We Have Glimpsed Our Streaming Future, and It Sucks

It’s not just the magic of sitting in a darkened theater that’s been whisked away.

Wonder Woman, standing next to a kiosk in a mall, holds some poor sap upside-down while turning to the camera and holding one finger to her lips
Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman 1984, which Warner Bros. just announced will premiere on HBO Max. HBO Max

In the streaming video era, movie theaters have increasingly been framed as an archaic institution, a vestigial remnant of the days when industrial restrictions and the laws of physics determined when and how you could consume content. A night out at the movies went from being a regular ritual to a special occasion, then a necessary evil, and eventually an intolerable inconvenience. In the pandemic era, there are bigger obstacles to moviegoing than the cost of a sitter or a bucket of popcorn, and while the wishful thinking has been that audiences who are now watching everything would jump at their first post-vaccine chance to revisit the communal thrill of a crowded multiplex, the opportunities to eventually do so are dwindling by the day.

The major studios have largely dodged the issue by punting their big-ticket blockbusters—your James Bonds, your Black Widows, and so forth—to 2021, but with the clock ticking down on 2020, Warner Bros. has announced that it’s sticking with its planned Christmas release for Wonder Woman 1984, even though in the U.S. that will largely mean a streaming debut on HBO Max. This isn’t quite as definitive a death knell for movie theaters as it could be. International markets—those where COVID is reasonably under control, at least—will still be getting the film on Dec. 16, a big enough head start to make its American debut feel, just barely, like a second run. Nine days isn’t long, but it’s an eternity in blockbuster time: The original Wonder Woman had made fully half of its $412 million domestic gross by the end of its second weekend in theaters, and by Dec. 25, the internet will be a minefield for anyone hoping to see the sequel unspoiled.

Without a firm date for a widely distributed vaccine, let alone a return to whatever version of normal we might be able to achieve, it’s too soon to opine on whether movie theaters are dead or not. (They’re not in good shape, but then none of us is.) But the past eight months have given Americans a glimpse of what a world without movie theaters would look like, and frankly, it sucks. By now, you’ve read a million paeans to the magic of sitting in a darkened theater, but it’s not just the evanescent experience of the silver screen that’s been whisked away. On a purely practical level, theaters act as a filter, a way of separating out a small handful of the hundreds of movies released every year, and although the system by which they end up there is riven with biases and blind spots, on balance, the movies that end up there are better than the ones that don’t, and their limited runs create a sense of occasion and urgency that the boundless availability of streaming can’t match. (There are movies in my Netflix list I’ve been meaning to get around to since 2009.) In 2020, many of those movies are still being released in one form or another, but unless you’re a hardcore movie buff, you probably have no idea. Even with the limited social interactions I’ve had over the past several months, it feels like every other conversation I’ve had has involved someone asking me why there aren’t any new movies coming out. (Roughly a dozen will be released this Friday alone.)

As is always the case at the top of the food chain, the Wonder Womans of the world will find a way to make the system work to their advantage. 2020’s case studies have shown that it’s possible to make a sizable chunk of change renting new releases at first-run prices, but also that it’s nothing compared with the amount they could have made in theaters: Universal’s Trolls World Tour took in an estimated $95 million, but that’s almost $60 million short of the original Trolls’ domestic haul, and while the studio’s profit was roughly the same, the experiment clearly wasn’t enough of a success for it to rethink its decision to kick the next Fast and Furious sequel to 2021. (Subsequent digital releases like The King of Staten Island are the kind that would have done much of their business outside of theaters anyway.) Disney kept a few of its tentpoles in place, converting Mulan into a premium Disney+ add-on, and even moved up the filmed version of Hamilton as an enticement to subscribe, creating the rare streaming debut with a monocultural footprint the size of a theatrical blockbuster.

But Hamilton’s success won’t be any easier to duplicate on streaming than it was on Broadway. Look at Pixar’s Onward, which had the misfortune to open in theaters just as the pandemic was beginning to shut them down. In a sense, it got the worst of both worlds: a hobbled theatrical release which failed to break even, and a limping debut on streaming, long enough after the initial marketing push to feel like an afterthought, and too soon to build up any lingering anticipation. With its theme park earnings obliterated by COVID closures, Disney has, like Warner Bros., stuck to the Christmas release date for another of its heavy hitters, Pixar’s Soul, and unlike with Mulan, it’s not even charging extra: It’s just a $150 million investment in the future of Disney’s streaming service, which, in a year that has seen many other launch attempts falter or fail outright, seems to be the only one poised to rival Netflix’s dominance.

But while the titans of the entertainment world do battle—Apple snatching the Peanuts holiday specials from Disney-owned ABC, Netflix splurging on a movie by the creator and star of HBO’s Euphoria—the rest struggle for scraps. It seems unthinkable to me that 2020 could produce the equivalent of Parasite, a movie that went from film festival favorite to art house hit to cultural phenomenon. Film festivals and art houses are soldiering on as best as they virtually can, but their impact is a fraction of what it was. The closest to an awards favorite the virtual festival circuit has produced is Nomadland, which, like Green Book before it, won the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival, but if you’re aware there’s a (very good) movie starring Frances McDormand as an itinerant widow coming out in two weeks, you are among the lucky few. Even with the studios and major art house distributors pulling many of their major releases, 2020 has seen the releases of a ton of great movies—American Utopia, Dick Johnson Is Dead, First Cow, Wolfwalkers, and Da 5 Bloods, to name only a few—but it’s been a terrible year for movie-watching, as people have (understandably) fallen back on comfort-viewing favorites or just letting the algorithm pick whatever low-stakes series is next in the queue. (I’m not claiming superiority here, either: My virtual stack of fascinating-sounding documentaries is sky-high, but we’ve been binging seasons of The Great British Baking Show instead.) The world without movie theaters isn’t a world without gatekeepers. It’s just a world where the gatekeepers aren’t human, and instead of urging you to watch what they love, they serve up whatever seems most like the last thing you liked.

A Stereogum story this week explained how an obscure B-side—justly forgotten even by the band—had become the most-streamed Pavement song on Spotify: not because anyone loved it or even because it was featured on a hit TV show, but merely because it was the song that sounded the most like other songs, a perfect mediocrity that would neither inspire anyone to listen too closely nor to skip to the next track. That’s the kind of content Netflix has come to specialize in, ambient padding to fill the space between idle moments, of which this year has offered more than most. When there’s an exception to that rule, Netflix knows how to send up the signal: by booking a theatrical release, even when there are barely any theaters to book it in. The service’s awards-season jewels Mank and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom are both getting significant runs in theaters, because even when those runs are mere tokens, it sets those movies apart, tiny rivulets redirected from the spewing firehose of online content. Without theaters, we’re drowning in options, grabbing whatever flotsam is nearest to hand, and while that firehose keeps getting bigger, it hasn’t made it any easier to find a good drop to drink.