My earliest memory related to theatrical moviegoing are…complicated. I was always so excited to go to a theater. Once me and my family had arrived at our local Cinemark, I was ready. With the scent of popcorn wafting into my adolescent nostrils, I’d enter the auditorium our film was showing in and right on cue, the previews would begin at a much louder volume than the commercials and we were off. My sensitivity to loud noises stemming from my autism made the sounds so overwhelming that I’d have to stand at the side entrance of the theater with one of my parents. We couldn’t see the screen now, but we could hear the sounds (to my child brain, I guess the sounds seemed farther away in the hallway) and I could get used to all the noise.
Despite how frightening that sudden jolt of loudness was each time, though, I would pestered my parents to take me to the theater. In the back of my head, even though I’d always have to hide in the hallway, so too did I always gradually get closer and closer back to my seat as I settled into hearing sounds at that loud theater volume. I’d inevitably end up sitting back down just before the previews ended and from there, I was transported. The loud noises transformed from overwhelming to immersive. I knew if I could conquer my fear, something glorious was waiting in the dark on a screen bigger than my imagination. I’m biased, dear reader. I’ve been attached to the theatrical experience all my life. But there’s far more than just nostalgia informing my passion for why we need the theatrical window, especially after the events of 2022.
What Is the Theatrical Window?
The theatrical window refers to the amount of time between when a movie arrives in movie theaters and when it can move to streaming and other home video mediums. This has long been a point of contention between movie studios and movie theaters. The former group would love to shrink that window since it would open up more opportunities for profits much more rapidly, while the latter group is concerned about how speedy streaming releases would impact their revenue.
As late as 2010, the theatrical window was firmly stuck at 16 weeks, though Alice in Wonderland took a sledgehammer to that with Disney’s plan to release it on physical home video just 12 weeks after its March 2010 debut. After that, studios and theaters were always in contention over how long features should last on the big screen, though there were few major changes to the theatrical window throughout the 2010s. In 2016, The Los Angeles Times noted things were at a bit of a standstill between studios and theaters, especially since attempts by Universal and Paramount to fast-track the video-on-demand debuts of theatrical titles had either failed to materialize or made a minimal financial impact. Meanwhile, Netflix refused to budge on giving its original movies slightly longer theatrical windows so they could play in major theater chains, even when it came to something like The Irishman.
The COVID-19 pandemic, though, eliminated all rules for theatrical windows. With Warner Bros. dropping all its 2021 theatrical releases simultaneously on the big screen and HBO Max, there was no going back now. After so many years of chaos, in 2022, the cinematic landscape has been adjusting to whatever the new normal is. This includes figuring out what a theatrical window is or even looks like, though, even among the turmoil, it’s apparent that we need something resembling a theatrical window for movies to leave as much an impact as possible.
Theatrical Releases Have Their Advantages
It’s becoming apparent to both the film industry and the general public that streaming-exclusive movies tend to vanish faster in the public consciousness than ones that debut in theaters. There’s no hard data to prove this but 2022 certainly saw this in action. Netflix spent tons of money on the star-studded The Gray Man, which ended up having a minuscule impact on the 2022 pop culture sphere. Do you remember Spiderhead, The Bubble, Me Time, Day Shift, and countless others released to Netflix exclusively? Netflix and other outlets like Amazon or Hulu can break out as many self-made metrics for how they define “success” or “viewership”. Their movies just aren’t going anywhere or moving the pop culture needle without a theatrical window to help make them stand out in the minds of viewers.
A theatrical exclusive release initially isn’t just good because that’s the way people have been doing it for years. A theatrical release means a marketing campaign (something Netflix and other streamers don’t do for new movies), with trailers and posters that put your movie on people’s radar for months. It means there is a sense of specialness to the finite amount of time you can see it in a theater, rather than being one of limitless options. Even better, the way titles like Everything Everywhere All at Once, Smile, and Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris in 2022 could stick around at the box office keeps your movie in the conversations for weeks on end. By contrast, something like Thirteen Lives on Amazon never got on people’s radar to begin with, let alone stuck around in the public conversation.
The theatrical exclusive model doesn’t just benefit the big screen though. It also affords further opportunities down the line for how and where your movie can be watched. For decades now, a film’s theatrical release was followed by a physical home media release. Even TV movies from channels like HBO would eventually get to grace DVD and Blu-Ray shelves. Streamers, desiring to make their “content” as exclusive as possible, have upended this norm. Streaming exclusive movies never show up on physical media, thus ensuring people don’t have access to them through places like libraries. A handful of streaming-exclusive titles from Netflix and Hulu do eventually get Criterion Collection physical releases while a smattering of original titles from HBO Max (like The Fallout) or Paramount+ (like Secret Headquarters) have scored home video debuts.
However, the default norm for streaming titles is that there is no physical media afterlife. A film from as big of a director as Spike Lee, like Da 5 Bloods, is still only available through Netflix’s servers. This trait has been troublesome for years now, but it took on levels of urgent danger in 2022 thanks to WarnerDiscovery management abruptly pulling movies and TV shows from HBO Max. Previously readily available films and shows, ones with no physical media release, were suddenly gone from the face of the Earth. Streaming isn’t necessarily providing more accessibility, it’s just providing further new problems for how and when we can access pop culture. This problem only underscored the necessity of physical media releases, an entity that used to be guaranteed in the age of theatrical windows.
This increasingly ominous issue highlights how far-reaching the positive consequences of theatrical windows are. Maintaining a theatrical window isn’t just about preserving a nebulous concept of “proper cinema”, it’s about ensuring that, down the line, people will have accessible ways of experiencing your art (such as through libraries). Those larger positive consequences also extend to the thousands of jobs maintained through the continued existence of theatrical exhibition as well as providing a wonderful communal experience that can bring people together.
A screening I attended of Aftersun just two months ago was immediately followed up by me and this random woman just bonding over the quality of the excellent feature we watched. At that same theater, me and a movie theater employee chatted endlessly about Wild Nights with Emily when I was at the intermission point of a double feature. Those wonderful moments of human bonding wouldn’t have been possible if these films had eschewed the theatrical window entirely.
Theater Experiences Must Improve
Just as we need the theatrical window, though, we also need to be cognizant of how movie theaters need to improve to live up to their wonderful potential. The crux of the theatrical window being a net positive is that it makes movies more accessible to the general public, you don’t need a subscription to a service to see a movie theatrically while down the line it’ll be available in more ways than on the servers of one streamers. The theatrical window allows people to connect to art, but unfortunately, the theatrical venues themselves can undercut this core advantage.
For one thing, writers like Kristen Lopez have done a fantastic job writing about the urgent issue of how many movie theaters either create minimal room or no space at all for disabled people . The lack of access for disabled viewers in these locations is extremely troubling and underscores how initially keeping films theatrical-exclusive can be restrictive for some people rather than exciting or freeing. Making these locations more accessible to disabled people would be a great way to ensure that theaters are a space for all voices to experience art together. Similarly, making events like Sensory Friendly Screenings, which project movies with the lights up and the sound softened for people with sensory issues, more common than just a once-a-week fixture could also open the films to even more moviegoers in their theatrical windows.
Then there’s the issue of money. Specifically, people’s access to films in their theatrical window is also hindered by the costs of movie tickets. Complaints about the prices of tickets have been going on for decades now, but those complaints are more relevant than ever now that the federal minimum wage hasn’t increased since 2009. This matter of federal wages is a much larger issue than just the theatrical industry (and unlike access for the disabled community within theaters, it’s not one the movie theater industry can personally change), but it’s another of the many quandaries plaguing the theatrical window currently. This concept is quite positive for films as an artform and how they make motion pictures accessible to people in the long term. However, there are current undeniable issues at play keeping the theatrical window from being as accessible as possible.
We Need the Theatrical Window
We need the theatrical window. But there is nuance in that sentiment. Streaming is not evil in the world of media and you’re not bad for preferring to watch movies at home instead of seeing things theatrically. But the theatrical window, in theory, should offer multiple ways for people to view movies. Initially, things can be experienced theatrically before they move onto other platforms for consumption. The theatrical window accommodates multiple forms of viewing, the same cannot be said for putting movies directly onto streaming.
This doesn’t excuse problems undercutting the idealized accessibility of theatrical experiences, we need to be cognizant of those issues and fix them immediately. In addressing those flaws, we can all recognize how the theatrical window is all about providing options and accessibility to moviegoers from a wide range of backgrounds. In other words, we need to improve theatrical exhibition because the potential is so wonderful and tremendous in this form of experiencing cinema. Even beyond personal feelings of which kind of films do and don’t excel in the pop culture sphere, the ubiquity of big sleeper hits at the box office this year remind one of the kinds of longevity you can get in pop culture notoriety from theatrical windows that you just can’t get from streaming-exclusive releases.
There’s so much out there in the dark waiting for us, like a showing of The Tigger Movie or Tarzan that entranced me to return to my seat when I was a child. We need the theatrical window to give people an opportunity to explore the images flickering in the dark, stories that get enhanced by being viewed with strangers, and the joys of big-screen entertainment that have been captivating moviegoers for over a century.