Did COVID Kill Theater? Students Talk Theaters and Streaming in a Post-Pandemic World

Zack Miller | The PhoenixAn AMC parking lot in the Northwest suburbs sits empty in April 2020.

Grace Schuler would arrive at the movie early, nestling herself in the middle of the F, G or H row with a blue slushie, medium popcorn and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups in tow. 

Prior to the pandemic, she went to a movie theater as many as six times a month, often buying tickets weeks in advance. Whether with a group of friends in an overcrowded theater or as the sole patron on a quiet afternoon, Schuler was there.

But that hasn’t been the case since last year.

Paige Twenter | The Phoenix The general manager of The New 400 Theater, Scott Holtz, works behind the counter at the theater before it became a COVID-19 testing site.

COVID-19 caused a major slump in the entertainment industry, leading to the closure of theaters to comply with safety protocols. In its wake, film studios have adapted to the new normal by foregoing theaters for a blockbuster streaming experience.

The streaming model has only grown in relevance during the pandemic. Major streaming services saw a 50 percent bump in subscriptions in 2020, according to a December report by Business Insider. With the addition of Disney+, the titular brand’s foray into streaming, Disney was able to significantly offset theatrical losses

While movie theaters had their critics well before the arrival of streaming and COVID-19, the temporary change of pace could motivate a permanent shift. But for Schuler, a Loyola sophomore and film major, the movie theater is more than a means to an end — it’s a “treat” in itself. 

Her first movie theater memory was seeing “Marley & Me” as a young girl, getting emotional while her similarly teary-eyed mother comforted her. Schuler exited the dark theater, bursting into tears as she was struck by the blinding daylight.

“I hold the theater experience very highly,” Schuler, 20, said. “I think it’s the way movies are meant to be seen.”

Adrian Nevarez | The Phoenix While it used to serve theaters packed full of people, The New 400 Theater on Sheridan Road now tests people for COVID-19.

Nina Smythe worked as a camp counselor during summers in high school. She and her fellow counselors loved to go to the local movie theater after a week of hard work, decompressing under the big screen before chatting the night away in the dimly lit parking lot.

Smythe, 19, is a sophomore and business management major who switched her film major to a minor at the behest of her parents. She’s also president of Loyola’s film club. She said she aspires to start her own production company, mixing her business and film interests. 

As a first-year, Smythe dragged her roommate to the film club’s screening of “Lady Bird,” having fawned over the film upon its initial release. There in the Damen Cinema, Smythe found connection with the club, joining shortly after. 

Once the pandemic hit, the club had to transfer from the cushy school theater to alternative methods — including a buffer-heavy Zoom screening — before landing on their current idea. Smythe has planned “watchathons,” in which students simultaneously watch a preselected film from the Kanopy streaming service while live-chatting on Discord and Twitter.

“Even if it’s through virtual screenings, we can still get that film club vibe,” Smythe said. “I think that’s as close as we can get to a real, good in-person film club.”

Smythe isn’t alone in her Discord and Zoom endeavors. Junior Jackson Bradshaw also hopped on the virtual apps for movie nights with friends in the early days of the pandemic. He enjoyed the company but missed the physicality of watching together.

Bradshaw, an environmental engineering major, longed for theaters to reopen too, but he wasn’t as concerned about the local AMC. As a member of Loyola’s improv group Latchkey Kid, he’s waiting fervently for the reopening of the Annoyance Theater, where the group would perform on Thursday nights.

While the stakes of performing in the theater are higher, so is the reward, he said. 

“Messing up and not hearing a laugh, I would rather have that than being on Zoom and not hearing anything at all,” Bradshaw, 20, said. “It just feels more human. That’s so annoying to say and cliche, but it’s true. Yeah, it hurts a bit, but it’s better to feel something than not to hear or feel anything at all.”

Chris Smith | Out of Chicago The Rialto Theater, located in Joliet, Illinois, hosted online organ concerts in May of 2020.

Bradshaw believed performance comedy will maintain its cultural place post-pandemic despite the rise of Netflix stand-up comedy specials, although he said movie theaters might suffer. 

Between Netflix stand-up and new deals that have films streaming upon release — such as HBO Max’s deal to stream Warner Bros. films on its service simultaneously with the theatrical release — the entertainment industry has seen an immense digital shift.

Smythe recognized the “scary” writing on the wall, but hoped production companies don’t rush to remove Oscar-quality films from a theatrical release schedule. 

“As a business major, I know that that’s the direction that things will go toward eventually, and I think everything will become digital,” Smythe said. “But I’m hoping that in order to save theaters that there will be a very long grace period.”

Bruce Sharp Many residents of Rogers Park fought to save the Granada theater before it was demolished in the early ’90s. Now, theaters are struggling again during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Smythe said people have grown independent in the last year, and she’s now willing to do more things alone — including going to the movies.

Bradshaw learned he actually likes the convenience of online classes and making it to Zoom improv practice regardless of his location. For Schuler, a year of virtual reality left her film knowledge dull as a wet knife. She watched few of the awards nominees this year, a significant change from her all-encompassing past.

Despite not being a film buff, Bradshaw lamented the loss of jobs a movie theater exodus would cause. He wondered if the industry will evolve rather than dissipate.

“The movie theater has always been around … it’s kind of become a part of our culture,” Bradshaw said. “But taking that aspect out, maybe something will fill its place. Maybe they will change. Maybe they will have more than just movies, if they want to keep up.”

As the ever-so-dim light begins to shine at the post-pandemic tunnel, theater-goers could soon return to simply worrying about loud chewers and hecklers, rather than their own health. Although Bradshaw said returning to movie theaters isn’t at the top of his bucket list — hanging out safely in a group of 10 to 15 takes the cake — he’s looking forward to it. 

While she thinks it’ll be a “gradual” return to normal, Schuler said she’ll be lined up at a theater as soon as it’s safe.

“I’m gonna be too excited, especially with some of the stuff that’s slated to come out this year,” she said. “I simply refuse to watch ‘Dune’ in my own home — it would feel criminal. If I’m going to be a snob about something, it’s going to be something of that scale.”

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