful shows with higher budgets that explored more complicated ideas with the craft and care that was typically reserved for film, shows such as Breaking Bad (2008-2013) and Game of Thrones (2011-2019). TV made streaming the place for viewers to go, and film followed suit, and soon a whole new market was created. The Covid-19 pandemic revealed that this world of streaming was much more important and needed that previously though, and many of these large studios needed to work with streaming services to continue operating as movie theaters were generally shut down. As a result, a somewhat viable alternative to movie theaters fell on the studios’ laps. Through all of the alternate means of watching a film, be it TV or online, movie studios were still reaping the benefits while movie theaters were continually pushed to raise ticket and concession prices to sustain their business. Movie theaters are closing up shop, but it should not entirely be attributed to the pandemic. Instead, it can be understood that as streaming began dominating the entertainment industry, the way people consume media changed in tandem. Close to how midnight movies were a way of showcasing foreign films as well as taboo independent features, streaming platforms’ massive libraries help lesser-known films find new audiences. Yes, you probably still can’t find John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972) on Netflix, but other films that would not get the widest of theatrical distributions are getting seen and are being appreciated.

Is There a Growing Exposure?

Some films that have gotten more exposure and have gotten more fans since their initial release, seen by their popularity rising on film review sites, are Train to Busan (2016) and The Florida Project (2017). These films had limited releases, but thanks to streaming and vocal support on social media, they have gained more attention and new audiences alike. Though this is the case for many similar films, they are still somewhat mainstream films that appeal to mainstream sensibilities and senses of right and wrong, and not the films that would be seen as boundary crossing, taboo breaking midnight movies at theaters. The new place for midnight movies in the age of streaming has become sites such as YouTube and Vimeo, sites that are more user oriented. The short documentary American Juggalo (2011) from filmmaker Sean Dunne is one of the closest things that streaming can get to “midnight movies,” as it is on a platform where users can find the niche oddity, just like they would a midnight movie. Traditional streaming still has more boundary pushing films, but they still by and large abide by the conventions of film and film language. The short examines the subculture of Juggalos, fans of the horrorcore rap group Insane Clown Posse as they participate in the music festival The Gathering of the Juggalos. The film shines a very gripping light on this group of fans and their activities, the same sort of light that they would never be given in a mainstream film seen in theaters or Netflix. Though much of the short features graphic nudity and the consumption of drugs, at the heart of it is a message of empathy and understanding for people from all walks of life, a message that no matter how many times you’ve seen it, carries a different impact.

The Experience

Streaming is a great cultural force because unique media that may have otherwise been forgotten or left overseas can be seen and appreciated. However, there are more factors to this issue than just people. Streaming companies are businesses, so whatever it is that they want you to watch, they can get you to watch. As time has gone on, the truly unique films in their library that may resonate with a viewer are left behind as the new film or show they want to promote is placed in front of you. Viewers are subject to the algorithm’s almighty rule, and it is difficult to combat it. The time we are living in now has the truly weird and taboo more hidden than ever, and this content that gets under your skin and keeps you thinking about it for years is disappearing. Part of the reason behind this is the loss of theaters and the mainstreaming of anything that has potential to make money. For so long theaters have been seen as an institution and a rite of passage for filmmakers. The venue itself is part of what makes cult film so fun, you are able to experience it with others. The viewer is not passively digesting the film; you are part of a celebration with others watching it, and you are a part of the film.

A film is more than what is shown on screen, but it is also the ways in which it is watched, and classically that has been in a theater with others sharing in the experience. Now it is more than ever being envisioned as just what is shown on screen, whether it be a theater screen or a phone. Media is increasingly becoming democratized in that less viewers are as media literate as before, so what the viewer puts their dollars behind are the mindless action that spoon feeds plot and characterization to them. This democratization is not a good thing when a majority of Americans do not want challenging and thoughtful films; the majority of Americans are exhausted from the workday and want something easily digestible. Consequently, the major production companies are financing projects that are established IPs and can either sell out movie theaters in the case of films like Marvel, Star Wars, or Disney, or are just throwing a small amount to anything that could do well just based off of it having an established audience in the case of Blumhouse’s support of any horror film. This trend does not bode well for the longevity of theaters as an institution, and instead they are turning into the receptacle for Hollywood’s next big thing, akin to the classical Hollywood of the 30s and 40s where the major studios worked with the theaters and controlled what was shown.

The Growing Trend

Streaming has shown that the traditional theater is no longer needed. They are more of a luxury for the working person, a special trip that is to be had for only the most visually spectacular film, and not a place to expose oneself to a medium of thoughtful storytelling or challenge ones preconceived notions. The big-budget studios are not going to see the consequences of this. They are the ones making the films that theaters want to continue screening, and they are the ones that audiences are spending a premium on when at home. The people who will see the negative effects of this trend are the smaller theaters, the independent filmmakers, and the international filmmakers. In the current world of streaming, only the rare gem will be discovered organically without the algorithm by audiences supporting it on social media. Films that are on streaming sites are beautiful in that they became films in the first place, but oftentimes they are shallow explorations into the truly taboo that was known as a midnight movie. This trend highlights the restraint that is needed by filmmakers to be at least somewhat commercially viable, and yes, restraint is necessary sometimes. At the same time though, for the medium to evolve, restraint itself needs to be transformed, otherwise the medium will wither away into a soulless husk of what it once was.