Why Movie Theaters Will Survive Streaming | Opinion

Warner Brothers' decision to stream films on the same day the studio releases them theatrically has put into sharp focus the role, if any, that theaters will play in the years ahead. It's not a new debate of course—theaters have survived the arrival of television, Betamax, VHS, and DVD. But will it survive streaming and the internet? Clues to the answer lie not with the opinions of movie moguls but with the habits of flyover country, the people whose interests and opinions have been routinely ignored for half a century when it comes to the kinds of movies they'd like to see.

I've encountered this disconnect many times in producing, marketing and distributing movies, but perhaps no more clearly than the day that a prominent head of a major Hollywood film company came into Mel Gibson's office for an early screening of his soon-to-be blockbuster hit movie, The Passion of The Christ. As seven or eight of us gathered around Gibson's conference table to watch, uncertainty was still in the air—Gibson had no distributor at that point and it was unclear if theaters would be receptive to a violent movie about a 2,000-year-old story told in Aramaic with English subtitles. Mel left the room to pray the rosary, hoping the important people in the room—and one in particular who owned a theatrical chain—would make a path for his labor of love that had so far been passed over by every major studio.

As the lights came up he began to solicit opinions about the film. That's when the powerful and experienced Hollywood mogul told Gibson that, in his estimation, the film had no chance of earning any money at the box office, but might make some at DVD, so, he recommended, Gibson should put it in theaters for free.

As the producer of the film's official inspired-by soundtrack, and having also worked on its marketing, I had already seen the powerful effect the film was having on those we invited to watch it. Daniel Lanois, the veteran producer of U2 and Bob Dylan, dramatically stood up after a screening Gibson wasn't at, and declared "if he's going to do this, then everything's going to have to change!" I wasn't sure what he meant, but he had clearly been affected by it in a deeply spiritual way. I'll never forget the look on Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails' face after he watched; "we've shocked the shock rocker," I thought to myself. Others, like Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20 and his wife, were moved to tears and Lauryn Hill was so affected that she wrote a song for me right there in the theater. We also had plenty of ordinary Americans in as well, and they too were moved deeply, with one, an old preacher named Harald Bredesen, memorably shouting "Hallelujah" at the top of his lungs.

A few months earlier, when I first watched it with Gibson, he had asked me what I thought it would do, and I told him it would make a billion dollars. Although I was off by a hundred million or so, I said that not because I had special insights but because I knew my relatives, and knew they would love what I had just seen.

But, the question lingered: how could a Hollywood executive be so out of touch with the opinions of people he was ostensibly in business to make stories for?

movie theater
A view of the Regal E-Walk movie theater in Times Square as the city continues the re-opening efforts following restrictions imposed to slow the spread of coronavirus on December 23, 2020 in New York City. Noam Galai/Getty

It's a question that needs to be asked again when it comes to the streaming-vs.-theater debate, which shares many of the same content-related misunderstandings and miscalculations.

Many of my LA/Manhattan friends have elaborate home theaters that may approximate the theatergoing experience but I have no illusions that the rest of America have similar setups and are as willing to give up theatergoing as readily as my friends may be, for most Americans don't have a full home theater, but many have big-screen TVs where they can watch movies in a way that complements—but doesn't fully replace—the theatrical experience. Just as the advent of refrigerators, microwaves and ovens didn't get rid of the restaurant industry, so streaming services aren't likely to replace theatergoing, but rather to complement it, perhaps saving the theatrical experience for those films that have special meaning to viewers.

Most Americans don't have a full home theater, but many have big-screen TVs where they can watch movies in a way that complements—but doesn't fully replace—the theatrical experience. Just as the advent of refrigerators, microwaves and ovens didn't get rid of the restaurant industry, so streaming services aren't likely to replace theatergoing, but rather to complement it, perhaps saving the theatrical experience for those films that have special meaning to viewers.

But beyond the space and financial limitations that keep Americans from making a theater at home, there is also the basic fact that people like to get away from their homes in large dark rooms and experience movies communally, with friends and family, laughing, crying, cheering and being inspired together. Sure, you could watch a rock concert in your living room on a big screen, but there's something about the communal experience of being there that can never be replaced.

As a filmmaker who wants all of my films to reach the heartland, Warner Brothers' decision simply means that I have one less potential distribution partner for future films. Like the mogul who thought Gibson couldn't make the $371 million in theaters he would have missed if the advice had been followed, Warner Brothers betrays an attitude that doesn't understand how Americans live their lives.

Streaming is making a significant impact on American life and will do so for the foreseeable future. While it may be a great venue for multi-episode series, for those narrative films that deeply resonate with Americans—like the one that was given no chance of success by one of the smartest movie moguls in Hollywood, theaters will continue to thrive just as concerts survived the advent of Napster and iTunes and restaurants survived home kitchen appliances.

And as for filmmakers, the challenge will be to create works that so deeply resonate that fans will make the effort and spend the money to go to the theater.

Mark Joseph is a filmmaker, author and a Newsweek senior columnist.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.