Of Course People Are Streaming Movies Right Now—That Doesn’t Mean It’s the New Normal

Stephanie Zacharek

Which is better, watching a movie in the comfort of your own home—with no noisy cellphones, smelly snacks or, worst of all, obnoxious fellow human beings—or going out to the theater, where you get to see a movie on the big screen but are also subject to all the vagaries of actual people, in all their terrible glory?

Recently, the CEO of the world’s largest theater chain and the head of NBCUniversal flared their gills at one another, fighting-fish-style, in an altercation that, if nothing else, might help frame the future debate over how much the presence of other human beings matters in the moviegoing experience. In an obvious huff, Adam Aron, the CEO of AMC Theatres, banned Universal releases from the chain’s theaters in reaction to a quote that NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell gave to the Wall Street Journal: Trumpeting the streaming success of Trolls: World Tour—which earned more than $100 million in rental fees since April 10, when it was released digitally—Shell appeared, in AMC’s estimation, to have decided his company no longer had much use for old-fashioned theatrical distribution. “As soon as theaters reopen,” Shell said, “we expect to release movies on both formats.”

Aron announced the ban in a letter written to Universal chairman Donna Langley, which was also released publicly. A spokesperson for Universal responded to the letter by saying the company “absolutely” believes in the theatrical experience. Trolls: World Tour was slated for a theatrical release before the COVID-19 crisis. After widespread stay-at-home orders, the company decided to release the film on demand. No one should be surprised that it made money: Parents sheltering at home with little kids, desperate to keep them amused for a few hours, were happy to shell out. Streaming is up overall, which is great news for services like Netflix, Hulu and Disney Plus. It also means that beard-strokers everywhere have decided, unequivocally, that this is the end of the big-screen experience.

Because most people in the United States have been stuck at home for more than a month—and those in other parts of the world for longer than that—we suddenly think we know everything about what humans want and need. Centuries’ worth of problems, solved instantaneously! We need the human touch, even the unpredictability of human interaction, but we also want to watch movies without ever leaving the house. We love action movies, but it’s OK if they’re substandard Netflix products like Extraction, because, really, we can no longer tell the difference. Trolls: World Tour was a huge hit, without ever playing in a movie theater—clearly, this is proof that no one wants to go back to movie theaters ever again.

The world has gone mad—and not just because cautioning against the idea of injecting Clorox is a conversation we apparently need to be having.

If there were ever a time not to make proclamations about the future of theatrical distribution, it’s now. Which is not to say that our re-emergence into the world of movies, whatever form that takes, won’t have its share of problems, because some of the old problems will follow us. Even before the pandemic drove us all indoors, the big theater chains were expecting a significant drop in earnings for 2020. They’ll have to find a way to keep afloat, even as the industry that churns out the very products they show has come to standstill. And there’s no doubt that smaller, independent theaters are in grave danger. Their future is the real wild card in this equation: If too many of them die off, the loss to people who love movies, in communities big and small, will be incalculable.

But to make decisions about human desire based on the current reality is a mistake. People are streaming like mad today not because streaming is our inescapable future, but because there’s nothing else to do. How can we know what we’ll want tomorrow, when all the things we took for granted yesterday have suddenly been taken away from us? Going out to see a movie, compared with the cost of a monthly streaming subscription, is relatively costly. That ticket cost also introduces an element of chance: If you don’t like the film you’re watching in a theater, you can obviously walk out—but your money is gone forever.

And yet, even that is a more inherently dramatic gesture than just turning off the TV. And who doesn’t need a little controlled drama in life? The element of chance also confers the possibility of surprise. When critics saw Parasite at the Cannes Film Festival last year, their acclaim for it piqued some audience curiosity; that curiosity increased in the lead-up to awards season, maybe partly because people had to wait to see the film. The same could be said for another terrific movie from last year, one that didn’t have Parasite‘s explosive success but which nonetheless captivated many who saw it, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. I doubt either of those films—both of them theatrically released, and available to stream later—would have had the same cultural impact if they had merely spilled out via a streaming service one week, only to be almost completely forgotten the next. (It’s worth noting that Parasite’s director, Bong Joon Ho, made a Netflix Original movie in 2017, Okja, a more scattershot film than Parasite. While Okja may have introduced Bong, a longtime arthouse favorite, to a new audience, it’s not the film for which people will remember him.)

Anything that involves leaving your living room involves taking a chance, and I can’t be the only one yearning for some unpredictability right now. One of my favorite things about going to the movies—after decades of doing it, even as a professional—is being part of the crowd spilling out afterward. I love hearing the arguments, the passionate defenses and attacks, the comparisons to other things that were better or worse. I love the anxiety of people who have gone to see a movie on a date: It was her choice; did he like it or suffer through it, and how does he let her know? I love it when little kids pour out of a theater, completely excited about having had a day out at the movies, even as I see their parents toting up how much the whole experience cost. As I’ve said countless times, in print and to anyone who will listen, I love seeing faces big, on the largest screen possible. Show me every pore! Also show me the subtlest curve of a smile, or a flash of exasperation or joy or anguish reflected in a giant, projected iris. But also put someone next to me, possibly a stranger who might be getting as much of a thrill out of the experience as I am. Even if he smells bad, I will take him. Though if he tries to use his cellphone, I’ll ask him nicely to put it away—because, buddy, this is not your living room. Nor is it mine, thank God.