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

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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.

Film Features

"Invisible Man" and "Parasite": The New Haunted House

Welcome to the haunted houses of the neoliberal era.

We all know the archetypal horror movie haunted house—slouched, rotting porch, frayed curtains, dark, abandoned rooms crowned with creaking chandeliers.

In two of this year's best films, Leigh Wannel's Invisible Man and Boon Jong-Ho's Oscar-winning Parasite, a new kind of haunted house emerges as a central character. In appearance, these houses couldn't be more different from the classic haunted mansion. Modern, glamorous, and clean, filled with large windows and light, the houses are symbols of overwhelming luxury, the supposed end result of consumerist freedom.

But as the films progress, the houses turn into loci of violence, and, ultimately, they act as symbols for privilege and neoliberal capitalism at its most violent. If haunted houses embody our deepest personal and cultural fears, these houses are haunted by money.

The House in Invisible Man: Elizabeth Moss Flees Silicon Valley

Invisible Man stars Elizabeth Moss as Cecilia, a woman who flees an abusive relationship only to be stalked by an invisible version of her ex-lover. It's as creepy as it sounds, but one of the film's eeriest scenes is the very first sequence in which Moss tries to escape from her boyfriend's hyper-luxurious oceanfront property.

Her boyfriend's name is Adrian, and as we hear several times, he's a pioneer in the field of optics, some sort of Silicon Valley master of mind control and optical illusions. His home is equipped with a massive bed below a wall-sized window that overlooks the ocean. It's studded with cameras and completely devoid of chaos or signs of human existence; it's essentially been bleached of life.

As we discover later, Adrian is an obsessive control freak, but even without knowing this, the house feels prison-like, its luxury a warped, dystopian facade. Moss's character, Cecilia, might as well be living in a fishbowl or an Apple store.

In the modern horror movie house, since all signs of life—beautiful or terrible—have been scrubbed as clean as the countertops, ghosts and demons collect in basements and antechambers. In Adrian's walled, palm tree-rimmed home, the lower floor is full of futuristic technology, creepy suits and cameras trapped in glass cases. Everything is visible, arranged as neatly as a newly reset iPhone's home screen, but because of the home's hyper-visibility, privacy is not an option. The house's inhabitants are constantly under surveillance.

With its silver and blue tones, like flashing screens of death, Adrian's beachfront property seems like a commentary on the excesses and illusions of Silicon Valley—a new monster if there ever was one.

"The Invisible Man is a physical manifestation and exaggeration of the queasiness with surveillance capitalism: the feeling of someone watching you, of someone stringing together the clues you didn't mean to leave, of someone – a person, a company, the algorithm – knowing more about you than you know about yourself," writes Adrian Horton for The Guardian. As tech companies track our information and influence our elections, and as we teeter on the edge of an AI revolution, and as we remain glued to our phones despite our best efforts to pry ourselves away, the supposed modern luxury of technology often feels like an invisible stalker, a shadow that could—feasibly, someday—overtake our lives, and consume our thoughts.

The Invisible Man and His Invisible Hands: H. G. Wells's Gilded Class Parable

The Invisible Man was loosely inspired by a novel of the same name by H. G. Wells. It's the story of a student named Griffin who finds a way to become invisible and uses his powers to terrorize the English countryside. It was one of the earliest works of science fiction, and like many works in the genre, it's about the dangers of innovation.

Outside of his love for science fiction and time travel, Wells was also a passionate socialist who dedicated much of his life to the Labour movement, and The Invisible Man can be read as an imperfect parable about class. "Griffin's invisibility symbolizes the working of an impersonal, decentralized, and—in Wells's view—dangerously chaotic market economy, which fails to respect the dictates of either traditional communal ties or established government authorities," writes Paul A. Cantor in Literature and the Economics of Liberty: Spontaneous Order in Culture. "In effect, what is most significant about Griffin is his invisible hand. In his Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith had argued that in an unfettered market economy, an invisible hand guides the self-seeking actions of individual entrepreneurs for the good of the community as a whole."

The original Invisible Man oscillates between metropolitan London and the rural English countryside, and the contrast emphasizes the disjointed relationship between the two. In the new film version, Adrian's house is the modern representation of a gilded-age London metropolis, where inequality was as stark as it is in today's San Francisco, where the city's massive homeless population languishes outside the doors of its tech-money elite.

That juxtaposition also defines the actual best movie of the year: Parasite.

Parasite: The Class Divide in Two Houses

Like The Invisible Man, Parasite's narrative swivels around a single, extraordinarily beautiful home. If anything, the Park family home in Parasite is a far more central character than Adrian's house in The Invisible Man, though the two serve similar purposes.

Parasite's Park house is airy, spacious, and almost brutally neat. With its carefully arranged stacks of plates that seem poised to crash at any moment and its wall-sized window that overlooks a vividly green yard, it represents the ultimate new-money achievement. Of course, just like the haunted houses of yore, its grand facade is doomed to fall from the start.

"The house opens up like an elaborate jewel box, with plot elements that hinge on the architecture: hiding, eavesdropping, scheming," writes E. Alex Jung in Variety. "More than a house, it becomes a map of class psychology and the resentment that simmers beneath the surface."

Boon Jong-Ho meticulously designed the modernist Park home from the ground up, and every inch serves a narrative purpose. "We needed a structure and a level where Mr. Park couldn't see Ki-taek's family whatsoever, whether they were lying straight or on their sides," Bong told Variety.

In a battle of luxury, the Park house is a formidable opponent to Adrian's ostentatious mansion. In The Invisible Man, Adrian's isolated hilltop home hides his cloak of invisibility and his abusive behavior. In Parasite, the stunning Park home—with its huge bathtubs, its vast counter space, its warm lighting and its pristine cleanliness—rests on top of class violence and oppression.

Parasite tells the story of the Kim family as they indoctrinate themselves into the Park's lives, persuading the gullible and wealthy family to give them jobs and drinking in the illusion of their wealth until it all inevitably collapses. The film accomplishes its portrait of class divides through a purposeful use of levels. The Kim family lives below the Park family (literally below ground), crammed in a dingy half-basement half-apartment with a single window overlooking the street. Even while they're in the Park home, the Kims are often purposefully obscured.

But all hidden things must go somewhere, and in Parasite, secrets hide below. Deep down in the bottom of the Park home is a second basement, created by the house's original owners in case of a nuclear apocalypse. The Parks' former housekeeper's husband Geun-se, who is on the run from debt collectors after the failure of his cake shop, has been hiding for years.

Crowded and poorly lit, the bunker exists in dramatic opposition to the rest of the home. It's a secret ulcer in the belly of the Park family's charming, clean lives, which—no matter how well-intentioned they may be—exist literally on top of others' suffering.

The only member in the Park family who comes in contact with the man living below is the Parks' youngest son, Da-song, who once spotted Geun-sae and told his family that he saw a ghost. Of course, Da-song is right: The house is haunted, though not by anything supernatural. Similarly, the horrors in The Invisible Man aren't supernatural: they're horrors of science, horrors of progress and mind-control.

In some ways, Adrian's house and the Park house are new haunted houses that symbolize new problems; they're emblems of gentrification at its most evolved and of modern capitalism pushed over the brink of sustainability. Resolutely smoothing over their inner horrors with luxury, control, and surveillance, the houses emphasize a dissonance distinct to modern times but also universal in the human experience: So many of our grandest achievements were built on the backs of others' suffering.

At the ends of both films, order collapses and a massive storm guides the narratives to their natural conclusions. As the illusions and lies of these houses are washed away by the rain, new voices—those of the help, the imprisoned, the female partners of successful men—are finally given space to speak. Maybe some houses are simply made to fall.