The series of lockdowns at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic changed a lot of things. Restaurants, gyms, grocery stores — public places had gone from a mundane backdrop for mindless wandering to an anxiety-inducing battlefield. As the cinemas closed, the film industry was stunned into shock, unsure how they would maintain the public’s interest in movies now that theaters were closed for the unforeseeable future. Were movies resigned to internet platforms forever? Would cinemas ever be able to reopen to their full potential? Was this the death of film?
These fears were a bit dramatic but not entirely unfounded. Movie theater popularity has been steadily declining for a lot of reasons — mostly because ticket prices were becoming obscenely expensive and streaming services offered a much cheaper alternative for most people. However, some argue that it’s impossible to replace the cinema experience. Regardless of how expensive popcorn becomes or how uncomfortable it is to sit in a leather recliner for a three-hour film, there are always going to be audiences that want to experience cinematic spectacles on the silver screen.
When the pandemic hit and movie theaters were closed for extended periods of time, people shuddered to see release dates get indefinitely pushed back and blockbuster films get directly published to streaming platforms. This was a new precedent that seemed to seal the cinema coffin. The problems that had been pushing cinema back for years were only amplified by the growing number of people that preferred to stay at home and watch a Marvel movie on their couch.
Fast forward to 2022 when most movie theaters have returned to normal operating procedures, and film is still fresh and alive. A lot of this was probably due to attitudes of excitement as lockdowns lifted across the country. People simply missed going to the theater, and with the promise of big-title movies waiting for them beyond the cinema doors, people were eager to go back. Regardless of steadily increasing ticket prices, only made worse by COVID-related inflation, audiences returned to the movie theater in droves.
What films made this cinema renaissance possible? Much of this can be attributed to the wildly popular trend of comic book adaptations that have had a firm grip on film audiences since Marvel’s “Avengers” was released in 2012. Of the top ten highest-grossing films of 2021, five of them were Marvel movies, even though the release of “Black Widow” (No. 4) was interrupted by closing theaters in late 2020. The other four were “Eternals” (No. 6), “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” (No. 3), “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (No. 2) and most notably, “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” This blockbuster Marvel title blew Shang-Chi out of the water, earning over $570 million at the domestic box office in 2021 alone. The movie in second place didn’t even earn half that amount.
It’s still rather debatable if the success of superhero movies represents the livelihood of film at large, though. Many consider them to be shallow cash grabs that don’t propel the industry forward in any meaningful way. Even for the cynics, the cinemas have had a notable couple of years. Inventive films like “Dune,” “Death on the Nile” and “House of Gucci” have done remarkably well at the box office. Similarly, horror films like “A Quiet Place Part II,” “Halloween Kills” and “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” have found their niche success in theaters. Kids’ movies like “Encanto” and creative comedies like “Free Guy” display a bright future for film, and have succeeded in attracting audiences to cinemas despite the obstacles in their way.
This trend doesn’t mean that the fading interest in movie theaters is going away, but it might recontextualize the implications of it. Films are still moving to streaming platforms at accelerated rates, driving people to sit at home and wait for the blockbusters to hit Hulu or HBO Max instead of paying a small fortune for the cinema experience. Still, there is always going to be a desire to experience certain spectacles on the silver screen. Audiences for Marvel and DC movies have created a very unique culture around seeing these films on opening night with a full room of their fellow fans. Comic book movies, though shunned by the film industry at large, might be the very thing to save it.
Traditional films aren’t performing nearly as well in this arena, especially not when compared to their adaptive counterparts. Cinema, as we understand it, might have to start migrating away from the cinema itself. The format of 90-minute dramas as experienced in a movie theater is transforming into something else.
Television shows and limited series like “Euphoria” and “The End of the F**king World” are excellent examples of this. These are artistic expressions of new, unique storylines, all of which are shown from a smaller screen. In the past, television wasn’t where people went to experience “films” — sitcoms and reality shows took up most of the cable runtime and true screenplays were saved for the movie theater. As the line between cinema and television blurs, these streaming platforms might offer an accessible haven for films that feel overshadowed by a movie theater full of superheroes, sequels and film adaptations.
Overall, things are looking bright for film. COVID-19 lockdowns didn’t provide a substantial roadblock for creators that are dedicated to creating innovative, impactful storylines for the big screen. However, because of the digital age, the landscape of traditional cinema is shifting. This shift most likely won’t kill movie theaters altogether, but it might cause a significant change in what they look like. Maybe someday in the future, cinemas will only carry “Justice League” sequels and the 100th installment of a new MCU movie, and exciting films like “Fresh” will maintain their place on more intimate streaming platforms. In any case, the film industry is more than capable of adapting to these rapidly shifting expectations.