From the Silver Screen to Your Living Room: The Theater vs Streaming Debate

by Sam Acosta

In late 2020, Warner Brothers made an announcement that rocked the movie industry: all of their 2021 movies would be available on HBO Max on the same day they were released into theaters. This revelation sparked much debate within the industry about the future of the theater business. With COVID-19 restrictions forcing many theaters to close down indefinitely (sometimes permanently), the future of the industry is highly uncertain. For some, the movie-going experience is one that must be cherished and protected. For others, streaming represents the future of cinema. 

For film studios, the strongest argument for streaming is also the simplest: bypassing theaters leaves more money for them. In March of last year, Universal Studios announced that the upcoming “Trolls: World Tour” would be released to streaming exclusively. This setup means that instead of splitting the profits almost 50/50 with theaters, the studio would reap around 80% of the revenue, with the remaining 20% going to streaming platforms. 

While the movie received mixed reviews, Universal ended up making nearly $100 million without a theatrical release. The Wall Street Journal compared the success of “Trolls: World Tour” to its predecessor “Trolls,” which had a domestic box office gross of around $154 million. While, at first glance, it may seem that the first movie did better, about half of that sum went to theaters, meaning Universal walked away with only $77 million, $23 million less than the streaming-exclusive profits of the sequel. 

While exclusive streaming releases are still a fairly tentative phenomenon, it is evident that studios are not as afraid to test it as they once were. It seems to be the only way to release movies nowadays, with COVID-19 still keeping most businesses either shut down completely or extremely limited in their activities. If this strategy is, in fact, the way to rake in more profit, then now is the perfect time to learn how to do it.

What about the consumer? Which option offers the better deal? For some, it all boils down to one primary factor: convenience. It is much easier to watch the newest release from your couch than it is to travel to a theater to watch it. At home, you can enjoy the latest Avengers blockbuster or animated family film in your pajamas, no hassle, no worries. 

Anna Varney, a freshman Psychology major, described how, at home, she didn’t have to worry about talking or making too much noise during the movie because she had the freedom to enjoy the movie experience any way she wanted. 

“I wouldn’t turn down an offer to go to the movies, but it isn’t my first option,” she said. “If you’re not going opening night, there’s no point.” 

Others, however, love the experience that the theater brings. Farrah Rawlings, a sophomore Theater major, reminisced on pre-COVID days, on the wonders of buttery, overpriced popcorn and the big-screen movie theater environment that just can’t be replicated at home.

“My brother and I used to go to the theater every Tuesday…It’s an activity we could do to bring us closer together,” she said.

For people like Farrah, the theater provides more than just a movie to watch; it is an experience all on its own. However, many theaters around the country are beginning to close their doors for good. Does this mean an end to theaters as we know them? 

At this point, the answer to this question  is unclear, but what is quite clear is the uproar from big names in the movie industry over Warner Brothers’ HBO Max announcement. Director Christopher Nolan (“Inception,” “The Dark Knight”) stated that he and his fellow filmmakers “went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service.” Meanwhile, director Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival,” “Blade Runner 2049”) lamented that the announcement may kill his upcoming remake of “Dune,” a project he’s been working on for over three years.

Many view the theater as the context in which film is meant to be experienced. At least for now, movies are still created primarily for that environment, and removing them from this context subtracts from the full experience of the film. Others argue that going to the cinema is a bonding experience for movie-goers. Going to see the latest blockbuster or arthouse film is something that brings people of different backgrounds together. 

On the other hand, streaming is the more convenient option. For some, it might be the safest option as well, with COVID-19 still being a real factor to consider. We will face a day, however, when COVID-19 is not the looming concern that it is now. Theaters will have the opportunity to open back up. What will happen then? Will they be doomed to fail? Or will there be a rise again for the theater industry?

I personally love going to the movies because I think something special happens in that theater. A room full of total strangers sits down to enjoy a story and feel something together. Whether it’s heartbreak or triumph, laughter or sadness, anger or fear, everyone rides the emotional rollercoaster together. There are very few places where people are unified like that. Some people might think that this debate doesn’t matter and that a movie is just a movie, whether it’s watched at home or in a theater. I think that mentality underestimates just how powerful the cinematic experience can be.

I remember my first time going to a midnight premiere. I was four years old and “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith” had just come out. I was seated in the front row as the opening credits started and the musical score boomed over the theater’s speakers. I watched in awe as good and evil battled it out on a screen a hundred times bigger than me. It was a universe completely different from my own that my four-year-old self could experience in a colossal way. 

That was one of my “movie magic” moments, something that still means so much to me. It is these moments that remind me how important the experience of the movie theater is. Once theaters begin to fully open up again, it will be on us to keep those moments alive. Our support will be the determining factor in whether streaming will become the new norm or the magic of the theater-going experience will be preserved. 

Sam Acosta is a Sophomore Theatre Comprehensive Major and an A&E writer for Cedars. He likes spending his time watching movies, drinking Dr. Pepper, and writing plays.

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