Everyone has the tea leaves; no one has the actual tea. Will the movies come back this autumn? Will they ever come back at all?
The answer is…that no one has the answer. There’s little wisdom to be had, and any wisdom out there is hardly conventional. What we do know is that the fall 2021 movie release calendar is unlike anything we’ve seen in years: more varied, more exciting, more studded with actors we really want to see. Timothée Chalamet and Zendaya jet into the future for Denis Villeneuve’s earnest and vivid adaptation of Frank Herbert’s supposedly unfilmable sci-fi epic Dune; Adam Driver and Lady Gaga swan through Ridley Scott’s juicy-looking House of Gucci (just one of three movies Driver stars in this fall, two of them directed by Scott); Oscar-winning Nomadland director Chloé Zhao tries her hand at the superhero genre with Eternals, starring Salma Hayak and Angelina Jolie. There’s more, like the long-delayed Bond thriller No Time to Die, as well as the wild Cannes Palme d’Or winner Titane, which redefines the notion of what makes a car sexy. And the early fall festivals—Venice, Toronto and Telluride—poured even more jewels on the treasure pile, like Pedro Almodóvar’s ardent melodrama Parallel Mothers, Paul Schrader’s serrated redemption romance The Card Counter and Jane Campion’s gorgeous and perceptive western The Power of the Dog.
The big question is whether people will rush to see these movies in theaters or, their curiosity piqued, just wait until they’re available to stream. (Dune will have a dual release in theaters and on HBO Max.) Until a few months ago, everyone thought that movie fans—vaccinated ones, that is—would flock to theaters for big-ticket comedies and comic-book movies but would be more likely to watch more adult-oriented movies via streaming. That has proved to be only sort of true. Box-office returns for Black Widow, released simultaneously in theaters and via streaming, were disappointing. But the Ryan Reynolds comedy Free Guy and the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect—both launched only in theaters before being made available via streaming—lured a respectable number of moviegoers from their pandemic-era lairs.
And still, it all means nothing, especially with valid fears about the Delta variant swirling around us: this may not be the fall we return to theaters. So for now, it may be helpful to concentrate less on the question of “Will moviegoers return?” and more on “Do moviegoers want to return?” Because, in the end, whenever it truly is safe to venture back into theaters, that question will hinge on the desire of human beings—that is, potential ticket buyers—for a specific experience.
People who want to go back to the movies really want to go back; their idea of what movies can and should be hinges on a vision writ large in their imagination. Other, more indifferent viewers are happy to welcome the new delivery methods, depending on what’s most convenient for them. Either way, studios will find ways to make money off their products—and evidence suggests that most of them don’t care where or how you watch, as long as they make their money.
Everyone who continues to declare that movies watched big, with an audience, are over should stop to think about what this future, if it happens, will really mean. Already, even after just a year and a half of enforced (or semi-enforced) pandemic-era at-home viewing, the streaming pipeline is half clogged with products half-heartedly masquerading as movies: For every Netflix-backed Scorsese project, there are multiple Christmas Prince or Kissing Booth entries, a generic action picture like Extraction or a limp drama like The Last Thing He Wanted—a whole raft of movies that that end up being something almost nobody remembers having watched. That’s not to say movies in the latter group aren’t enjoyable on some level. And plenty of unmemorable, low-budget fare found its way to movie screens long before streaming existed. But even those who’ve happily given up on the idea of ever going back to the movies should ask themselves if this mishmash selection is really what they want.
We should also be careful about who is telling us—even indirectly—that streaming is the new and ideal model. Disney, in addition to owning the Marvel and Star Wars franchises, subsumed 20th Century Fox in 2019 and launched its own streaming service, Disney+, just a few months later. Recent executive shakeups at ViacomCBS, owner of Paramount Pictures, suggest the company is shifting away from big theatrical releases and looking to squirt more product through its own streaming service, Paramount+. The companies that used to make big-screen movies now have a great deal invested in feeding you a steady diet of small-screen ones. Why wouldn’t they be working overtime to convince us that it’s better, easier, and cheaper to watch movies at home, now that they see which way the money funnel is pointing? All the better if they can make it look like it was our idea in the first place—that way they can pretend they’re merely offering us a wonderful service (for a price), rather than killing off movies as we know them.
The new system is adequate, if somewhat soul-killing, if you just want to sit on your couch and have something, anything, new to watch every few days. And yes, you’ll still see some terrific movies that way. (Campion’s The Power of the Dog arrives on Netflix in late December, and even though the movie’s glorious vistas deserve an expanse bigger than even most big-screen TVs, the story should be enough to hold you. And among the streaming services, Netflix at least shows some commitment to keeping the theatrical experience alive, as does Amazon.) But I still don’t think the rise of streaming spells the end of big-screen movie watching. We need to think about who has a stake in keeping that experience alive—and increasingly, it’s not the big studios. Movies will be kept alive by people who care about them as artistry first and a means of making big bucks second. Streaming just may become the major delivery system for what we used to think of as big-studio theatrical releases. But smaller, smarter films aimed at grown-ups may be the ones that save the movies.
There are always people who want to feel that they’re plugged into the larger world, who want to be able to see the smaller or non-Hollywood movies they read about—films by Pedro Almodóvar or Pablo Larraín or Claire Denis—on the big screen. Admittedly, there are going to be places in the country, and the world, where that’s just not possible. But is there a chance that the streaming revolution might strengthen, rather than chip away at, people’s desire to see a certain kind of movie on the big screen? There’s a certain type of person—you know who you are—who doesn’t want to spend even one more minute cooped up at home. We don’t know how many of those people there are, but our pandemic experience may end up being a good thing for cities and towns that already have art-house cinemas. And is it possible that the new world awaiting us—one we can’t yet step out into, safely—might actually be hospitable to a new wave of smaller, independent movie theaters, designed to serve all of those who have never stopped caring about movies? Stranger things have happened: in music, vinyl has been kept alive by boutique enthusiasts of all ages, while CDs—though still beloved by some—are as quaint as gramophone records.
In the end, it’s too convenient to point to the pandemic as the single biggest factor in shifting moviegoing habits. More realistically, our months—now stretching into more than a year—of semi-confinement merely exacerbated or accelerated changes that were already under way. But however we got here, and wherever we’re going, we should treat this abundant autumn as a blessing, a reward for having survived a trying time. The future of movies is unwritten—but let’s get through this harvest, a rich one, before we chisel the epitaph.