Streaming isn’t killing theaters, its improving them

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Christian Ledbetter

Few expected “Trolls World Tour” to be a revolutionary or even historic film when it came out, but due to its release method, it  may be one of the most important films in recent memory. Rather than push the film back as so many studios did for films planned to release during the pandemic, Universal instead decided to release the film simultaneously in theaters and video on demand, allowing families to watch the film at home for an extra cost. Such a move was explosive, with AMC Theaters stating that they wouldn’t show films from Universal at that point, though negotiations and cash payments resolved this. Of course, with Disney putting movies on Disney+ for extra payments and Warner Brothers putting their big hits on HBOMax for no extra cost at all, this has become the norm. And if it’s the norm, then what now?

Many, including me, cried that this explosion of streaming would be the death of theaters. These big hits were the biggest reason many went to theaters, and now that theaters don’t even have a monopoly on that, what would be the point? Lines of thinking leading to the conclusion that theaters as a whole would die fail to disconnect our popular culture ideas of theaters from what they’re capable of. Theaters can be far more than what most of us imagine, which of course leads to the second most important film of the decade.

The surprise hit of last year for theaters was “Demon Slayer Mugen Train,” a special-event film continuation of the popular anime series, becoming the highest grossing film of that year by grossing half a billion dollars and the first non-Hollywood film to top annual domestic box offices. The series isn’t unknown by any means, but an R-rated, foreign, animated film continuation of a TV series climbing to the top is unheard of, and by the standards of mass market appeal, incredibly niche, yet that’s the key.

Small yet passionate target audiences are the future—just ask the vinyl and manga industries—and the best model for mainstream theaters could be found in art house theaters, movie theaters not dedicated to showing the biggest blockbusters, but that offer curated foreign, indie and old films to dedicated customers. We even saw theaters like Regal show older movies like “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars” for reduced prices to fill time slots during the pandemic. The big chains also play Miyazaki movies like “Spirited Away” every year as part of Ghibli Fest, curated foreign films playing in the big chain theaters, a far cry from what we typically expect, yet they succeed anyways.

Theaters aren’t dying any more than vinyl died years ago, their markets and products are simply changing and it’s time we let them change. COVID has changed a lot, but rather than focus on the halted traditions, we should look towards the traditions now possible. “Trolls” and “Demon Slayer” just may be the harbingers of a new era.

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