By John Podhoretz
In the spring, the most successful theatrical release in the United States was a horror movie you’ve probably never heard of. Not only was it No. 1 at the time… The Wretched even matched Black Panther’s record, sitting for five weeks at the top of the box-office charts.
Of course, there were a few differences… The Wretched opened at 12 theaters on the first of May and eventually made it onto 75 screens; Black Panther opened on 4,020 screens in 2018. There are 41,000 screens in the United States, and in 2019, they generated around $11 billion in revenue. In May 2020, 97% of the movie theaters in America were shuttered… The Wretched played exclusively at drive-ins, of which there are only 559 in the United States.
By the first week of June, The Wretched had earned $905,000. In the same 35-day period in 2019, another Marvel superhero movie, Avengers: Endgame, had grossed $309 million. The movie business had gone into a societally induced coma, and what it lost during its insensibility might prove to be far more than a fiscal quarter’s revenue. Consider this… AMC, the largest theater chain in the world, announced at the beginning of June 2020 that it had “substantial doubt” it could survive as a business.
The mass entertainment industry began with the creation of the movie theater in the first decade of the 20th century. In 2019, American cinemas sold $11.3 billion worth of tickets. Film exhibition is not a huge business – not in a country where soft-drink sales gross $242 billion annually – but since these buildings display the wares produced by what has been and remains the country’s most glamorous industry, it is of outsized influence and semiotic meaning. How it can or will revive, after two decades of declining attendance and the concomitant rise of high-definition home viewing and streaming entertainment, is the most interesting cultural question of post-pandemic America.
First off is the issue of how many people will decide they won’t go to the movies at all anymore… because their consciousnesses have been raised or their fears have deepened about the nature of communicable diseases and the problems associated with indoor proximity to others. That number might be tiny in political or polling terms‚ especially given that the largest cohort of moviegoers is made up of the people least endangered by the virus – people under the age of 49. It might only be 10% of Americans. But the profit margin at a movie theater, according to Marketplace.org,
is around 4%. So that 10% could mark the difference between survival and death – especially in a year where the theaters have lost months of revenue.
Second, there’s the issue of whether studios will want to release their hugely expensive 2020 movies at a time when they simply don’t know what the potential audience size really is. They cannot hold onto the new James Bond or the two new Marvel films very long because the money they generate sometimes have to service the debt that has been incurred to make them. Still, if a 2020 release of a Marvel picture that would have made $600 million in the U.S. otherwise but can now realistically only gross $200 million or less due to audience hesitation and regulations that make it impossible for theaters to sell tickets in large numbers… will studios release movies at a time when they have no assurance there will be an audience for them? Or when the audience for these movies will be 50% of the size due to cautionary practices by theaters and regulatory demands by the authorities?
Professional sports leagues have had to survive players’ strikes and owners’ lockouts before, but they have multigenerational supporters who have a near-patriotic loyalty to their franchises. Every movie has to build its own audience from scratch, and it’s getting harder for films to pull this off despite the rise of grassroots communication like social media. The competition for attention is just too great, especially lately, as the number of streaming subscription services providing in-home entertainment has grown to include Disney+, HBO Max, and the forthcoming Peacock.
Take Disney+… A Disney+ subscriber can watch nearly every film made by Disney Studios since the 1930s… and every episode of The Simpsons, of which there are 655. Every Marvel movie… every Star Wars movie… and a host of other family friendly entertainment, including its own new and old TV series.
What’s more, Disney+ will also use the platform to release extraordinarily expensive films made for theaters but whose release was derailed by the pandemic, like the magical kid adventure Artemis Fowl (production cost: $125 million). The price of a Disney+ subscription (at least for now) is $6.99 a month, or half the price of a single movie ticket. And who goes to the movies alone? The squeeze on the theatrical business was already significant before the pandemic turned it into an existential crisis.
For 70 years, the movies have battled for the attention of the American people with television, or at least for the share of the American attention span with television. In part due to the success of Netflix and Amazon Prime, but not solely, the sheer amount of televised offerings in the U.S. has exploded. There were an astounding 532 scripted series offered on American TV screens in 2019. Nine years earlier, in 2010, there were 216. And the new streaming services are only going to ensure that number rises significantly once production resumes.
The movies are on the ropes… It may be too late for them in a historical sense. Pandemic or not, all of these trends were going to continue. The virus may just have set the cycle of permanent and rapid decline into freefall. And this brings us to the most savage irony of 2020… The salvation of the American theatrical movie experience may be in the hands of the Americans that Hollywood despises the most.
President Donald Trump may or may not win reelection, but his supporters – many of whom hold the values and ideas of the entertainment industry in exactly the same sort of contempt showbiz has for them – hold the fate of the movies in their hands.
President Donald Trump may or may not win reelection, but his supporters – many of whom hold the values and ideas of the entertainment industry in exactly the same sort of contempt showbiz has for them – hold the fate of the movies in their hands. It is the residents of the red states and their willingness to go out to the movies and buy some popcorn and a Coke that will make or break the motion-picture business this year, and perhaps for all time.
The men (and they are mostly men) who have made it to the top of pop culture’s greasy pole look at Republican America and tend to see a blighted landscape that brought us Reagan and then Gingrich and then George W. Bush and then the Tea Party and then Trump. In song and story, in plot and affect, the villains are either red staters or their ideological confreres – conservatives, Republicans, and religious people. They’re science-deniers, gun-toters, frackers, polluters, despoilers, evil businessmen, real estate developers, and generals.
To make the point even more starkly, consider that the final release from Hollywood before COVID-19 shut the theaters down was a movie partly satirizing its own hatred of the yahoos – The Hunt, in which rich liberals set in motion a killing spree of the people Hillary Clinton called “the deplorables.”
The red states are home to everything bad – except, perhaps, when they offer lucrative tax credits to producers so that movies and TV shows will be filmed there. (Georgia is particularly generous, which caused terrible cognitive dissonance last year when an anti-abortion law there caused some Hollywood types to vow never to set foot in the state. Oddly, that profound determination lasted about a week. Tax credits are literally ready money. And an actor has got to eat… at Katsuya, L.A.’s most formidable Japanese restaurant.)
And yet, here the movie people are… No business is more in need of a dramatic reopening than theirs, and that reopening will have to take place first and foremost in the locales
in America that never
And yet, here the movie people are… No business is more in need of a dramatic reopening than theirs, and that reopening will have to take place first and foremost in the locales in America that never fully closed. Red states, which are less densely populated as a rule and more generally attracted to an individualistic philosophy that views top-down government mandates with deep suspicion, resisted general lockdown… and were viciously attacked for doing so.
We were told to watch in horror as the residents of Texas, Georgia, and Florida would be felled by coronavirus just as the residents of New York City were in April because they did not impose statewide draconian mandates. Yet that didn’t happen… And because it didn’t happen, theater chains like AMC and others that chose to close down nationwide could reopen at will in those states and come up with their own ways of functioning with an eye toward the safety of their customers and workers – which, given their potential liability if they do not do so thoroughly and their own obvious need to avoid bad publicity and deep personal guilt, is something very much in their self-interest to pursue and secure.
In the blue states, the lockdowns have been by fiat and whose leaders are much more interested in telling business owners and others how to do what they should do, on the extraordinarily dubious grounds that they know better how to protect people. That’s because they have listened to public health officials, some of whom seemed to think it was fine for people to go out and protest en masse at the end of May, even as authorities were still punishing people who had the temerity to try and cut someone’s hair. The regulations governing reopening will be more draconian, more costly, and more bureaucratic than anywhere else – and there’s always the prospect that a governor will decide after a week that it’s just too dangerous for the theaters to remain open and then just lock their doors again.
The lockdown was largely the result of policies and ideas that emanated in the blue states and their institutions. The epidemiologists who calculated the dangers to the American (and global) body politic and declared that as many as 2 million were likely to die from COVID-19 if draconian measures were not imposed are mostly liberal and leftist academics at institutions in places like New York, California, and Washington state. Superstar public health officials like Anthony Fauci and Susan Birx are denizens of D.C. The state-level politicians who led the way in asserting emergency powers and shutting the gates of commerce in March were the governors of New York, California, New Jersey, and Illinois, joined in their efforts by the mayors of New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C, and Chicago.
It is these places – the places of the cultural elite in the United States – that are going to make it the hardest for things to return to normal. There might be excellent reasons to do so… Tens of thousands of lives should not be lost and the virulence of the virus extended indefinitely so that moviegoers can see Tenet, the hotly anticipated new Christopher Nolan movie, on July 17 when they could wait to see it when there’s a vaccine or when the studio decides to take its chances and offer it for streaming at $20 or $30 a pop.
The first major experiment in this regard, the online-only release of the animated Trolls World Tour, was a smashing success, grossing something like $100 million in its first weekend, far more than it would have made in theaters. But that may have had something to do with the sheer novelty of the offering and the fact that families were desperate for something, anything, to do with the kids inside.
But there might also be less-than-excellent reasons to do so, among them the unimaginable thrill for some of these governors and mayors at their sudden ability to exercise near-dictatorial authority in a manner they could only have dreamed of once in a lullaby. The supplications of business leaders, the bending of the knee, the kowtowing gratitude they might receive at their haughty condescension should they relent and give the free market a bit of a try – this is what some of them doubtless crave, along with the adulation they have received for supposedly saving lives they did not, in fact, save.
Only in places where politicians did not assume that authority and refused to exercise that kind of power will movie theaters be able to reopen. Only if the people in those places decide that the Hollywood goods are worth the purchase will they be able to reestablish some simulacrum of a “normal” business model.
Let me put it thus… The only way Bugs Bunny escapes is if he’s saved by Elmer Fudd.
John Podhoretz is the editor of Commentary Magazine.