Even The Academy Quietly Warns: Moviegoers May Break The Habit

In or around 1976, I caught a forlorn moment near New York’s Bleecker St. It was early morning. The sun was just up. Two ragged guys were shuffling toward me on the sidewalk, when one offered the other a bottle in a bag.

But the drink was declined.

“I guess I lost my taste for it,” sighed the saddest voice I’d ever heard.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about those guys when I think about the movies. I mean, what if we’ve lost our taste for them? What if we’ve kicked the habit?

Four months into the coronavirus shutdown, this no longer seems impossible. Personally, I haven’t seen a new film since Feb. 25. (Being older, I was earlier to lockdown.) The movie was Emma., at the Landmark Theatres in West Los Angeles. It was a pleasant enough experience, all those young actors doing their Jane Austen turn, plus Bill Nighy. But I can’t say that it was memorable, or that it left me with a deep yearning for all the cinema I’ve missed since then. Actually, I had to check ticket stubs in the tax file to recall what was showing at that last picture show.

Unfortunately, like the guy on Bleecker St., I seem to be getting by without movies. Being something of a history buff, I’d happily see Tom Hanks as a World War II sea captain in Greyhound. But I’ve already got eight pages of online passwords, and I suppose it would take another to add a subscription for Apple TV+, which picked up the film from Sony as theaters remain closed. Easier, somehow, to read an old copy of Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea, a parallel story about warfare in the Atlantic, and catch the Hanks picture some other time.

What’s worrisome, from an industry point of view, is that I might not be alone. One of the more alarming developments of the last few weeks—along with a new wave of opening date delays—was that Netflix guidance, advising analysts that third-quarter subscriber growth would probably be around 2.5 million, less than half of what had been expected. Among other things, said Netflix, the “astounding” growth of TikTok was changing the digital landscape. Goodbye movies and extended series, hello dance videos?

Greyhound is reported to have performed at the level of a box-office hit, though it’s hard to know exactly what that means, given the low-price of subscription streaming and Apple’s free-trial option. Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods drew a large audience on Netflix, so the end is not here yet.

But watching films is, or was, a reliable habit, and sometimes an addiction. In the 1980s, savvy marketers used to talk about the “wheel of movies.” Hits breed hits, they said. Trailers attached to a Beverly Hills Cop or a Die Hard brought new lucky winners spinning along behind them.

Now, the theatrical wheel has almost stopped, and streaming has radically different dynamics. Inevitably, audience behavior will change.

Early this month, even the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the ultimate film booster, quietly acknowledged that the movies may suffer very deep damage from the virus. In a July 3 posting of a disclosure document for its latest round of museum bonds, the Academy expanded a list of risk factors to include a potential “decrease of popularity of motion pictures, including by virtue of a slowdown in motion picture production on account of public health concerns.”

Noting that the next Oscar ceremony and the museum opening have already been delayed until next April, the risk warning added: “In the event the pandemic continues through the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021, attendance and operation of the Academy Museum may be adversely affected and the broadcast of the Oscars may be affected, postponed, or cancelled.”

Let’s hope not.

On the bright side, old habits die hard. But if people do without the movies for another six months—books, dance videos, political strife are all diverting–they might learn to do without them altogether.

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