There has been a lot of speculation lately about the future of movie theatres. Even before COVID-19, the conversation about how streaming services like Disney+ and Netflix were impacting traditional big screen film houses was underway. Since then, there have been many predictions, including doomsday headlines like “Cinemas are dying,” and “The movies are dead,” as restrictions began to sweep North America.
At The Civic Theatre we have kept a close eye on the opinions across our industry coming from distributors, directors, streaming services, commercial cinema chains, independent art houses (like ours), film festivals, critics, and mogul producers. Read a few opinions and you might have a small sense of the future; read them daily and research their sources like we have all year long, and we think we have a pretty good handle on what to expect.
Spoiler (and it’s a good one): Independent cinemas like The Civic Theatre are going to be all right. Based on our extensive research, here are a few reasons why:
The independent cinema model is resilient and offers experiences that aren’t available anywhere else. For instance, Vancouver’s Pacific Cinematheque noted in a December CBC article, “[We aren’t] going anywhere … the types of films The Cinematheque offers, from directors like Fellini and Wong Kar-Wai, aren’t readily available on services like Netflix.”
We know there will be independent content, but will the big commercial releases be available? It is extremely likely that they will. In October, Reuters reported, “A premium video-on-demand model like the one Disney used for Mulan will not work for a studio’s biggest, most ambitious films. … Nothing can achieve the per-picture economics that Disney is able to generate through a global theatrical release.”
In a December Deadline article, a Universal Pictures representative said, “Despite the industry’s current love affair with streaming … audiences will return. People like leaving their homes and having fun, emotional, communal experiences together.”
Countries that have reopened cinemas have seen this already: In a December CBC article, Cineplex CEO Ellis Jacob noted that in Japan and Australia weekly box office grosses are already at higher levels than they were pre-pandemic. He went on to say, “When the VCR came out, everybody said it’s the death of the movie business. You know what happened? More people became aware of movies and started to go into the theatres more often.”
David Hancock, a London-based researcher who scrutinizes the global film market, agrees: “The suggestion theatres are on death’s door is pure hyperbole. Everyone’s losing the plot of it. Cinemas are fundamentally an extremely valuable social and economic force. They provide a good place to launch a film, and people to come together, and they’re the only place outside the home you can watch a film properly.”
So there you have it. The world’s most knowledgeable producers, distributors, cinema operators and global financial analysts believe that we will be enjoying films on the big screen again when the pandemic is over. According to last week’s New York Times, AMC Theatres CEO Adam Aron is betting on it, avoiding pandemic-caused bankruptcy with his worldwide chain of 17,000+ theatres by taking on debt of $5.5 billion (and climbing). He says, “Sometimes you have to stare change in the face, recognize that it has or soon will arrive, and reshape it to one’s own benefit.”
So when can we expect to be back in our comfy cinema seats? The Movie Theatres Association of Canada’s research shows that 74 per cent of moviegoers are willing to return to theatres before receiving a vaccine, as long as there are good safety protocols in place. Fun fact: we have yet to find news of any COVID-19 outbreak anywhere in the world traced back to a cinema.
In the meantime, we are working hard to stay relevant and ensure that we exist after COVID-19. Our efforts have paid off: we ended our 2019-20 fiscal year with an operating and accumulated surplus and the realization of more than 70 per cent of our $4.18 million capital fundraising goal. We also saw impressive outcomes within the Rural Arts Inclusion Lab, Kootenay Screen Based Industry Initiative, education programs, drive-in, purchase of Reo’s Videos, and more. Our team feels great responsibility for stewarding our community’s vision to keep our movie theatre open for years to come, so we continue to work towards that goal in 2021.
Indeed, this is a very big year for us: we have exciting work ahead of us to finally realize our necessary vision for a three-screen venue. It is deeply reassuring to us to know that there will be a thriving film industry producing great new content for us on the other side of our renovations, and for many years to come.
Eleanor Stacey is executive director of Nelson Civic Theatre Society/The Civic Theatre.