If theaters do somehow survive the hammer blows of the pandemic—the lack of government help, uncooperative major studios—the entire industry will look different than it did at the start of 2020. Cinemas could become even more of a boutique experience, charging much higher premiums for a big-screen experience to people uninterested in viewing movies at home. Big companies such as Amazon or Disney could swoop in to buy the foundering chains, then use them to promote their own releases.
The main variable that remains impossible to predict in all of this is human behavior. People in the U.S. have largely been cooped up at home for much of 2020, and will continue to live pandemic-limited lives for much of 2021. Even in states with little to no restrictions, cinemas have failed to pack the house; audiences have too much anxiety about sitting inside a windowless room with a bunch of strangers. Once a vaccine is widely distributed, a pent-up desire to return to normalcy could be unleashed. I, certainly, crave the collective experience of movie-watching; I’m sure I’m not the only one sick of seeing things from my couch. If other studios go the way of WarnerMedia, theaters will be hanging their hopes on that nostalgia.