It has become increasingly clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a process that was already in the works in terms of how Americans consume media and think of the nature of new film releases. What was once seen as inherently the territory of theatrical distribution has now become a free-for-all, as studios have experimented throughout the pandemic with bringing hotly anticipated new releases straight to prominent streaming services. Some have attempted to charge extra for these releases on top of a subscription cost, ‘ala Disney Plus, while others such as Warner Bros. struck deals with specific streamers (HBO Max) that allowed their new films (like this weekend’s Dune) to head straight to “free” streaming on the same day they arrived in theaters.
In the process, these studios and streamers may have fundamentally altered how movie audiences are willing (or prefer) to consume new content. In a series of new polls conducted by CivicScience, the majority of Americans, in fact, said they preferred to watch new releases at home rather than in a theater, even when both options are available simultaneously. It suggests a generational shift underway, in which the living room TV has become an acceptable venue for seeing even splashy, blockbuster new releases, and the perceived value of the “big screen” and all that goes with it are being valued less than ever.
CivicScience posed the following question: “When new movies are released simultaneously to theaters and streaming services, how do you prefer to watch them for the first time?” In response, 56% of those polled said they preferred to stream at home, while only 44% said they preferred to see the same film at a theater. The percentage who preferred to remain at home increased steadily as the age of respondents increased, all the way to more than 80% for those 55 years or age or older. This suggests that part of the hesitancy to returning to theaters likely still is rooted in fears of the COVID pandemic, as older populations who are more at risk from the virus are inherently more cautious about returning to theaters. But at the same time, the more that home premieres of major films is normalized, the more likely consumers are to continue expecting this option even after the pandemic has receded.
Survey respondents were also asked about whether they had purchased or rented a newly released movie from a streaming service in recent weeks, revealing that this particular, premium form of distribution has indeed grown, but still is facing quite a bit of resistance. Only 13% of respondents reported that they had paid for some kind of premium rental/purchase in recent weeks, although 18% said they planned to in the future. That still leaves 69% of consumers, however, who said they hadn’t paid for any kind of premium streaming of new release films, and wouldn’t in the future.
The final question, about the price respondents were willing to pay for these films, hints at the likely reason for why there are still significant numbers of hold-outs. Some 66% of those who responded said that they would only pay to stream a new release film if the price for that film was ”$10 or less,” with numbers that sharply declined at subsequent, higher tiers of $10-15, $15-20 and beyond. Considering that the likes of Disney+ have charged $30 for films in Premier Access such as Mulan or Black Widow, this suggests that many consumers still see that kind of pricing as a bridge too far, but might be willing to stream films this way at a more affordable price tier.
One thing is certain, however: The pandemic has irrevocably changed the staid old theater landscape, leaving movie theaters/exhibitors scrambling in a world where many consumers are swearing off their old allegiances. It’s only natural to expect the dominance of streaming to only continue to rise, which has to leave you wondering about the viability of movie theaters in the long run. To those who still love the theatrical experience, it’s a scary thought.