Column: Competition from streaming services cause movie theaters to struggle


Liza Sheehy

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, going to a movie theater has become less common in the United States. This newfound hesitance toward the silver screen is having a financial impact on many major movie theater chains.

Laura Emde, news staff

Many are familiar with the experience of paying $11 for a ticket to a new movie, waiting in line for an overpriced bag of popcorn and settling into their seat to eat the entirety of said bag before the previews even end. 

However, since the COVID-19 pandemic, going to a movie theater has become less common in the United States. In a May 2022 study, 41% of respondents said they rarely go to see a movie in theaters, with 18% saying they never go. 

This newfound hesitance toward the silver screen is having a financial impact on many major movie theater chains. Regal Cinemas will be closing 39 locations across the country this year, including its Fenway location. Additionally, AMC Theatres announced Feb. 6 that they will be introducing a new pricing plan where moviegoers will have to pay more for seats with a better view of the screen.

What are keeping people away from the popcorn-scented auditoriums?

Streaming services.

Streaming services gained popularity beyond well-established platforms such as Netflix in 2020 and 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic when many public spaces, including theaters, had yet to reopen. Film studios put projects slated for 2020 theatrical releases on streaming services in an attempt to recoup some of the revenue that would inevitably be lost.

Despite their start as a temporary solution to potential financial ruin, streaming services are here to stay.

Around 85% of households in the United States had at least one video subscription as of December 2021, and spent approximately $114 billion on them.

One reason why people may be choosing streaming services over movie theaters is the lower cost — watching a movie on streaming is likely going to be cheaper or around the same price as in theaters. 

“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” is currently both in theaters and on platforms such as Amazon Prime Video, where it is available to rent for $25 and to buy for $30. For the average parent with two kids, buying three tickets at the average price is going to be around $33, which is already more expensive than both buying and renting the film from Amazon — even before the snacks and drinks the kids will undoubtedly ask for. It would be cheaper for the parent to get the movie from Amazon and hand out snacks they already have at home.

Another reason for the appeal of streaming services is that the time between theatrical and streaming or home releases is nowhere near as long as it used to be. 

The Disney film “Frozen II” debuted in theaters Nov. 22, 2019 and did not appear on streaming services until March 15, 2020, approximately four months later. In contrast, the movie “Encanto” had its theatrical release Nov. 24, 2021, and premiered on streaming services Dec. 24, 2021, exactly one month later. Even though audiences still have to wait a little while to see a movie at home, the drastic change from just four years ago makes the wait seem more bearable, and ultimately worth it.

All the newfound benefits of streaming now leave movie theaters with an important question — what can they do to get people to come back?

Ultimately, there is very little movie theaters can do to combat tactics such as earlier streaming premieres, as they are at the mercy of the studios who will ultimately choose when and where their films will be available for streaming.

Instead, theaters need to focus on how they can improve the moviegoing experience for those who are choosing them over streaming services. 

Reserved seating is one method to make the cinema less stressful, and recently the strategy has been implemented by chains such as AMC and Showcase Cinemas. Movie patrons no longer have to deal with the trouble of finding a block of seats for their entire group or worry they’ll end up seated in less-than-subpar seats directly in front of the screen and head home with neck pain. Instead, they have peace of mind knowing the seats they want are already there, waiting for their arrival.

Another example is contactless ordering for concessions. Many theater chains, in the wake of the pandemic, now allow patrons to pre-order their snacks online or on their respective mobile apps. This provides peace of mind for customers who may have health concerns as well as a more relaxing experience for those who would prefer to simply grab their food and go without talking to others.

If movie theaters are able to strengthen the amenities and experiences they provide, it may be enough to keep them afloat and prevent their loyal customers from choosing streaming services.