Before the age of streaming, the video rental store had a monopoly on the at-home movie experience.
From roughly the mid-1980s to the early 2010s, the now unthinkable task of leaving the house to access entertainment was a weekly ritual for many. Though lacking the excitement of the theater or the convenience of online platforms, the tedious routine of video rental stores carried a rare charm. The listless roaming through aisles of plastic DVD cases, clumsy machinery and inevitable skips and freezes — despite the diligent scrubbing of smudge marks — were, for better or worse, parts of a now-departed experience.
Rental stores marked the first direct victims in the transition of cinema from the public to the home, and they will not be the last. In fact, the tensions concerning public reopening this summer following nationwide COVID-19-related closures indicate that the end of non-streaming entertainment may come sooner than anticipated. Certain iterations of the theater experience are proving they may endure, however.
Venues that were struggling to lure filmgoers before the COVID-19 pandemic are now directly confronting the limits and trade-offs of reopening. Beyond figuring out how to snack on popcorn with a pesky face mask in the way, the delay of film production and distribution since the spring brings more immediate challenges, such as limited content and competition from direct-to-streaming rentals. These issues seem to cast an ominous, DVD-shaped shadow over the future of independent theaters and drive-ins, whose services can, for the most part, be replicated at home for a fraction of the cost.
That is not to say that the major theaters will disappear anytime soon. Theatrical runs for big-budget films remain lucrative for studios, with the overwhelming profits of a few annual box office hits offsetting any losses incurred by a disproportionate number of commercial flops. This trend largely explains why studios are sticking with delayed theatrical releases for major projects, like Marvel’s “Black Widow” and the latest James Bond film, while moving directly to rental for smaller-budget pictures. The industry depends on the profits of blockbuster theatrical releases, so the availability of fully functioning multiplexes are ultimately worth the wait.
Theaters, therefore, face the task of earning back the confidence of contagion-weary theatergoers. To this end, distributors have floated potential plans to show classic films with limited seating for reduced ticket prices. This strategy would give studios time to return to schedule while also reminding audiences what makes the theater such a special and exclusive experience when compared to watching on a mobile device or a TV at home.
Drive-in theaters are also mounting a comeback since peaking in popularity during the late 1950s. While traditional multiplexes hope to return by the end of the summer, seasonal drive-ins sprinkled throughout the country are open for business. The option to watch from the relative safety of a car makes for ideal mid-pandemic entertainment that is well worth the trip.
Part of the beauty of film is that there is no right or wrong way to watch it. A viewer’s enjoyment is proportional to the degree of time and attention they invest in watching. This correlation explains why visiting the drive-in leaves lasting memories, while the details of a film streamed on a laptop are soon hazy and obscured. The countless distractions afforded by mobile devices along with the freedom to pause and resume at any time promote distracted and passive viewership.
The value of streaming is further diluted by subscription payment plans that offer a wide variety of options for a single monthly fee. The price of admission or rental for a specific film encourages behaviors that enhance returns on investment, such as watching with others and engaging in post-film discussion. Though streaming services offer convenience and affordability, they lack the more meaningful, engaging and communal viewing experience afforded by conventional platforms.
Red carpet premieres and trips to the video store may now be part of the past, but theaters will reopen and drive-ins are seeing a resurgence in popularity. The relics of abandoned Blockbuster Videos symbolize the contemporary consensus that production value is important, but convenience is paramount. The initial floundering of the ultrashort form video platform Quibi suggests that stunted attention spans are not to blame for changing preferences so much as the pursuit of a golden medium in entertainment.
Between epic features and practical mobile videos, cinematic serials like “Game of Thrones” and “Westworld” pave the path ahead by offering the best of both worlds. These programs are affordable to watch, highly produced and available anywhere at any time. Though streaming and cinematic serial programming are likely the way of the future, adventures in moviegoing still await. The nationwide reopening of dwindling conventional venues this summer brings opportunities for memorable experiences that might not be around forever.
Tucker Oberting is a rising senior in the College. The Reel Deal appears online every other week.