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Roll the film: COVID-19 disrupts the movie industry in the US and India

Each year, students from the University of Missouri work with students from India on joint story projects that link their two countries. This year’s stories deal with how various industries are faring in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The project was overseen by Laura Ungar, an adjunct instructor at the University of Missouri and investigative and enterprise editor at The Courier Journal in Louisville, and journalist Sujoy Dhar, founder of the Indian news agency India Blooms, based in Kolkata, India.

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Outside Logboat Brewing Company in Columbia, Missouri, moviegoers sat on lawn chairs and picnic blankets, waiting for a film to begin.

With no theater lights to dim, the movie couldn’t start until the sun set. But as darkness fell, a projector whirred to life. The crowd grew quiet. The show went on — despite a global pandemic.

Across the world in India, outdoor movies weren’t an option. As COVID-19 swept the country, people stuck inside turned instead to streaming services to keep them entertained.

Movie theaters everywhere took a hit when the pandemic shut businesses down. Since then, people and companies have found creative ways to watch movies, like outdoor showings or using streaming services, leaving movie theaters to fight for survival. Over a year later, it’s unclear whether this shift is permanent or if movie theaters will make a comeback.

Shutting down the big screens
In March 2020, screens across the world went dark.

At the time, Hollywood studio distribution executives expected a widespread closure of more than 5,400 indoor movie theaters across the U.S.

Small local theaters in mid-Missouri, including Regal Columbia & RPX, Ragtag Cinema and GQT Forum 8 in Columbia, closed during quarantine. Even AMC, the world’s largest movie theater chain, couldn’t escape closing roughly 1,000 movie theaters across the U.S.

On March 31, 2019, AMC’s reported operating loss was $33.7 million. One year later, its losses reached nearly $2 billion. The company neared bankruptcy at the end of 2020 as cases spiked and revenue remained low.

AMC furloughed most of its approximately 30,000 employees, including CEO Adam Aron, due to a lack of income, according to a March 2020 press release.

“This past year has presented AMC with the most challenging market conditions in the 100-year history of the company,” Aron said during a live conference call a year later. “As unprecedented as these times have been, so too is the unprecedented drive and commitment of the AMC team to take swift and decisive actions to ensure our survival and our success.”

Theaters across the United States faced similar struggles. It wasn’t until August that movie theaters in Missouri’s Boone County could reopen with limited capacity. Even when they did, business remained slow.

Part of the problem was a continuing need to accommodate keeping people six feet apart for social distancing.

“People didn’t have the confidence to go to the movie theaters [after] we opened in August,” said Wesley Halsey, the general manager of GQT Forum 8. “And we’re still getting small crowds.”

Bradley Prager, a professor of film studies at the University of Missouri, said this means theaters may struggle to stay in business, though audiences may eventually return.

“The profit margins were already fairly narrow to begin with, and so the demand is going to be there,” Prager said. “But I think (theaters are) really eagerly waiting, or need to get back up to, 75 percent and 80 percent capacity very quickly in order to keep making that small margin.”

Local theater Ragtag Cinema found a creative solution: outdoor movies. To commemorate its 20th birthday and official reopening, Ragtag hosted its first ever drive-in movie screening. After a great turnout, it began partnering with venues such as Logboat Brewing Company for more outdoor shows.

Dean Asher sat outside the brewery on an April evening, waiting to watch “Wattstax,” a documentary that follows a daylong concert sponsored by Stax Records at the 1972 Watts Summer Festival. Asher was a frequent moviegoer before the pandemic, and he missed the communal experience of watching a movie with a group of people. Ragtag’s outdoor screenings have allowed him to regain that feeling in a safe environment.

“For the past year, we definitely have only gone to outdoor showings and drive-ins and stuff, so I’m really, really, really grateful to Ragtag for having so many events like this,” Asher said.

Theater owners elsewhere have also persevered.

“Movies are important because it’s just a little bit of normalcy,” Halsey said. “With all the craziness going on, it’s nice to go and just sit and watch a movie and forget about the craziness for just two hours.”

The switch to streaming
While movie theaters have struggled, streaming services — like Netflix, Hulu and Disney Plus — have thrived.

The number of streaming service subscribers grew 50 percent in the past year, according to The Wall Street Journal. Streaming allows viewers to stay at home, watch a wider variety of content and view something as many times as they want. Some people, like Emily Tarby, a 24-year-old in Columbia, prefer the comfort and accessibility they offer.

“Watching a movie is about the movie and who you’re watching it with and where you’re watching it, and if you’re at home and comfortable there, then that’s fine by me,” she said.

AMC made a deal with Universal Pictures late last July to release films on streaming platforms 17 days after their release in theaters instead of waiting the typical 90 days, according to The Associated Press.

“I’m expecting that this is going to become an industry standard,” Aron said to Variety last August. “I expect that some of our competitors will do this, if not all.”

But when production companies skip the theaters — like Disney and Pixar have done — they hurt the theaters even more.

“Until we start getting the content that our guests want, (capacity is) really not going to make a big difference,” Halsey said.

Ramsay Wise, an MU film professor, said the shift toward streaming during the pandemic may have been an acceleration toward the inevitable, at least for his family. According to The Numbers, a database for movie industry statistics, ticket sales were on the decline already. Sales peaked in 2002 and have steadily decreased since then, reaching a record low in 2020.

“I think eventually we would’ve probably gone this route and embraced (streaming services) at some point, but I think (the pandemic) definitely expedited things,” Wise said. “We were definitely like, ‘Let’s just do this now because it just makes sense.’”

Though Wise missed seeing movies in theaters, at the end of the day, he said streaming can be a fine substitute.

“It didn’t bother me a bit to watch (movies) in my living room,” Wise said. “Is it perfect? No. Is it better to be in a dark room with a great sound system watching (something), whether it’s a big Avengers movie or even an independent film? Yeah, obviously that’s preferred. But it’s still movies.”

‘Theater came home:’ India favors streaming
The movie industry in India has faced many of the same problems as the U.S.

India reopened movie theaters at half capacity in October, then full capacity in February. In the past few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has become more dire in India, forcing another major shutdown.

When they reopened in October, movie theaters struggled to lure the public back, mirroring the troubles faced by American theater owners. In the capital city of New Delhi, one cinema reportedly attracted just a little over two dozen people — mainly those who worked in the building — for a late afternoon show that would typically draw a larger crowd.

With people unable to go to theaters safely, OTT — over-the-top media, another term for streaming — has become more popular. Reliance Entertainment launched the first OTT platform in India in 2008, but during the pandemic, the concept has grown in scope and popularity.

As in the U.S., content producers in India have begun to skip traditional theatrical premiers in favor of OTT platforms. Amazon Prime Video unveiled nine Indian films — to be released October through December — that were originally headed to theaters. OTTs have also offered a shift from typical Bollywood movies to richer content.

Skipping the theaters could have wider ramifications. Releasing films in theaters first can boost sales, provide a wider audience and help generate more content for OTTs, said Soumya Mukherjee, vice president of revenue and strategy for streaming platform Hoichoi Entertainment.

“For Hoichoi, when a movie has a theatrical release, it always does well after releasing on the platform,” Mukherjee said. “This is because of the word-of-mouth the movie generates because of its marketing beforehand. With no theatrical revenue, it becomes riskier for small-time producers to invest in making a movie. As such, fewer producers would survive in certain markets, making content acquisition for OTTs difficult.”

Mukherjee said Hoichoi has seen a change in demographics and viewing patterns with the growing interest in streaming. OTTs allow audiences to choose exactly what they want to watch, and Mukherjee found that preferences vary depending on factors like age or location.

Garima Sharma Nijhawan, a scholar at Indian Institute of Mass Communication, said the change in viewing could have more to do with convenience than content.

“There was a time when people looked forward to (the) release of a movie on the big screen. The element of excitement to catch their favorite movie in a theater was like a festivity or celebration,” Sharma Nijhawan said. “But this event came with a heavy price tag and need for planning time off from other work, the element of traveling to the theater, reserving your spot and then indulging in the experience.

“With the pandemic, theater came home.”

Sharma Nijhawan compared the shift to OTTs to paying bills online: It seems weird at first, but after a while, some people will start to forget there was ever another option.

“There will definitely be a change in consumer behavior toward movie releases on big screens versus OTT,” Sharma Nijhawan said. “Some may still prefer to visit the halls when it is safe and enjoy that experience. Young couples, college students, families for whom a visit to a multiplex is recreational activity in nature, might still prefer the experience. But a lot will change for price- and convenience-conscious consumers over time.”

‘It’s just not the same’
In the U.S. and India, the future of movie theaters remains murky. Some people speculate the uptick in streaming may render theaters obsolete, while others predict movie theaters will make a comeback.

Wise said he’s not sure whether movie theaters will ever be what they once were; the pandemic has made the future less predictable.

However, as more of the population in the U.S. gets vaccinated, 2021 may offer a brighter picture for theater lovers.

The collective feeling an audience gets while watching a film has been a catalyst for communal spectatorship since the ancient Greeks, Prager said. That sense of community could be enough to keep theaters alive.

“One of the reasons we like (theaters) is to be among other people and share that kind of communal reaction,” Prager said. “To laugh when others laugh and to gasp when others gasp. But that’s part of the pleasurable experience of going to the theater, whether it’s conscious or not.”

Most of the moviegoers at Logboat waiting to see “Wattstax” said they missed just that — the shared sense of community they get in the theater.

“I kind of just like the atmosphere of being in a movie theater. Like, the collective experience with other people in the same room,” moviegoer Rachel Diemler said. “You get that cathartic experience with a bunch of strangers.”

On top of that, theaters offer a complete immersion that’s hard to come by otherwise.

“Invariably, when you’re watching stuff at home, even if you’re completely loving it, you pause it and go get food,” Wise said. “But you sort of want to be at the mercy of the movie in some way.”

The crowd outside Logboat was feeling that magic.

“You can’t make that at home, unless you have a theater at home,” moviegoer Yuriy Snyder said. “It’s just not the same.” NewsLeader

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