Will the Coronavirus Finally Settle the Streaming Movies vs. Theater Debate?

With COVID-19 now a full-blown pandemic, industries are struggling to adjust, but the film and TV industry may never be the same

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Less than a year ago, at the 2019 Cinemacon in Las Vegas, Oscar Winner Helen Mirren shared her opinion on streaming movies in no uncertain terms: "I love Netflix, but f*ck Netflix!"

The comment came amid controversy over the criteria by which a film qualifies for consideration for the Academy Awards and other major accolades. At the time, Netflix and other streaming platforms were pushing for their original productions to be included for consideration without the need for traditional theatrical releases, and many in the industry balked at the prospect. Yesterday, Regal and AMC—the largest cinema chains in the US—both announced that they will be closing all their theatres starting today. Together, the two companies operate nearly 50% of theater screens in the US. Other chains have restricted theater crowds, and more closures are certain to follow.

With no clear end in sight for the coronavirus pandemic, there is an open question about how the movie and television industries will cope. While social distancing is creating increased demand for streaming content, and numerous scheduled releases and production schedules have been delayed indefinitely, will studios be forced to release their existing projects online? Will selection criteria be adjusted for the 2021 award season? And will movie theaters ever recover?

Almost every aspect of our society is in the process of restructuring to adjust to the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. More and more people are working from home. Entire regions are shutting down their restaurants and bars. And citizens and politicians alike are calling for measures that would have been unthinkable a few weeks ago—on the left, many people are pushing for freezes on evictions, as well as rent and mortgage payments, and even some Republicans (normally shills for heartless capitalism) are suggesting universal income measures to help people get by. In the short term it's causing unprecedented turmoil in the stock market, but in the long term, some industries are likely to never fully bounce back.

In some of the most dire cases—movie theaters being a prime example—the change has been a long time coming. American theater attendance peaked in 2002 and has been on a slow decline ever since—with audiences increasingly preferring the convenience of television and streaming services. Independent theaters have been hit hardest, with many closing down in recent years. Likewise, brick and mortar retail has been hit hard by the convenience of online shopping—with many local stores and even some major retail chains forced out of business. The restrictions imposed by the coronavirus—the latest guidelines advise against gatherings of more than ten people—are only accelerating the rate of change that was already occurring.

While many industry insiders would decry the loss of the theater experience—the immersive scale and the communal environment—most Americans have gotten used to viewing even epic films on screens smaller than a sheet of paper. While directors like Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan will argue that movies are made to be viewed on the big screen, when your nose is six inches from the action, it hardly feels small. None of this is to say that there won't be something real lost if movie theaters disappear—just that it might be inevitable, and that the coronavirus pandemic has sped up the process. Empty movie theaters may soon join the suburban blight of empty malls and abandoned factories that dot the American landscape. They may go the way of the drive-in.

Abandoned Mall

With the narrow profit margins involved in the theater business, government intervention (as we've already seen with other industries) could help them stay afloat until things return to normal, but the more realistic scenario may be that things never return to normal. While AMC's closure is currently slated to last 6-12 weeks, there is no way of telling how long it will actually last, and it may end up consuming the rest of 2020 and beyond. Will the Hollywood Foreign Press and the Academy open consideration to streaming content and encourage studios to opt for Internet releases in the case of James Bond, Mulan, and others? Or will they cancel next year's award season entirely? Whatever the case, 2020 is looking increasingly likely to be the year that cements the supremacy of the Internet over going outside.

Meanwhile, with Stephen Colbert delivering his Late Show monologue from home (from his bathtub, to be specific), will we see other productions following suit—delivering much-needed entertainment to the isolated masses while limiting the spread of the virus? The term "bottle episode" refers to the trope—particularly common in 90s sitcoms—wherein a small number of characters are trapped together in a confined space. Will we see a resurgence of that concept with an influx of quarantine content? Or will television networks and studios take it to the next level and invest in concepts that allow performers to work remotely from the safety of home, either with animation, or with live-action shows that play with the fact that no one is in the same room (e.g. the episode of Modern Family that took place entirely on FaceTime) If not, TV may also be left behind by the vast array of independent content creators who are more than capable of working with the current conditions.

modern family

Whatever else happens in the coming months—and as much as this all feels like a throwback to a different era—we should all be thankful, for once, that culture has increasingly embraced isolation with streaming and delivery services that prevent the need to leave our homes. We all thought we were just being lazy. It turns out we were training for a pandemic.

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Grimes Doesn't Get It: Elon Musk Is Nothing Like Bernie Sanders

In a recent interview she said that their "end goals are very similar" but goals are not the point—the power imbalance is

Rolling Stone

Not too long ago the idea of a full-electric vehicle that could deliver performance and style seemed like a pipe dream.

Then, in 2008, one of Elon Musk's post-Paypal pie-in-the-sky vanity projects turned out to be legit—the Tesla Roadster came out, and (despite some media efforts to smear its capabilities) it was widely lauded. What followed was a string of successes that have resulted in Tesla now being the most valuable car company in the US.

Meanwhile, SpaceX was making tremendous strides in developing more commercial space flight that could launch satellites—and even wealthy space touristsfor a fraction of what it would cost NASA. SpaceX is so much more efficient, in fact, that there is a real prospect of providing free Internet access to hundreds of millions of people via a network of satellites known as Starlink.

Roadster in Space

It's legitimately impressive how much Elon Musk has pushed these fields forward by pumping his money into overworked legions of engineers and factory workers. On top of that, he does seem to have some actually lofty goals, so maybe his girlfriend—when she's not creating apocalyptic zombie pop—can be forgiven for thinking that people should like Elon as much as they like Bernie Sanders. After all, they both want to fight climate change, connect people, and ensure the future of humanity. That's all good, right?

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Grimes argued that Elon Musk and Bernie Sanders really aren't so different. "When I look at the aims of my boyfriend and I look at the aims of Bernie, like, their end goals are very similar. Fix environmental problems, reduce suffering." While those may, in the abstract, be values that the two men share, Bernie has not built a resurgent left movement in the US on the basis of abstract values.

What has set Bernie apart is the diagnosis of unrestrained capital as an underlying cause of human suffering and environmental degradation—along with his prescription for collective action and redistributive economics. Bernie Sanders doesn't just want to fix the symptoms, he wants to address the tremendous imbalance of power that got us here. That's what has made him the most popular politician of our era. So when Grimes follows up her comparison by saying, "It's worth dissecting the wealth gap, it's worth dissecting the existence of billionaires, but situations have nuance," she's clearly of missing the point.

Wanting to "fix environmental problems" with methods that benefit his bottom line more than they help anyone else is hardly grounds for the kind of worship that Musk seems to crave—and Grimes seems to think he deserves. The fact that he has made solar power and electric cars more viable is hugely important. But is it fair to say that he is "tangibly, visibly" solving problems that "the government does not truly have the capacity to?" Maybe it would be if he had managed to do so while treating his workers well, pushing for broad reductions in consumption, and resisting the urge to personally enrich himself at an unconscionable rate. Unfortunately, that's not the case.

Bernie Sanders Not me us

In fact, Tesla has developed a reputation for pushing its underpaid workers to an unsafe degree, for suppressing worker organization, and for wasting a tremendous amount of raw materials in the already environmentally destructive process of manufacturing cars. When a whistleblower called the company out, Musk himself retaliated with measures that could be characterized as the billionaire version of swatting. The more the company can cut corners, squeeze its workers, and cement its brand as the kind of luxury that's worth moving last year's model into storage, the more Elon Musk can line his pockets.

Of course, Musk grew up in Apartheid South Africa, lining his literal pockets with literal emeralds from his father's Zambian emerald mine. So maybe he's not exactly as in touch with working people as someone who was arrested in the fight to desegregate Chicago public schools in the 1960s, who prevented developers from tearing down affordable family housing as the mayor of Burlington, and who's fought for unions to defend workers' rights his entire adult life.

Bernie Sanders slogan is "Not Me. Us." Elon Musk's is something more like "Just let me take care of it." While Bernie Sanders has devoted his life to giving voice to the downtrodden. Elon Musk has devoted his life to being a rich weirdo with a messiah complex. If Grimes is happy being his SO, carrying his child, and defending him against haters like me, that's fine. But when she argues that he shouldn't be taxed because he's better than the government, she sounds more like a member of his technocratic-philosopher-king cult—the kind of Twitter Stan who would jump on-board with accusing a rescue worker of being a pedophile (because that rescue worker said something critical of Elon Musk…).

Musk pedo guy

It may be true that, for now, the government lacks the capacity to address problems in the way rich weirdos like Elon can. But for every "benevolent" billionaire trying to supplant combustion engines or cure malaria, there are 100 more who are purely focused on the other stuff—squeezing workers and keeping their tax rates low. Musk's apparent altruism provides good PR, not only for his own companies, but for the billionaire class as a whole. And when those 100 others succeed in knee-capping government reforms, people like Grimes cosign their sabotage by calling the government incompetent.

Are we supposed to wait around for the rest of the ultra-wealthy to get "woke" like Elon? Or beg them for their charity? Are we supposed to trust that their personal whims and hunches about how to save the world won't actually make things worse—like Bill Gates did with education? No. The kind of power these few individuals wield cannot be unaccountable to the needs and wishes of humanity writ large. Considering the scale of the problems we face, the government's incapacity to act cannot be tolerated. We need to build up that capacity by taking things—and wealth—out of the billionaire's hands. The Green New Deal, for example, is exactly the kind of legislation we need, and the best way to fund it—and similar steps toward progress—is to tax billionaires out of existence. That is how we "fix environmental problems" and "reduce suffering."

Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Green New Deal

Of course, if the world goes to sh*t and all the poor people are being killed off by famine and flood and drought and disease, Elon Musk won't have to worry about it. He will be the withered old patriarch with new hair plugs, helming the Cyber-Arc on its way to a luxury, terraformed dome on a moon of Saturn. All the wealthy passengers and their personal assistants will heap him with praise (or risk being jettisoned from the airlock) for solving the problem of being stuck on a dying planet.

If Grimes is still by his side when it happens, will she join in the chorus of adulation? Will she tell him he has finally succeeded in ensuring the future of humanity? Or will she remember the crowds of bright faces that used to cheer for her music? Will she imagine those abandoned and dying proletarians back on Earth, whose lives Elon always valued so dearly—second only to his own wealth and power?