The future of movies

September 9th, 2020

An American pastime 

“A great story has the power to move us. It speaks to something that lives at the core of who we are.” These are the opening words of the Cinema Stories podcast hosted by Courtney Huskisson and Matthew Rushing. When we watch movies, either at home or in theaters, we don’t just watch them for entertainment but also to connect with the stories and to learn about ourselves and the world. These stories transcend generations and often become more meaningful to us over time. 

Going to the movies has been an American pastime for more than a century. From storefront theaters and nickelodeons to the lavish movie palaces of the 1920s and the drive-in theaters and multiplexes that followed, movies have compelled Americans with their stories and become an icon of American culture. 

While the movie industry remains strong, the theater industry is in turmoil. Over the past several decades, home televisions, cable, VCRs and DVD players have all contributed to the decline of theaters. More recently, the increasing quality and affordability of high-definition TVs and surround-sound systems, coupled with the convenience of streaming services like Netflix and Disney+, have made it even more challenging for movie theaters to thrive. 

In 2020, movie theaters all over the country were forced to shut down for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some theaters are still closed, and those reopening are operating at reduced capacity. It remains to be seen whether Americans will return to theaters given the taste they’ve acquired for first-run films released directly to streaming services. 

Looking toward the future 

After struggling through the Great Depression and World War II, many theaters were forced to shut down in 1948 following the Paramount decrees, a series of government orders that prevented studios from screening films exclusively in theaters the studio owned. The ruling was designed to limit the monopolization of the industry and gave rise to a number of independent theaters and independent studios. 

Significant changes may be coming for the movie industry again. Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice terminated the Paramount decrees, allowing studios and streaming services to own theaters. Netflix has already taken over the lease of the Paris Theater in New York City, and there are rumors that Amazon, Apple and Disney are considering similar moves. While streaming services are in high demand, movie theater chains are falling further into debt and ownership changes may be on the horizon. Imagine the moviegoing experience at a theater owned by Disney or Apple. 

When and how major films are released may also change. With theaters closed, studios have been experimenting. Some movies, like the hit musical Hamilton, were released free to subscribers of a single streaming service, while others like Trolls World Tour were released to multiple streaming services for a rental fee. Mulan, a highly anticipated release from Disney, mixed the two models and was released only to Disney+ subscribers, but at an additional cost. 

In an article for The New York Times, James B. Stewart wrote that the release of major films on streaming services “might be a win for those stuck-at-home hungry for new content, but it will be a loss for American culture. Unlike watching a movie in the basement while wearing pajamas, going to a theater is an event and a social experience, and at its best a memorable one.” Movie theaters provide a designated place and time to focus on the story while engaging in a shared experience. Combined with the enormous screen and all-encompassing surround sound, the atmosphere of movie theaters cannot be replicated outside the theater. 

According to Maggie Valentine, author of The Show Starts on the Sidewalk, “Movie theaters have always come back, and when they do, they’ve been better.” She says the movie palaces of the 1920s lured people out of their homes for entertainment after the 1918 flu pandemic. Perhaps we can benefit from streaming services now while looking to a future that includes innovations for movie theaters, so that we can continue the culture of moviegoing together. 

Learning from the movie industry 

For decades, movie theaters have struggled and church attendance has declined. The two aren’t directly connected, but both are receiving the same message: innovate or die. While the purpose of worship is not entertainment, movies and worship are both communal experiences. They center around stories that have the power to change us, and they are enriched by in-person participation with others. So, what can churches learn from the movie theater industry? 

During the pandemic, churches with the financial and technological means streamed their worship services, allowing people to join without leaving their homes. Streaming also allows worship services to transcend geographical boundaries. Beyond the pandemic, livestreaming and digital ministry have a lot of potential. They enable those who cannot leave their homes or are working during services to worship with their church when they cannot be physically present. Some churches may find that many in their congregation participate exclusively online, which requires ongoing creative engagement with digital ministry. But, like streaming movies, the experience of online worship is often lacking. 

The movie theater industry has taught us that while gimmicks and atmosphere may get people in the door, they won’t keep them there. Churches have more to offer than free coffee, indoor playscapes and stadium seating. When people return to churches, they will seek community above all else. They’ve seen worship online; what they need is in-person connection through the experience of worshipping side by side with others who profess the same faith. This experience is irreplaceable. When we seek out community in movie theaters, the community around us is fleeting while the stories stick with us. In worship, community is as essential to the experience as the stories we tell. Churches must offer worship that is meaningful, relevant, and — like the best movies — connects with people of all ages and abilities on their level. 


Learning from Pixar 

Many assume that Pixar — the animation studio behind the movies Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Cars — makes films exclusively for children. But that assumption does not explain why adults flock to see these so-called kids’ movies. 

Impressive animation is the medium Pixar uses to tell timeless stories and focus on themes that get at the core of our humanity. The stories are multilayered, allowing children to understand one aspect of the story, while adults grasp a deeper and more complex meaning. The same is true of the films’ humor. While appropriate for all ages, adults and children appreciate it differently. What if worship was like this too? 

Churches can take a cue from Pixar to make worship engaging and meaningful for people of all ages. Five minutes of children’s time or an occasional performance from the youth choir does not equate to multigenerational worship. 

Worship that is engaging for all ages is consistently appropriate for children and youth, inviting them in and speaking to them through music, liturgy, and sermon illustrations they can understand and relate to, while also delivering a deeper message for adults. Right now, intergenerational worship is more important than ever. 

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