The coronavirus pandemic took a brutal economic toll, especially on nonessential businesses, some of which have finally been able to open after Gov. Charlie Baker lifted most COVID-19 restrictions on May 29.
One such industry that has been particularly hard hit are traditional movie theaters. Although some have been open for months, they have been robbed of big-budget blockbusters and the audiences that come with them, and for good reason. If you are not vaccinated, it can be hard to justify the risk of seeing a film that will most likely be available through streaming or video on-demand months later — if it is not streaming concurrently — in a dark theater for hours at a time, in which patrons are free to remove their masks to enjoy concessions.
But locally, we have to grapple with the fact that theaters will need the support of their local communities if they are to recover from this crisis. And if we fail to support them, we might lose them.
AMC Entertainment, the largest theater company in North America, lost $4.6 billion in 2020. In March, The Hollywood Reporter reported that Cineworld, the parent company of Regal Cinemas, which operates a theater in the Berkshire Mall, lost $3 billion last year amid the pandemic.
Every theater company’s circumstances differ, especially those that are locally owned as opposed to those owned by large chains like AMC and Regal. Most theaters, though, face common challenges: dealing with debt accumulated during the pandemic; finding employees, especially if many have moved on; and convincing moviegoers that coming back to theaters is safe.
The last one is a key hurdle that can make or break them. Even as big blockbusters like “Black Widow” trickle into theaters, it will do them no good if people don’t feel safe enough to go see them.
This is only confounded by the fact that many streaming platforms like HBO Max and Disney+ Premier Access offer new releases at the same time they’re in theaters, which effectively breaks the small monopoly theater companies have on these titles when they initially come out. And it’s worth noting that streaming platforms also offer competitive pricing, with HBO Max’s monthly subscription of $14.99 a month being far less than what I would spend on a nonmatinee ticket with concessions at the theater, and even Disney+ Premier Access’s additional fee of $29.99 on top of the service’s $7.99 monthly fee might be a more cost-effective option for parents, especially those with multiple kids.
When streaming platforms offer the same exact films at an equal or cheaper price with none of the risks of going out, it can be hard to convince people that there is a need to go to the theaters at all, other than the theatergoing experience, which we should preserve.
Especially when watching films like “Soul,” “Godzilla vs. Kong,” “Nomadland” and even “Mulan” (2020) on streaming platforms in the past year, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing, and it was obvious that those films were made to be enjoyed theatrically.
When you see a film shot for the big screen on the small screen for the first time, something is lost, and while the advent of streaming services have allowed many unique films to be made that the traditional Hollywood machine has given up on (“The Irishman” and “Mank” come to mind), streaming is not the only way to view a film. It’s certainly not the best way to view one, and there should be a place in the film industry for local movie theaters, and I fear that a lot of local communities are going to lose the option to see a film theatrically, not only as theater companies crawl out of the pandemic, ravaged by its economic toll, but also as they emerge into an industry that’s becoming incredibly hostile toward them through the steep competition streaming poses, and the hesitancy we as a society might have in returning to them.
While I appreciate everything streaming provides, I do still love the traditional theatergoing experience, and I love our local theaters. They provide a unique, accessible experience hard to replicate even in the best home theater, and they need and deserve your support, whether that be in the form of seeing a film in-person (especially if you are fully vaccinated) or ordering concessions to go.
Believe me, after a year of terrible microwave popcorn, a bag of freshly-made popcorn from a Berkshires theater tastes fantastic.