By Woodrow Polston
For many Americans, our memories are made up of both big and small events from the past. Birthdays and special occasions, childhood friends, hopes, dreams, accomplishments and failures. And they are also cluttered and mingled with epic scenes, and unforgettable lines from Hollywood blockbusters. Most of us can easily quote an actor or actress from a drama when it is named. We will laugh when a comedy title is mentioned or recall the fright of a classic 1980s horror masterpiece while driving down a dark and unfamiliar road. But recent breakthroughs in technology, coupled with a global pandemic, have altered the way that we absorb our entertainment. And much like many aspects of our daily life, our methods of entertainment will never be the same after COVID-19.
For the better part of the 20th century, movie cinemas across the country would draw in large crowds on a Friday night. In the 1920s and 1930s, theaters were so grand in their architectural appearance, that they were commonly referred to as picture palaces. After the purchase of your popcorn, candy, and soda, you were ready to enjoy the many scenes that were created in response to the unforgettable phrase; ‘lights, camera, action.’
Saturday evenings were no different. A classic all-American date would have involved a night at the movies. Such was the case for my wife and me. Although I confess, I was never able to determine for sure, whether it was proper to have dinner, and then a movie, or a movie and then dinner. I suppose if it were a first date, it would be most sensible to go to the movie before dinner. It would create a good icebreaker, for the sake of conversation, if nothing else.
In December of 1977, the first professionally managed video rental store in the U.S., Video Station, was opened by George Atkinson in Los Angeles, Calif. This was made possible after 20th Century Fox had made an agreement with Magnetic Video founder Andre Blay, to license him 50 of their titles for sale directly to consumers. Among the titles, were Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Sound of Music. During the 1980s, retail video rental locations were popping up everywhere. By 1985, there were an estimated 15,000 video rental stores across the nation. By the 1990s, video rental locations were scattered across cities and towns, making it possible to watch those blockbusters that you loved, or perhaps missed in the theater.
At the close of the 20th century, the widespread availability of video on demand on cable TV systems offered consumers a way of watching movies without having to leave the comfort of their home. With the advent of the World Wide Web, Internet services such as Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, and many others have become increasingly popular. All these new methods of watching movies have greatly reduced the demand for video rental shops, and many have closed down as a result. Seeing one that is still in operation today, is about as rare as seeing a telephone booth on a street corner.
Unfortunately, what we have gained in convenience, we have surely lost in experience. Growing up in the 1980s, there was so much more to viewing a movie. It wasn’t just the pleasure of gathering with family or friends to watch it, but it was the trip to the local video store or theater that made it an adventure. And while some ticket purchases and rentals were surely regrettable, there were conversations and memories made along the way that made it worthwhile.
In early 2020, With the COVID-19 pandemic bringing the economy to a grinding halt, the entertainment industry suffered greatly. For the year, the entire global theatrical and home/mobile entertainment market totaled $80.8 billion, the lowest figure since 2016, and a decline of 18% from 2019. The sharpest decline was in theatrical revenue which dropped from $42.3 billion in 2019 to $12 billion in 2020. Theatrical entertainment accounted for only 15% of the total global entertainment revenue, compared to 43% in 2019.
As movie theaters reopened after precautionary closures, the movie goers didn’t seem to return. It was a perfect storm, as half of consumers didn’t want to deal with trying to eat their popcorn while being obligated to wear a mask, and the other half were too afraid to risk the exposure of the virus. Film production had also come to a standstill, leaving theaters with a lack of new releases to draw in the crowds. Many locations scrambled to come up with ways to attract an audience. Some were playing retro films from the 1980s and 1990s, while others were renting out their auditoriums for private viewings of classic titles.
According to data tracked by Gower Street, as of Spring 2021, nearly half of all cinemas across the country were still eerily dark. Many of those locations have been permanently closed since. One such closure that is close to home, was St. Andrews Cinema 3, located in St. Charles, Mo. This location was popular for its $1 digital show. If you were willing to go see a movie at about the time it was becoming available on DVD, you could enjoy the cinema experience for only $1. And the popcorn, soda and other snacks were priced low as well. The location suffered a small electrical fire in the facility shortly before the pandemic, which caused them to temporarily close for renovations. Sadly, they have never reopened their doors.
So, what comes next for the entertainment industry? Despite receiving billions of dollars in bailout money from government stimulus packages, serious concerns linger regarding the path forward. When Hollywood has returned to full production, will the demand for theater locations increase?
Perhaps the lockdowns and closures revealed to us that we can, in fact, live without all the fictitious drama. Another concern for American movie goers, is the rapid rise of inflation. Will economic concerns caution us to be wearier of discretionary spending? It may be too soon to tell.
We do, however, seem to be on the verge of an entertainment revolution. Not only in film, but also in sports. As we witness an increasingly volatile political environment, where team owners, players, and fans are clashing over opinions and political positions. The future remains uncertain. In fact, it is as clear as the mud that is being slung back and forth, on every side. I once heard that 88 MPH is the desired speed for time travel in a modified DeLorean. But would we prefer the past or the future?