China started reopening its dormant movie theaters just as the U.S. box office “hit zero for the first time” last weekend. The lights were back on at only 5 percent of the country’s cinemas, and ticket sales were paltry. Now they’re dark again. As of Wednesday, more than 26,000 AMC employees were laid off or furloughed, including all 600 members of the China-owned theater chain’s corporate staff.
Among the many lasting cultural changes this pandemic is poised to bring about will be serious shifts in the entertainment industry. Streaming technology was already wreaking havoc and propelling changes, but that process is now accelerating at a rapid clip. (See: the Golden Globes.)
The response to Quibi’s long-awaited April 6 launch, for instance, will be telling. From Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman, Quibi pitch is as follows: “Got a few minutes? That’s all you need to be entertained, informed and inspired. Launching this April, Quibi will present fresh content from today’s top talent—one quick bite at a time.” Quick bites designed for truncated attention spans. Quibi is offering free 90-day trials, access to its “movie-quality shows designed for your phone,” with “new episodes every day, each 10 minutes or less.”
It’s an odd test of the model. Sure, everyone is now stuck at home with an increased appetite for streaming entertainment, but all that extra at-home time also means the 10-minute format is launching into a very different world than the one in which it was conceived.
Hollywood at large now faces a similarly odd equation: historic demand for content paired with historic budget challenges. Unscripted shows are cheap to make but most productions have been halted right now due to social distancing measures. When those are lifted, the low costs could increase the utility of unscripted content. Studios will try to do as much as they can with as few resources as possible. But it’s still hard to know whether the adjusted processes will inform any lasting change, and exactly what all that will look like on our screens.
The operative word in that sentence is “our.” Here’s the former head of Amazon Studios, Matthew Ball, quoted in a crucial Hollywood Reporter exploration of the industry’s post-pandemic future: “COVID-19 will expand the gaps between those lagging and leading in the transition to digital distributions and business models. OTT video services will surge, while pay TV loses its most valuable content — sports — and sees an accelerated decline in subscriptions and ad revenue. Parks and movie theaters are ground to a halt, while gaming companies hit new highs in usage.”
But there are competing theories. Sony Pictures chairman Tom Rothman thinks the pendulum will swing back. “There will be a great surge of emotional appreciation for collective experiences,” he told THR. “That’s who we are, as human beings, and that’s who we have always been since telling stories around the fire in prehistoric times, and I think it’s primal. I think it’s going to remind people how much they love what they’ve missed.”
Mark Cuban largely agrees. “People will forever get cabin fever, and ‘Netflix and chill’ is not a long-term solution for 16-year-olds who are dating, at least not in my house,” he said in the same report. “People will return to their old habits once they trust their environments to be safe. We have had tragedies in entertainment venues before, yet people have returned. I don’t expect this to be different.”
There’s a middle ground here, of course. Post-pandemic, Hollywood may well look like the leaner, more streaming-centric version of itself that it was destined to become in three years, an industry that better reflects shifting consumer demands. But that would involve an enormously painful transition process and depends on consumers sorting out exactly what our demands are.
Is it generally preferable to pay the same (or more) as a movie ticket to stream a new release at home? Will enough people still appreciate the “collective” theater experience Rothman mentioned to meaningfully sustain that industry? And at what level?
Certainly, being forced to enjoy movies at home will help consumers better understand their entertainment preferences. But these are exceptional circumstances, meaning consumer behavior can’t reliably inform the industry’s adjustments since it will not reflect consumer behavior after the virus is contained.
When that happens, people may rush back to their local AMC to load up on popcorn only theaters can seem to produce and see new releases on the big screen. Maybe we will indeed have a new appreciation for those “collective experiences,” as Rothman predicted. Or maybe only some people will. Maybe others will be convinced they should never have to leave their couch to see new releases again.
Maybe the demand will be for an even more specialized experience: If you’re going to leave your house and pay big bucks to see a movie you can queue up on demand, do you want beautiful theaters, retro offerings, and delicious food? Realistically, we’ll settle on some combination of those possibilities. (Maybe we’ll also decide to love the drive-in again?)
As of today, however, the industry really has no way of knowing how that balance will shake out. What Hollywood knows right now is that people want at-home entertainment, and the industry’s job is to figure out how to make that happen—and in a bad economy. This is streaming’s biggest test yet.