Theatres versus streaming: Who wins?
The answer is obvious—illegal torrent downloads! Or at least, that was once my go-to for watching new releases during my time in Bangladesh, before I migrated to the ‘States … and was eventually threatened by my Internet provider with hefty fines. (Yes, VPNs are available, but turns out asking a company to effectively hideaway your IP address isn’t free of charge. So that is not an option; I am a বাঙ্গালী in my truest form.) But I digress.
Before the pandemic, the world of cinema was already shrinking down to smaller screens—more than half of the 2020 Oscar nominees were Netflix originals. Films like The Irishman, The Two Popes, and Marriage Story were among the front-runners of the competition. While Parasite took home the gold that time, it was subsequently uploaded to another streaming service (namely, Hulu) months after it became the first-ever foreign film to win Best Picture.
Some might argue that streaming services have enhanced the longevity of individual film consumption. Meanwhile, network executives have been really quiet about their revenue on streaming platforms; a fair assumption would be that Netflix likely produces films at a loss. It is true—partially. According to Netflix’s most recent financial report in July 2021, the company is over $10 billion in debt. However, thanks to the recent, resounding success of the Korean series Squid Game—a show that has evidently made $950 million (and counting) solely through its views—there is still hope on that front.
On the other hand, the recent billion-dollar box office success of Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021) has proven that people still find their way back to the immersive theatre experience. Will sitting alone at your desk (or even lying in your bed with a bowl of popcorn that does not, in fact, cost a fortune) truly ever compare? We continue to crave the collective cheers and the thrills, the startled screams and the groans, the silent tears and the applause that only a swarm of people tied together by a captivating story can have.
However, the theatre business has taken quite a hit since the pandemic. According to a well-researched article in Variety, the 2021 box office numbers are still 81% lower than pre-pandemic times. Not to mention that COVID-19 cases have skyrocketed yet again, immediately after the release of Spider-Man—delaying multiple other releases in the process. I can vouch for this personally: The audience during Spider-Man release week shot down from two thousand a day to less than a hundred at the theatre I work at. Yes, you read that correctly: a hundred. Am I going to get laid off?
Finally: there is what I like to call the third-party method: dual releases. Among others, Dune and The Matrix Resurrections were released simultaneously on HBO Max and theatres worldwide in 2021. It has been a success—sort of. Dune made twice its budget, thereby confirming a sequel in the works. In contrast, The Matrix flopped. Production companies have been experimenting with this delicate balance for a while, so it may be safe to conclude they are still finding their footing: The Irishman was released in 2019 to a limited number of theatres and on Netflix, expecting to get some returns on its $150 million budget.
Now, where do we stand in this debate? The short answer is, well … there is no short answer. A big-budget R-rated action film would probably flourish through a theatrical release followed by an availability streaming platform after a month or so. An intricate family drama will probably do perfectly well within the four walls of your room. Either way, the theatrical experience remains undeniably relevant. Despite its dramatic decline over the period of two years, theatres have been pulling through with occasional 2021 gems like A Quiet Place Part II, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Streaming services are not necessarily a competition. With some clever cooperation, creators and distributors can make nuanced decisions for collective success, taking into account what truly drives people both towards the big screen—and its smaller, more personal counterpart.
Livingston, Maggie. “How Streaming Has Caused a Shift in the Film Industry.” How Streaming Has Caused a Shift in the Film Industry – The State News, 20 Sept. 2021, https://statenews.com/article/2021/09/how-streaming-has-caused-a-shift-in-the-film-industry?ct=content_open&cv=cbox_latest#:~:text=According%20to%20a%202021%20Statistica%20survey%2C%2028%25%20of%20respondents%20preferred,of%20respondents%20now%20preferred%20streaming.
Navarro, José Gabriel. “Theaters vs. Streaming: First Time Movie Viewing Preferences in the U.S. 2020.” Statista, 12 Aug. 2021, https://www.statista.com/statistics/947757/theaters-streaming-watching-movies/.
Rubin, Rebecca. “Movie Theaters Slowly Recover, but 2021 Box Office Still down 81% from Pre-Pandemic Times.” Variety, Variety, 8 July 2021, https://variety.com/2021/film/box-office/box-office-2021-pre-pandemic-1235010346/.
“Why Movie Theaters Aren’t Dead Yet.” YouTube, uploaded by Vox, 10 December 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JdYiPSl0xpo.