Every Thanksgiving weekend, once the holiday itself has passed and people are looking for things to do for the rest of the break, I get texts from friends seeking movie recommendations: What’s worth seeing in theaters right now? In 2022, that query became more of a plea. Was there anything to see? Something the whole family, not just rowdy teenagers, might enjoy? Anything geared toward grown-up viewers? And then, with an air of horror, they would realize that only two movies along those lines were out—Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans and Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion—but that, on one of the year’s busiest weeks for multiplexes, neither was in wide release.
Last year was, on the whole, a positive one for the movie-theater industry, a period of further improvement as the world continued to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic’s effects. In 2020, movie theaters sold roughly 216 million tickets; in 2021, that number rose to 492 million, and last year, it shot up to 813 million. Although that’s still below the 2019 number of 1.2 billion tickets, we’re seeing an unmistakably positive trend line. The success of releases such as Top Gun: Maverick, superhero blockbusters, non-sequels, and original films was galvanizing, calming fears that theaters would never rebound amid a rise in streaming options.
But then I watched Hollywood have one of the strangest autumns imaginable, a mostly self-inflicted series of wounds that led to speculation that the movie market for adults was in trouble. The most egregious move was perhaps Universal’s decision to not give a wide theatrical release to The Fabelmans, a new Spielberg film with Oscar buzz; as a result, it’s made only $14 million since its November 11 release, and the most theaters it ever played in was 1,149 (a wide release tends to hover between 3,000 and 4,000). This is far short of the usual net cast by one of the most enduring names in filmmaking, and it underlines the total lack of confidence studios have had in grown-up fare of late.
The solution, now that 2023 is upon us, is simple: Put new releases exclusively in theaters and give them a real chance to succeed with paying moviegoers. No more muddled hybrid releases, no slow and modest rollouts, and certainly nothing like Netflix’s baffling compromise with Glass Onion, which played on 696 screens for just a week around Thanksgiving and then vanished until it debuted online in time for Christmas. There will be failures, yes, but Hollywood must finally recognize that the overall health of theatrical exhibition is of paramount concern.
Throughout the pandemic, many studios have pivoted to streaming both as part of a mad scramble to catch up to Netflix and as a way to get more eyeballs on their own projects during an unsettled moment. But for movies, there doesn’t appear to be much profit in the current approach—HBO Max is cutting back its film and TV offerings after a bold 2021 strategy put movies online the same day they debuted in theaters, a tactic it swerved away from in 2022. Disney recently saw its former CEO Bob Iger return to his post, replacing his successor, Bob Chapek, partly over concerns that its streamer, Disney+, had lost $1.5 billion in a financial quarter. One of the biggest movie success stories of the year, Top Gun: Maverick, took seven months to arrive on its studio’s streamer (Paramount+), which didn’t stop it from immediately becoming the service’s No. 1 offering.
Netflix, of course, stands apart from all of this—its approach has always emphasized direct-to-streaming releases, and its massive customer base generates more revenue than its fledgling rivals do. But even Netflix is continuing to tweak its strategy in the face of plateauing subscribership, emphasizing fewer and bigger projects. The company is committed to online exclusivity even if that means leaving tens of millions of dollars on the table: Glass Onion grossed about $15 million in one week of limited theatrical release and likely could have tripled that if it had gone wide, making it one of the year’s bigger hits.
So although I don’t envision a sea change at Netflix, other studios shouldn’t fear the exclusive theatrical “window,” which used to last for months but has shrunk or been abandoned altogether in the COVID era. Audiences have no consistent notion of when a movie will be available online, but the answer is often between “immediately” and “quickly.” So many of this year’s fall awards favorites—The Fabelmans, Tár, The Banshees of Inisherin—expanded to only about 1,000 screens at most, and were put online by December. All would have benefited from more time in cinemas and could have been scheduled to expand wide now, ahead of Oscar nominations being announced next week. Instead, they’re already available to purchase on iTunes.
The result is that multiplexes feel starved of choices as big blockbusters such as Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Avatar: The Way of Water dominate screens. This Christmas, the only new family film in wide release was Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, a long-delayed animated sequel; it has thrived and made $113 million domestically, a huge improvement on its weak $12 million opening. Avatar has done tremendously well, but more heartening is the surprising success of the few other options available. The horror-comedy M3GAN has consistently outperformed the expectations of its early January release, and the family drama A Man Called Otto, starring Tom Hanks, has done the same, resonating with viewers outside New York and Los Angeles (traditionally the country’s two strongest markets).
All of this should be the encouragement studios need to return to more traditional release strategies. The alternative is a frightening one for anything not made on the biggest scale: a world where seeing movies in theaters becomes a boutique option in only the biggest cities, and where streaming deals are the only way to fund non-blockbuster projects. This would be immensely damaging to the art form and to the diversity of projects on offer for audiences, and it’s a path Hollywood can reject by putting its faith back in cinemas—and in the viewers who love going to them.