A Digital Tsunami: Theaters In A Digital Age

There are things that change you and impact you in a way that forever alters perspective and actions. There was a book that was published in 1995 that did that for me. “Being Digital” by MIT Media Lab Head Nicholas Negroponte. This book elegantly described the changes that were going to impact our society by the movement from an analog ecosystem into a digital one. In 243 pages Negroponte laid out what was ahead for our society as a result of a paradigm shift, It was a fascinating read and one that looking back from the year 2019 was remarkably accurate and truthful. “Being Digital” taught me to look at the technological impact on traditional forms like music and movies and to realize that not only was our language being changed but the nature of the human experience was being altered significantly.

Being the age I am I straddle both the digital and analog world. The generations that have followed me though, reside completely in the digital world and I think in many ways provide a basis for possibly understanding the often perplexing perspective of Gen Z’s and Millennials.

When streaming music appeared on the scene through services like iTunes and Spotify, in very quick fashion the record store was removed from the retail landscape. I used to love going into a record store and pulling out LP after LP and admiring their art and reading the notes on the back. Music was a giant collective experiment that people talked about and expressed themselves through.

A digital tsunami hit and that tradition of music delivery imploded. We are the lesser for it. That black disc that was the impetus for listening parties, basement sock hops, and record clubs went away.

The same thing is happening to the business of exhibition of motion pictures. Some folks will say that the movie business has been through cycles through the history of its existence and this is just another one. I hope they are right, but I don’t think so. I believe that the movement to digital delivery has facilitated what the studios have wanted for decades, a direct one to one relationship with the consumer. The studios have been sliding towards this for literally decades. In fact, many studies have been done since 1985 which have painted a picture for these vertically integrated behemoths of a wonderful world where they truly control everything.

On November 12th, Disney Plus launches. This is one day after the world reminds itself of the pain in the reality of war. The Streaming Wars will launch itself with a full and bitter fury, forcing all players to throw all their intellectual assets including Star Wars and Marvel into the video-on-demand engine in order to gain an upper hand, It will be drawn out. It will be bitter and in the end, there will be victims. Movie theaters will be one of them.

The movie business is always in flux, but what many claim is a struggle due to bad movies and weak story structures just in fact might be the start of a real decline. The 2019 box office has dropped 9 percent and as we get closer to the Disney launch, the poor performance of the latest Terminator and Doctor Sleep betray that something is happening. Audiences are firmly turning their eyes away from the big screen and anticipating a new digital world of entertainment exploding from their 55-inch television monitors.

The New York Times recently took notice of the changes happening on the big screen and polled various industry prognosticators and professionals regarding their opinion of the future of the movie-going tradition.

The quotes did not spell out a future that was promising for movie theaters. One quote that stood out was from Actor, Writer, and Comedian Kumail Nanjiani

I don’t want to sound like an old idiot, because I try to keep up with what’s happening on YouTube, and it’s a lot of people talking to camera, very personality-driven. I grew up watching “Ghostbusters” and “Gremlins” and “Indiana Jones.” If I had grown up watching YouTube, I don’t know if I would like movies.

Kumail Ali Nanjiani is a Pakistani-American stand-up comedian, actor, podcast host, and writer. He is best known for writing and starring in the romantic comedy The Big Sick and for being a main cast member on HBO’s comedy series Silicon Valley. He raises a good point, a point which shines a light on the simple fact that the emerging audiences are not finding much relevance in movie-going.

What was kind of shocking was the fact that the article did not include perspectives of the exhibitors. These are the folks on the front lines of this battle and their opinion was not included. Indiewire took notice of this and countered with an article focused on the opinions of exhibitors and independent distributors and asked them about the future. There seemed to be a tentative, somewhat forced portrayal of everything was going to be okay….but they seemed more self-re-assuring than anything else. Keep in mind that this article was put out prior to the awareness that Disney was blockading any theater that played first-run titles, from library titles from both Fox and Disney

Here are a couple of significant passages from the Indiewire article.

We’ve never been in better financial shape. That is not due to booming ticket sales; indeed, our 2019 box office to date would be generously described as anemic. No, we are secure and sustainable because our community stepped up to help us transition to a non-profit art house in 2010. Every year since that, financial support has grown. We are thriving by showing a wide range of critically acclaimed first run movies and repertory. We aren’t going anywhere.

Mike Stevens executive director, Moxie Cinema (Springfield, MO)

The onslaught of large amounts of content, combined with large platforms’ personalized curation, makes it all but impossible to discover new voices through traditional distribution. It is becoming harder and harder to stumble upon a film that ends up changing one’s life.

Joana Vicente, New York Based Independent Producer

The quote from Mike Stevens exemplifies what I think is the strongest model in theatrical exhibition, the community-based theater. The second quote from Joana Vicente, shines a light on the polluted and often confusing nature of exhibition. Theater owners should realize and realize quickly that the independent and smaller movie producers are in a similar boat and there is an alliance to be forged.

Is movie-going going to disappear, no it’s not. Theaters like the Moxie and The Historic Artcraft Theater and their brilliant management will make sure that it does not happen. Will theaters suffer a huge loss of numbers, yes 100% I suspect the number of operating theater will reduce to 50% of its current numbers with the next 5 years.

The thing that gives me hope, that tells me that the phoenix might rise from the flames is the fact that this year vinyl sales outpaced CDs. Maybe the next generation after witnessing the confusion and carnage of the Streaming Wars will re-discover movie going. That’s my hope anyways.