How ironic. A few months ago, I was debating a relative about why no longer going to the movies was a bad thing. What prompted the discussion was when she said she would rather watch movies on the small than the big screen.
Being old-fashioned, I immediately made a case for why people still needed to go to the movies. The movies, I argued, were an important cultural ritual that encouraged friends and family to spend some time together in an otherwise busy world. But more importantly, by staying home, we were becoming more fragmented as a society, with everyone doing their own thing and no longer having common ground.
You’d think that given what I felt, I would’ve stood up and cheered heartily when Steven Spielberg took yet another potshot at streaming in 2022. Instead, I had the opposite reaction– not because he’s wrong in principle, but because it’s directors like him who are the reason why movie goers have abandoned the theater in droves. I know what I’ve said may sound crazy, but hear me out.
There is a movie-related argument I used to hear all the time that would drive me up the wall. Whenever there was a plot point or scene that you complained was unbelievable or unrealistic, apologists would immediately clap back, “It was fine; you just didn’t suspend disbelief.”
The reason why this argument drove me crazy is that suspension of disbelief was never a one-way street. If audiences didn’t find something believable, it wasn’t a question of people not having suspended disbelief but a filmmaker not doing a good enough job to help audiences suspend it. So, whenever an apologist defaulted to this argument, what they were really doing was denying a screenwriter or a director’s complicity by shifting blame onto audience members, not making a statement of fact.
It’s the same thing with this complaint about streaming killing theaters. It’s a fallacy based on the falsehood that Hollywood has zero complicity in why so many filmgoers are choosing streaming over movie theaters. Let me explain how by posting the delusion that’s being tossed around, as opposed to the reality.
The delusion of the Streaming is Killing Theaters Crowd is that both the streaming platform and home theater system market conspired to force or brainwash movie lovers into watching the latest theatrical releases online regardless of whether they want to or not. In other words, if left to their own devices, film lovers would pick the movie theater as the most natural choice over streaming, if it weren’t for those gosh-darned “meddling kids”:
As Steven Spielberg bitterly complained:
“The pandemic created an opportunity for streaming platforms to raise their subscriptions to record-breaking levels and also throw some of my best filmmaker friends under the bus as their movies were unceremoniously not given theatrical releases,” he said. “They were paid off and the films were suddenly relegated to, in this case, HBO Max. The case I’m talking about. And then everything started to change.”
Delusion. Now, here is the reality:
Once upon a time, movie goers were more than happy to go to the theater to watch films, even when streaming became more popular. The reason why is that movie fans saw streaming as nothing more than a more updated version of the VHS and DVD rental and later, a cheaper alternative to movies-on-demand on cable. They never saw streaming as competition to or a replacement for movie theaters. All they thought was, “Renting out films has become so much more convenient than in the days of Blockbuster Video,” or, “Cool! I can cut the cable cord, now that I can watch movies on streaming a la carte.”
Then something happened to put the monkey wrench in the works. Box office and concession prices began to soar, with a fun night out costing as much as $40-$60 in some markets for a party of three. Movie fans grumbled, but continued going to the movies, anyway–mostly, out of habit, but also out of genuine anticipation. There were, after all, still tons of flicks that people wanted to see and felt were worth the expense of a theater ticket. As for concessions, that was easily solved–just sneak in a bag of popcorn and a bottle of soda, and you were good.
But then the worm turned when Hollywood started pushing out tons of crap that no longer justified the increased price of admission. The result? Movie lovers quit going out altogether and stayed home in increasing numbers to revisit classic movies or pay what they felt a theatrically-released film was worth.
To make matters worse, an increasingly insular and arrogant Hollywood started pushing out movies that the public has been soundly rejecting for years but arrogantly insisted on shoving down their throats, anyway–for instance, countless comic book movies that nobody except manbaby directors care about; arthouse wank that nobody except critics care about; and Oscar bait that no one except members of The Academy cares about.
Just as if this wasn’t bad enough was Hollywood’s total embracing of Globalism, which led to American movies about American icons, historical figures and events being suddenly handed lock, stock and barrel to foreign nationals, in order to chase overseas revenue and appease Chinese bankrollers. Over time, Americans–who were buying tickets for American movies–suddenly found themselves in an alien cinematic landscape in which very few of their beloved American actors were being cast in distinctly American roles or even shot by American directors in American landscapes. Harriet Tubman, Wonder Woman, Abraham Lincoln and even Marilyn Monroe were supplanted with foreign national unknowns. New Zealand was suddenly deemed a worthy substitute for the landscapes of Montana.
Lastly, Hollywood’s relentless one-track nihilism, antihumanism and cynicism was one more reason why American movie goers were no longer interested in spending money at the box office. The latest theatrical releases might have been declining in quality, but if there was any saving grace, it was that they provided a positive social experience that made people want to spend some time with each other in a darkened movie theater. Instead, Hollywood movies strayed away from themes of camaraderie, love, teamwork and boundless optimism and reveled in nihilistic themes designed to instill negativity, paranoia, suspicion and fear about one’s fellow man, as well as beat Americans over the head that if the United States wasn’t a dystopia, it would be soon.
Given all this, what do you think happened when theatergoers were faced with higher movie theater prices for movies they didn’t want to see or had them wondering which one of the latest misanthropic dystopian porn would inspire another Dark Knight mass shooting? American movie goers started looking to the home theater system and streaming–which had, up until then, been seen as a successor to the VHS, DVD and cable rental–as the natural and better alternative to movie theaters.
Makes sense, no? With streaming, movie lovers could decide how much the latest film was worth. In other words, maybe a new theatrically released film was worth seeing, but not just the $20 asking price at the box office.
Furthermore, with streaming, American movie lovers could avoid the steady stream of manbaby comic book movie bullshit; MINOs (pseudo-movies); Oscar bait trash; and endless masturbatory cycle of reboots, rehashes and sequels.
And most importantly of all, movie fans could watch films in the safety and comfort of their homes–as well as select movies that reflected their morality and values–without worrying about the type of theater attendants that would want to see a flick that glamorizes sociopaths, fetishes violence or pushes nihilism.
Bottom line, movie theater goers–after being ignored for so long–started voting with their wallets, and went with streaming because Hollywood forced their hand, not because streaming made them do it or because home theater manufacturers seduced them into staying home.
If Americans justify their favoritism by sounding like brainwashed shills for both streaming and the home theater industry, it’s not because they were brainwashed. It’s because these businesses successfully capitalized on their growing dissatisfaction with theatrical releases and box office prices, by giving them further justifications on top of the ones they already had for staying home.
To put it another way, five years ago, people might’ve said when asked why they didn’t go to the movies anymore, “We’re staying home because we hate comic book movies, reboots, sequels, dystopian porn and Oscar bait.” Today, after being exposed to tons of PR from streaming networks and the home theater market, the same people are saying, “We’re staying home because we hate comic book movies, reboots, sequels, dystopian porn and Oscar bait... and… because streaming is better, cheaper and safer than going out. We have more choice, are able to see what we want to see and get our money’s worth. Besides, the perfect home theater is a worthy substitute for the theater.”
Of course, the streaming-killed-theaters crowd doesn’t believe this. To them, to hear movie fans spout the talking points of both the streaming and home theater industry is all the proof needed to show that both markets went out of their way to kill theaters or “throw filmmakers under the bus.”
But this is illusory. With the dire state of film releases right now, movie lovers were going to stay home, regardless. All the streaming networks and home theater market did was give those lovers just one more reason to.
Why It Doesn’t Matter What Spielberg Thinks About All This
Spielberg’s latest movie is The Fabelmans (2022). Critics are raving about it; fanboys are gushing about it. However, I’m going to be perfectly frank when I say that I not only don’t want to see the movie, I don’t want to fucking see it. Neither do my friends, my relatives or Joe Blow down the street.
Why? Because this movie is emblematic of exactly why people started making the jump from theater to streaming and home theater systems and never looked back.
Let us go back to what Spielberg has been saying about why watching movies at home pales in comparison to the movie theater. It’s true that a large part of what made the movie theater experience magical is that it was a social thing where you could share your reactions with other people, even if they were strangers.
However, as true as that is, no amount of nostalgia and sentimentality is going to lure people back to the theater if 95% of the movies being shoveled out of Hollywood have very little mass appeal; are films that the average American couldn’t care less about or–due to nihilistic, amoral and dystopian themes–aren’t conducive to making people want to watch in a theater full of strangers, let alone pay for the experience.
To put things in perspective, back in 1991, when Terminator 2: Judgment Day was about to come out, this is what would’ve happened if you had told a friend or family, “I want to see that movie.” The odds are, at least three people that you knew would’ve said, “Holy shit! I want to see that movie, too! Let’s all go out this weekend and have some dinner afterward.”
Or, maybe the opposite would’ve happened. Maybe you couldn’t have cared less about Terminator 2: Judgment Day, but there were so many of your friends, families and coworkers buzzing about the movie that they begged you to join them on opening day.
The reason why everyone wanted to rush out and see that movie–en masse–is that it had America’s most bankable action star (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a popular American TV actress that everyone was curious to see because of a dramatic physical transformation (Linda Hamilton), and was about an issue that everyone was worried about and therefore could relate to– nuclear war. Plus, there was this intense FOMO Factor. Everyone went to see the movie precisely because it seemed as if everyone in the world was going to go out to see it and nobody wanted to be the odd man out at watercolor conversations or at parties.
Tell anybody today, “I want to see The Fabelmans,” and what will you hear? Crickets. Or maybe a polite, “Oh, that’s nice.” No one will be calling you either and saying, “Hey, you know what? The Fabelmans is coming out! Let’s go see it this weekend!” You know why? Because, for one, the film is clearly Oscar bait, so has very little universal appeal.
Not only that, there’s absolutely nothing about the subject matter that would make you and your inner circle want to see it together at the theater, anyway, as it’s a perfect expression of Hollywood insularity and narcissism, the type that has directors so up their own asses now, they’re now making movies about movies with all the vanity of a Ron Jeremy who really thought people really wanted to see him fellate himself.
The point of all this isn’t to dog The Fabelmans; it’s to make the point that a director who has spent the bulk of his career trading in Oscar bait is the last person in the world who anyone should be getting any insight from as to why streaming is now dominating theaters. That goes for any of the biggest directors today, who for some bizarre reason, decided 15-20 years ago that they weren’t going to shoot movies for the average American film fan anymore but for themselves, their fanboy audiences, Academy members and foreign markets.
In summary, what had millions of American movie fans flocking to the theaters each and every year were films that were made for the general public–not Oscar bait; not film genres pandering to ultra-niche demographics (adult comic book fans, weeaboos, arthouse snobs and Academy judges); and certainly not films that keep alienating American movie fans by pandering to European and Asian markets.
Americans have been abandoning the movie theater in droves because they don’t want to see, nor do they care about latest theatrical releases. Nor do they feel that these films are worth paying between $16-$20 for.
Another thing that had people flocking to movie theaters were films that stressed universal themes, as well as those positive human experiences and reactions that people naturally wanted to see with others. Not angry, nihilistic, dystopian bullshit or anything that makes anti-heroes out of sociopaths and murderers.
Until filmmakers like Spielberg and others within the industry realize that they are the root of the problem–and don’t do anything to resolve it–their observations about what really killed movie theaters don’t matter. Of course, mainstream media will make it seem as if it matters, because of their exalted status and reputation as Academy Award winners or legendary directors or what have you. But my opinion is that unless a person recognizes Hollywood’s complicity in the death of the movie theater at the hands of streaming, all of those accolades, awards and critical acclaim don’t amount to a hill of beans.
A new article from my favorite film writer… I can’t think of a better Christmas gift. 🙂 Your work always has me seeing things in a new way.
Thank you very much, and happy holidays!