Take the movies. A year ago, it would have been laughable to suggest that theaters might be at risk of extinction. But sometimes the end of an era arrives not with a bang, but with a blandly cheerful corporate news release — as it did this week when Disney announced a major corporate reorganization that will see the company focus on its streaming businesses.
In 2019, movies made by Disney and its recently acquired subsidiary Twentieth Century Fox brought in a stunning 38 percent of all ticket sales at the American box office. It wasn’t outlandish to assume that Disney might consider gobbling up a theater chain after the Trump administration moved to end the old rules that banned movie studios from owning theaters. When Disney launched its Disney Plus streaming service last November, it was a nice add-on to a robust film, theme park and cruise business, and a way to prevent Netflix from dominating the streaming market as thoroughly as Disney dominates other parts of the entertainment industry.
But on Monday, Disney announced its pivot to streaming. The goal, Disney CEO Bob Chapek put it, is for the company to be “making the content consumers want most, delivered in the way they prefer to consume it.” If Chapek was being polite about the collapse of the theatrical business and the rise of streaming, Dan Loeb, an activist investor who wants Disney to invest more in streaming, was not. “While we all share a certain sadness and nostalgia” about the decline of movie theaters, he wrote in a letter to Chapek, “I am sure that people felt similar emotions about horse-drawn carriages when the automobile was first introduced.”
I don’t think the pandemic will kill theatrical moviegoing entirely, though chains like AMC and Regal are in serious trouble. But it is entirely possible that seeing non-blockbuster movies in a theater might become something closer to attending a live performance of classical music, a luxury experience available at a higher price point primarily to wealthy patrons in dense areas. Hollywood, already lured by the prospect of overseas profits, could become more attentive to the tastes of foreign viewers if the American box office becomes less lucrative. Even if movies don’t die, the transformation of a populist art form that gave us common touchstones into yet another driver of America’s cultural continental drift would be a seismic change.
And though streaming has fared well during the pandemic, television isn’t without its challenges.
According to an industry report, American television is on track to produce 279 scripted shows this year, a steep drop from 532 series in 2019. That’s quite a departure from what FX chief executive John Landgraf in 2015 dubbed “Peak TV,” the precipitous rise in the sheer amount of television getting made as Netflix went on a spending spree and more networks and streaming outlets got into the original-series game.
That dip, a product of pandemic-induced production shutdowns, isn’t likely to be permanent — at least, as long as Netflix continues throwing money around and other outlets stay in an arms race with it. Still, it wouldn’t be shocking if we’ve seen the absolute heights of Peak TV and now are settling into a world with somewhat less television, especially given the costs associated with keeping casts and crews safe during an ongoing pandemic.
Those budget realities have already killed — or un-renewed — some shows. It will be intriguing to see if coronavirus considerations change, at least in the short term, outlets’ estimations of what shows cost to make, and correspondingly, what they’re willing to greenlight. It’s harder to imagine seeing battle scenes — or sex scenes — on the scale that “Game of Thrones” staged them before a vaccine is available worldwide.
And finally, it’s worth watching how the pandemic affects Hollywood’s push for gender equity. English actress Keira Knightley recently dropped out of an Apple TV+ show she was starring in and producing because she couldn’t work out a child-care arrangement that felt safe to her. Stars have different resources than ordinary working women, but if the pandemic drives actresses and female directors out of the workplace, it could set back an industry that wasn’t very far along in the journey toward equity to begin with.
In recent years, blockbuster movies have conditioned us to treat world-upending disasters as entertainment. But in the movies, when aliens invade or cities turn into rubble, everything else stays pretty much the same. Now, a real catastrophe is here. The havoc the pandemic wreaks on our diversions might be just the beginning.