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A year when how you watched mattered as much as what you watched

The pandemic radically changed the movies. What will the future bring?

From Boston to Buenos Aires, where this man is watching a film, moviegoing has been deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press

It’s increasingly clear that by the end of 2021 we’ll all be going back to the movies again, one way or another. Theaters in most states have reopened in limited fashion, and even the long-shuttered markets of New York and LA have been given the OK to operate at 25 percent capacity.

But will the movies be coming back to us? The plague year that seems finally to have an end in sight has sped up a cultural and technological transformation that was already underway and has altered the media landscape in ways we won’t truly comprehend until years from now. The balance of power has shifted, the players have changed, the formats have evolved, and the audience has migrated. We’re just about back to normal, but no one has any idea what “normal” means.


An AMC movie theater in New York.Amir Hamja/Photographer: Amir Hamja/Bloombe

For the mainstream movie industry, 2020 was a disaster, plain and simple. Box office revenue was down 82 percent from 2019, and during the key blockbuster months of summer it was shut off entirely. AMC Theatres, which owns the largest share of multiplexes in the country and the world, lost $4.6 billion in revenue and came close to bankruptcy more than once. A year’s worth of studio blockbusters — a new James Bond, a second “Top Gun,” all sorts of superhero franchise extensions — were pushed into 2021 and beyond, creating a logjam of product that will take months if not years to sort itself out. Film and TV production shut down, started up, shut down, and started up. (With COVID-19 spiking once more in LA, it’s shut down again.)

Here’s the thing, though: Audiences barely seemed to notice. Die-hard action fanatics and hardened cineastes mourned the loss of the big-screen experience, but the rest of the country just hunkered down and watched “The Queen’s Gambit.” And “The Crown.” And “I May Destroy You.” And “Ted Lasso” and “WandaVision” and “The Mandalorian” and all sorts of international Netflix flotsam. The pleasures of a serial narrative, pulling us from one episode to the next and thereby through one more day/week/month of lockdown, served as a psychological balm and outweighed the charge we used to get from a one-off film experience. We wanted company, and TV shows provided. A movie was just... a visitor.


Pedro Pascal in "The Mandalorian," one of several big streaming hits last year. Associated Press

Yet plenty of them registered with audiences, even if few were Hollywood’s A-list vehicles. While COVID devastated the multiplexes, it proved a challenge well met by independent theaters and distributors, who instituted virtual screenings that brought indie movies to audiences at home. No one made a killing, but just about everyone stayed in business (including movie critics), and the practice proved that streaming movies-on-demand could not just supplement live screenings but expand a movie’s potential audience.

Which the studios were learning, too, much to the chagrin of the theater owners. If 2020 was a year in which television arguably became more culturally important than the movies, it also saw Hollywood’s power players move to dominate the VOD market that now dominates entertainment. Disney, the T. Rex of the industry, reorganized itself around streaming platform Disney+, which just crossed the 100 million global subscriber mark. Warner Bros. announced that its entire 2021 slate of films — including “Dune,” “In the Heights,” and a new “Matrix” — would debut simultaneously in theaters and on affiliated streaming platform HBO Max. (The company may yet back down in the face of a lawsuit from the producers of “Dune.”)


Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson in the upcoming remake of "Dune." Chia Bella James/Associated Press

Of course the studios want their movies to head to VOD — it gives them control over how and when they’re seen and puts more money in their pockets (and less in the theater owners’). But how this will play out over the long run remains to be seen. I asked a number of individuals across the industry, both local and national, for their take on the year they’ve been through and what lies ahead. Here’s what they told me.

Alex Winter, filmmaker (“Zappa”), actor: “I think COVID has expedited change more than create change. For two decades now, consumers have been vocal that they want the option to access the music, movie, and TV content they love more immediately and at home. There are repercussions, and there will continue to be winners and losers in this shift, but audiences [also] like to gather in public, whether at concerts or the movie theater, and that will continue. My biggest concern has been that the artist is adequately compensated, that the new boss isn’t worse than the old boss. From where we sit, the creators are losing the most in this shift. And under cover of COVID, many companies have implemented even more onerous terms for creators. That’s where the real work needs to happen via the unions and artist’s representatives.”


Ned Hinkle, creative director, Brattle Theatre: “As I think about what might have changed for us at the Brattle, I have to say (hopefully) not much. If anything, being at home with streaming services has possibly whetted appetites to see more new discoveries and old favorites on the big screen instead of the small. In terms of audiences, well, we’ll see. We aren’t expecting to be back to full-capacity, packed houses until probably next year at this point but I know I’m hungry to get back to the movies and I’m sure that a lot of other people are too. We feel very fortunate to have a strong community that has supported us through the shutdown.”

Mark Malinowski, vice president global marketing, National Amusements muliplex chain: “In the same way people are starting to experience Zoom fatigue, VOD at home as our only entertainment option just isn’t cutting it anymore. By the third and fourth quarters, we don’t think our business will just bounce back — we think it will snap back.”

Nancy Campbell, program director, Independent Film Festival of Boston: “The adjustment to virtual festivals has allowed smaller festivals to expand their reach beyond their geographical locations, inviting people who were unable to attend in-person. On the other hand, these opportunities are also available to larger, top-tier festivals, which allows them to compete even more directly with smaller, local festivals. Ultimately, we believe the power of gathering together as a community to share stories is more compelling when in person, and that organizations that are directly connected to their communities are uniquely situated to adapt to the changing needs of that community.”


Katherine Tallman of the Coolidge Corner Theatre.LISA LINNEHAN

Katherine Tallman, executive director, Coolidge Corner Theatre: “Clearly, streaming options are ever increasing, and it’s a lot less expensive to watch movies at home. I think that bodes well for independent films that would not otherwise get funding or audiences. [But] I don’t have to tell you that watching a movie with other people you don’t even know adds immeasurably. Human beings need connection and have been truly deprived. We’re all pretty lonely and we don’t have to feel alone in a movie theater.”