Reel World Issues – theaters, pandemics, and streaming

Hannah Donahue

It’s strange to imagine a world without movie theaters. They seem so quintessential to the American experience – refreshing air conditioning chilling you year-round, reclining seats that seem to get fancier every few years, popcorn with the somewhat frightening but undeniably delicious cocktail of salt and “butter” (I still remember being asked if I wanted real butter for an extra fifty cents). Yet like many things during this pandemic, most of us have had to do without a trip to the movies for quite some time. And with more movie theaters closing down across the country including Newington’s own Regal Cinema, it seems like we will all have to wait even longer.  

During quarantine and the pandemic, many people turned to another avenue for entertainment: streaming. Already a growing pastime among most people, it seemed to be one of the last pillars of normalcy amidst everything. But among the trickle of platform-original releases and the same old comfort shows came a gamechanger: new cinematic releases available right away for streaming. At first, it seemed like an act of desperation for those in Hollywood, one way to somewhat salvage box office sales hindered by the pandemic. Yet all it took were some trolls to prove them wrong – that is, Universal Studio’s kids’ film sequel “Trolls World Tour.” According to the Wall Street Journal, the film managed to earn $100 million in three weeks through digital rentals on streaming platforms, generating a larger profit than the first Trolls movie’s domestic run made in its first five months. The film’s characters may be small, but the attention it brought to the hidden potential of streaming was anything but. 

Other film releases ended up following suit as the pandemic persisted, with perhaps one of the most notable examples being the long-awaited filmed version of the Broadway musical “Hamilton.” Although the musical itself reached peak excitement from all audiences when it was released back in 2015, its reprise on Disney+ reignited people’s interest over the summer. And this has been only one of Disney’s streaming strategies in light of the coronavirus (COVID-19). At the beginning of the quarantine in March, the company decided to add “Frozen II” to its streaming catalog on Disney+ three months ahead of schedule. Then in September, the company decided to release its much anticipated live-action remake “Mulan” on the streaming service as well – for an additional $29.99 alongside the Disney+ monthly fee. Yet this decision proved to be less than beneficial for Disney as the film received a negative reception for a variety of reasons that went beyond disappointed and nostalgic fans of the original animated movie. Some of the heaviest criticisms levied against the live-action “Mulan” film includes the filming location in the Xinjiang region, where there have been allegations of internment camps and human rights abuses, along with leads Liu Yifei and Donnie Yen’s stating their support of the Hong Kong police on social media amid protests for democracy. However, this has not stopped Disney from continuing to add cinematic content to its service. Although films such as “Black Widow” have had their cinematic releases pushed up to 2021, other films such as Disney/Pixar’s anticipated animated film “Soul” will debut on Disney+ instead of in theaters. As the pandemic continues, so does Disney’s ever-changing game plan. 

These successes for streaming only continue to complicate matters even more, particularly for the traditional theater experience. Well before the pandemic, streaming services like Netflix were met with disdain by those in the film industry. Traditionalists in the industry resented streaming titles being in the running for Best Picture at the Oscars. Yet for some such as renowned director Stephen Spielberg, his reasoning was somewhat more sentimental, as seen in correspondence between the director and the New York Times in 2019: 

“…I feel people need to have the opportunity to leave the safe and familiar of their lives and go to a place where they can sit in the company of others and have a shared experience — cry together, laugh together, be afraid together — so that when it’s over they might feel a little less like strangers. I want to see the survival of movie theaters. I want the theatrical experience to remain relevant in our culture.” 

Over a year later, this statement feels true and morbid at the same time, given its original context. It is like the dinosaurs worrying about rising sea levels while an unsuspected meteor was careening towards them. With the pandemic, we have lost, at least for now, this space to come together, with its own eccentricities built into the experience. The optimist in all of us may want to say movie theaters will definitely return, but if the pandemic and state of the world have taught us anything, it is that nothing is certain anymore. Still, all we can do during these troubling times is help stop the spread of the virus and yearn for that Hollywood ending we desperately crave – the one where good conquers evil and where we can return to buying that somewhat dubious popcorn we love so dearly.