Point At Issue: Are Streaming Services Killing The Movie Theater?


Hollywood produced 868 films in the last year, according to statistics on Box Office Mojo. The films collectively made around a staggering $11.8 billion at the domestic box office, with the movie Black Panther leading the charts, with revenues close to $700 million. What was also remarkable about the movies in 2018 was the diversity on display at the movies, with movies like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians featuring a star cast dominated by Black and Asian actors respectively.

2018 was also notable for fighting the steady decline in the number of tickets sold. After a high in 2015, the number of tickets sold seemed to be on the downward curve. It could be attributed to the rise in the cost of the average ticket price. However, subscription services like MoviePass, which charged users $9.99 per month in exchange for watching one movie a day, might have contributed to the upswing, especially since the company still paid the theaters the full price, but subsidized the rates for their subscribers. At their peak in the beginning of summer, MoviePass had about 3 million subscribers.

 Things don’t look good for MoviePass right now, but regardless of that, it has changed the way Americans watch movies at theaters. Movie theater chain AMC Theaters has come up with a subscription model of its own, called Stubs A-list, which offers moviegoers a chance to watch up to 3 movies per week, on a subscription fee of $19.95 per month. The subscription model for theaters might be just a way to compete with the real competition for audiences: the streaming service.

 As far as streaming services are concerned, the audiences are spoiled for choice. Besides the giants i.e Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, there’s Hulu and HBO Now. There are others waiting in the offing. Disney and WarnerMedia are all set to launch streaming services of their own sometime in late 2019, while Apple’s streaming services are also likely to be offered to viewers in the first half of 2019. Besides these, there’s YouTube and Instagram and other apps that compete for viewer’s attention. In the midst of all this, will the audiences continue to flock to theaters, or will theater-going become a yesteryear thing?

 It isn’t just that people are choosing to watch streaming services for long-form content like TV shows. Viewers also have the choice of watching their favorite movie stars feature in movies made specifically for streaming services. Several big-name Hollywood stars, like Will Smith, have made movies specifically for streaming services, like the movie Bright (2017), that featured Smith in a leading role. The movie was released only in select theaters, but it found its audience online, which was a whopping 11 million, according to a report published in Gizmodo, a technology and science fiction website. The movie was such a hit that Netflix is planning a sequel to the film too.

 Besides Will Smith, many other movie stars have also featured in content made exclusively for a screens-that-viewers-choose. In fact, executives at streaming services like Netflix have started taking concentrated efforts to shift their focus towards movies. While traditional movie studios like Warner Bros. and Universal were behind 49 and 23 movies in 2018, Netflix was not far behind, with more than 40 films premiering on the service. For 2019, Netflix has a wealth of works in store, with movies from Hollywood giants like Martin Scorsese and Guillermo Del Toro. With the release of Roma (2018) by Alfonso Cuarón, which is generating Oscar buzz, Netflix seems to have made good on its promise.

 Is it just paranoia of seeing people spend more time with their face into screens? Or do the numbers of streaming services have any correlation with the movie watching habit? If we go by a December 2018 study sanctioned by the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) and conducted by accounting firm Ernst & Young, it is only good news. EY QUEST conducted a survey of about 2500 people and found that viewers who visited a movie theater 9 times or more in the last year also streamed content for 11 hours a week. The results were uniform across all age and race demographics.

 The study is a great sign for filmmakers who believe in the very definition of a film being for a big screen. In the past, filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Steven Spielberg have criticized films produced by Netflix. In an interview given to Indiewire during the release of Dunkirk (2017), Nolan criticized Netflix’s model of having a film released simultaneously in theaters and online, saying that Netflix has “a bizarre aversion to supporting theatrical films.” Spielberg, on the other hand, said in an interview to ITV that he considers Netflix movies to be “TV movies” and that they shouldn’t be nominated for Oscars.

 But other filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Alfonso Cuarón were more appreciative of the streaming services. Scorsese wrote in an email to The New York Times, stating that the streaming services were “actually making our movies” and “that means everything.” Cuarón stated that he thought that streaming services would “bring back diversity to cinema.”

 With filmmakers on both sides of the spectrum, it remains to be seen whether artists will drive the next generation of moviegoers to theaters or streaming services. The choice of whether movie theaters and the movie going experience will survive all depends upon how the viewers want to view their movies.