• Robert Saucedo

The future of theatrical exhibition

Disney made a splash in the world of the theatrical exhibition yesterday by announcing they were sending MULAN to their Disney+ platform this September, only doing theatrical engagements in countries where their streaming platform had not yet launched.

There are plenty of movie fans who are taking this news as a positive - and I don't blame them. MULAN is one of a handful of hotly anticipated titles that should have, but for COVID-19, been released earlier this year. Nobody likes to wait for things they want, I get it. The thought that, in a few weeks, audiences will be able to see a movie they were looking forward to from the comfort of their own home for a single low cost is an attractive one.

Make no mistake, this decision is going to hurt theaters. When theaters reopen - whenever that might be - they are going to need movies to show in order to crawl up through the debt of loans, bills, and overhead costs - all having built up into a mighty hill without the relief of revenue coming in since March. Movie theaters, if they should survive, are going to need the films that are sitting on a hard drive in studio offices right now, seemingly collecting dust. They'll need these films so that they can sell tickets, sell concessions and begin the long, slow process of trying to become a profitable business venture again. For the most part, new movies haven't been made since March - if studios send everything they have that's completed to VOD, it's going to be that much longer before there is anything theaters can show that will bring audiences in at the numbers theaters need in order to survive.

It feels that it should be easy to say to movie fans: Be Patient. There are hundreds of thousands of amazing movies available on DVD, Blu-ray, streaming sites, and even VHS that I guarantee most audiences have not seen yet. Discover something good from previous decades and wait. Let these blockbusters stay on a shelf somewhere until it's safe to go back to movie theaters. But the reality of it is that we're on a precipice of change right now in the world of theatrical exhibition. People don't want to wait and, as a result, the current model will not survive the next few years.

The most realistic vision I have, at the moment, for the future of movie theaters right now is this:

The year is 2027 and there are two to three small boutique movie theaters in most major American cities, at least one in the smaller cities. These theaters are small compared to the big megaplexes, between five to ten screens, and play a mixture of smaller budgeted dramas day and date with VOD, family films (also day and date with VOD), foreign and independent cinema (some of which might still have a theatrical window) and repertory content. They are basically your Alamo Drafthouse Cinema model, but most are independently and locally owned.

Think of how the landscape for physical bookstores currently looks.

In addition, each major city has between five to ten movie theaters owned by studios (the studios have continued to absorb each other so that there are only really five major companies). These studio-owned movie theaters play only one to two big blockbusters at a time (the latest Marvel, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, James Bond, etc.) and they are exclusively available at the studios' theaters for a set amount of time (maybe three to six months). The theaters are completely decked out to be themed around the films they are playing (decorations, gift store, themed pop-up restaurants). It's like an amusement park as much a movie theater (think Club Disney, the failed attempt to miniaturize the Disney park experience and put it in malls across America).

Secondary markets too small for the big studio owned theater experience have a multiplex that is owned and operated by the shell of what was once your big companies (Cinemark, Regal, AMC) and they license out the big Hollywood films playing in the studio-owned theaters, but maybe a week or two after they opened and without some of the bells and whistles. They are also bowling alleys, laser tag centers, virtual reality arcades, coffee shops, and bars. It's basically an entertainment destination as much as a movie theater.

Ninety percent of the movies that get made are made for streaming platforms. Each studio (and I include Netflix, Amazon, and Apple as studios) have their own platforms and they all have their competing content. It's not unusual to spend up to $100 a month on the various streaming bills if you want to watch everything that is released in a given month.

This is all speculation, mind you, but it's obvious, at this point, that things will not go back the way they were in the world of movie theaters. Or in the world in general. The past is done, the future is ahead and it's going to be different for all of us.

What are some of the big changes you think the entertainment industry should embrace over the next decade in the world of music, movies, live entertainment, books, etc? How do you solve the issues that come with those changes?

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