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Coronavirus Will Redefine How We Get Our Entertainment

AMC movie theater concessions menu sign.

When the coronavirus lockdowns are all over, things will not go back to “normal.” That will be true of many pastimes and industries, but it’s especially true of the entertainment industry. Changes to the way we consume media that have been slowly fermenting in recent years have been massively accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and when we emerge, the landscape of movies and television might never be the same.

What we’re talking about here isn’t the kind of content we’re getting, though increased corporatization of content will have an impact; no, we’re talking about how we get our content. It wasn’t so long ago that there were only a few ways to watch a movie: either go to the theater, rent or buy the video, or catch it on cable. The options for watching a TV show were even more limited. (Remember programming VCRs?)

But now we can watch a movie or show literally anywhere, and the old models of distribution are crumbling. Just look at movie and how the coronavirus has changed the definition of a hit movie in a scant few months.

We’ve already written about the feud between AMC theaters and Universal Pictures, spurred by Trolls World Tour of all things, over Universal’s hope to release their movies in both theaters and via Video On Demand (VOD). AMC is so against the idea of Universal competing with them during a movie’s first run that they may refuse to screen any Universal movies. That’s huge and it shows just how scary these changes are for theaters. That’s doubly true for this chain, considering that AMC is in very rough shape right now.

But a new wrinkle emerged over the weekend, as rumors circulated that Amazon might buy the flailing chain. The idea of Amazon, the largest retailer in the world, buying the US’s largest theater chain would be a seismic shift in the market. That gives a retailer who is also a content producer and owner a huge stake in the distribution of movies to theaters. If that sets off alarm bells, there’s a good reason.

Content creators owning movie chains was once the norm in old Hollywood. In the studio system, studios owned the theaters, but the United State Supreme Court eventually decided that was bad (aka a monopoly) and bound the major studio of the era to a consent decree that prevented them from owning theaters. That’s slowly fallen by the wayside and the Trump administration is now directly undermining that standard … and Amazon owning AMC theaters would be another step back towards the past in many ways.

But in other ways, we’re already there. When studios like Disney and Netflix and Amazon (and soon Warner Brothers NBC/Universal) own their own distribution platforms in the form of dedicated streaming platforms, they already have the same kind of control the Paramount V. United States case sought to prevent. Movie theaters themselves were still independent, but as those companies bleed money thanks to the coronavirus shut down, that might not be the case for much longer.

And movie theaters aren’t the only distribution platform that’s suffering right now. Cable television, once a behemoth that almost fully saturated the market, is also flailing terribly as more and more people cut the cord. In the first quarter of 2020, a record number of people canceled their service, with 1.8 million subscribers leaving their cable or satellite providers. Right now, the same percentage of people have cable as in 1995.

At first, that seems odd. Aren’t people watching more TV while stuck at home? Yes they are, but they’re not using expensive cable packages to do it. With the economy tanking and many people out of work, cable is a luxury many are cutting out. Also, the main attraction of cable for many customers is a thing called “sports” which they love to watch live. No live sports during this shut-down means no reason to keep cable and that’s hurting the industry big time.

People were already making the shift from cable to streaming service before coronavirus hit, and studios and audiences were already accepting that streaming was a viable way to release major movies as well. But the closing of theaters and the forced exodus from cable has massively accelerated those changes in a massive way and we’re left with a quickly changing landscape without a proven way to navigate it.

The biggest questions remain though: is this good for customers and art? Will increased streamlining of production and distribution sap the creativity and risk from the industry—or will we get a glut of content where everyone is a creator with a major platform? Most likely, we’ll end up somewhere in between. One thing is for sure though, we’ll probably never go back to where we used to be.

(Via Variety,  image: bkmcneal on VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND)

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Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.