Perusing the Times’ excellent collection of interviews with actors, filmmakers, producers, and executives, one might come away with the conclusion that theatergoing isn’t dying—it’s already dead, and streaming services led by Netflix are the future of entertainment. A glance at this summer’s box-office totals could provide more doom and gloom: Poorly reviewed, warmed-over sequels such as Dark Phoenix and Men in Black: International have tanked with viewers, and even expected smash hits such as Toy Story 4 have underperformed. If studios don’t know how to get audiences to cinemas, then how can the medium survive? A deeper look at the industry’s comments in the Times piece shows there is some reason for optimism, but more than anything, it’s clear that nobody has a definitive answer for what the future will look like.
As a director, DuVernay has worked with giant studios (she made A Wrinkle in Time for Disney and is making the superhero film The New Gods for Warner Bros.), indie distributors (who put out her earlier films, such as Middle of Nowhere), and Netflix (who distributed her documentary 13th and the miniseries When They See Us). That broad range of experiences gives DuVernay a good sense of how the industry is changing, which makes her interview particularly chilling. “Fifteen bucks? You don’t care about real people seeing this,” she said of how much theaters charge customers. “If it’s not Avengers: Endgame, there’s a huge disconnect between the desire, capacity, and need of people to consume films in the theater, or not consume them at all.”
DuVernay’s argument, which has been echoed in virtually every debate about Netflix and its online competitors, is that streaming has a wider reach and that movies on the service can get to more people instantly. She points out that “more than a quadruple amount” of people saw her documentary 13th than saw Selma in theaters, despite the latter’s famous subject matter (Martin Luther King Jr.) and major distributor (Paramount). But it’s an odd argument, one that seems to ignore the fact that Selma was quickly available to rent and buy online, just after it played in theaters, and its rights were eventually sold to various streaming services, further broadening its audience. More people saw it then, and more money was made. It’s a good example of the way that theatrical and online experiences can operate symbiotically, if not simultaneously.
More important, Netflix isn’t bringing movies to its subscribers out of altruism. Though DuVernay and others paint streaming cinema as a lofty operation spreading movies to “real people,” Netflix is a business like any other, one locked in a seemingly unresolvable war with the movie-theater industry, which it views as a rival. DuVernay’s argument that “real people” don’t see movies in theaters is vague and not exactly backed up by data. Twelve percent of Americans see at least one movie a month in theaters; Netflix has about 60 million U.S. subscribers, or a fifth of the country.* Both are huge money-making endeavors, and the idea that one has to die for the other to prosper is hard to grasp.