The Rest of the Story

August 27, 2018
A thought by James Berardinelli

As Hollywood scrambles to find innovative ways to keep theaters relevant, all sorts of ideas have been bandied about. Some are perfectly reasonable. Others are idiotic. They span the spectrum from “likely to happen” to “when pigs fly.”

My favorite one of these, and one that I think has a decent chance of happening, is the idea of converting the largest megaplexes into multi-entertainment centers. Despite the worst gloom-and-doom predictions of some pundits, I don’t think theaters are going away – at least not in the near future. Box office revenue is dropping but it’s still huge. Over the long term, it’s likely to continue to decline but unlikely to crash and burn. The sensible thing for the industry to do is retool and resize to meet the smaller demand. This will of necessity mean that perhaps as many as 1/3 of the current theaters will have to close. For the remaining 2/3, changes can be made to accommodate the lower attendance levels.

Many smaller (4-to-8-plexes) have already acted by replacing traditional seating with “deluxe” leather recliners. I appreciate these more for the increased leg room and space between seats than for the reclining capability (which I only use about half the time). They’re a lot more comfortable than the old seats and, especially in smaller theaters, they are becoming more common. A local AMC 8-plex saw a 350% increase in attendance when they converted, even though seating capacity dropped by 60%. That was five years ago; attendance has only dipped from that high by about 10% over time, despite a spike in prices (up from $8 in 2013) and an increase in competition. The number of auditoriums is just about right to accommodate a smaller slate of movies and avoid playing to half-empty houses on Friday and Saturday nights.

But what about the 20 and 24-plexes that dot the movie landscape? In my neck of the woods, there are a few of them: palatial structures built back in the ‘90s when the movie business was booming and the trendlines were sloped positively. Some of these have fallen on hard times. The closest one to me, a Loews (bought out by AMC almost before it opened), is a victim of neglect. Its prime location has allowed it to remain well-attended despite the sense of decay, but it’s not far from becoming a dinosaur. Another AMC, far better cared-for, is starting to suffer attendance-wise. It still attracts crowds but, unlike in the early 2000s, you can find a decent parking spot on a Friday or Saturday night.

Ten years from now, it’s hard to see most of these megaplexes continuing to be viable in their current configurations. Even cutting the number of seats by 60% won’t solve the problem, just mask it. A better alternative might be a radical repurposing of space. Keep half the building as theaters and convert the rest into a combination of restaurants, small boutique shops, and/or arcades. (Most megaplexes have two wings, so this would be easy to do.) A lot of people still go out for “dinner and a movie” – why not combine those two things under one roof? (Without the annoyance of dinner-theaters, where people are served meals while watching a film – something that’s arguably the most annoying, distracting experience imaginable.)

But there’s another idea – one that has been floated on several occasions (most recently in association with Game of Thrones) but hasn’t yet found purchase. Expect this to get more discussion in the years to come and possibly grow into a major new initiative. It partners big-screen cinema with streaming binge-consumption. It could elevate the status of Amazon and Netflix above their current level of a minor players on the theatrical distribution scene.

Consider this possibility: a streaming series, 6-to-8 episodes in length, featuring major Marvel characters (like Spider-Man, Captain America, and Iron Man). It would mimic a lengthy comic book arc, with each episode replicating an “issue.” The season’s story would end in a cliffhanger that would be resolved in a motion picture. The movie would be released a month or two after the series dropped on its streaming service and would eventually make its way to the streaming service after an adequate amount of time in theaters.

This kind of synergy isn’t far-fetched. As I mentioned, HBO considered it for Game of Thrones. There was discussion about taking what will now become the final season and breaking it into two theatrical movies. There was also discussion about having a movie “tie-in,” although that idea has been scrapped in favor of making new, related programming. Disney is probably the company to watch the most closely. Both Star Wars and the MCU are ripe for this sort of treatment, which could be used to boost interest if some degree of fatigue sets in. Once Disney sets up its own streaming service (regardless of whether it’s something new or, more likely, a revamping of Hulu), the groundwork will have been laid for something along these lines.

As solid as the business model may sound, that’s not to say there aren’t significant hurdles. First and foremost is fan interest. This is only going to work for popular properties. Try to do it with an unknown and it will be a colossal failure. There has to be a large, built-in audience that is likely to devour the streaming portion of the narrative as soon as it’s available and attend the theatrical piece when it opens. There’s a built-in risk here and misjudging it could result in a potentially crippling decision. It’s a bold move, and “bold” rarely plays well in a corporate culture where “risk-averse” is a popular term.

Cost is another stumbling block. In order for a cross-media project like this to make sense, it would have to carry an enormous budget. The “look” of the streaming portion couldn’t be substantially different from that of the theatrical component, nor could the major stars be conspicuously absent for long stretches to reduce their fees. In essence, it would be like making The Lord of the Rings but broadcasting the first two chapters (suitably broken-up) on a streaming outlet before releasing The Return of the King in theaters. Even if the movie made $500M theatrically, would that be enough?

Finally, there’s the danger of a backlash. Avoiding that would be a marketing challenge. If sold properly, it could be received positively. After all, fans never complained about having to go theaters to see Star Trek after getting used to watching it on TV for years. Serenity was greeted warmly by Firefly audiences. If fans think they’re somehow being cheated in a bait-and-switch scam, their wrath will sink the project. Publicity would have to emphasize the advantages of this approach (more time to tell the whole story, wider availability, immediate re-watchability of the streaming portion, and the ability to see the final chapter on the big screen).

Hollywood isn’t quite there yet but baby steps are being taken. Once the studios embrace streaming shows as potential assets and partners (rather than as adversaries), opportunities will arise. Creating artificial divisions between streaming shows/TV programs/motion pictures no longer makes sense. Sooner or later, the lesson will be learned. It’s just a question of how long it takes and who the first will be to embark on this pioneering journey.