An image of the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus on Sept. 14, 2020.
The Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus, Sept. 14, 2020. (Photo/Christian Horn)

When the pandemic began in early 2020, several industries felt the impact. Schools and universities across the country shifted to remote learning, several businesses closed and live sports screeched to an abrupt stop behind a flurry of canceled, suspended or delayed seasons.

The movie industry also felt the sting of the pandemic, as the virus threw a wrench in the industry’s usual release schedule. 

According to a May article from J.P. Morgan, the usual timeframe for new films to release on demand is 75-90 days. However, the pandemic forced studios to speed up this process. This allowed distribution costs to shift toward providing access to an audience stuck at home. 

The first studio to go in such a direction was Universal, which released Trolls World Tour in theaters and on-demand on the same day. Disney released Frozen II on Disney+, the company’s streaming service, on March 15. That shortened the home release period by about three months. 

Hank Overfelt, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics from Creighton University last spring, is just one of many moviegoers feeling the pandemic’s effect on the movie industry.

“I used to really like going to movie theaters, just with friends and stuff, so that’s kind of changed due to the fact that they’re closed,” he said. “I think I’ve watched more older movies now, movies that I hadn’t seen in a while or movies that people had always told me to watch.”

The closure of theaters also brought about a shift in audience tendencies. Since a night out to see dinner and a movie was no longer possible, people stayed home instead. 

With several major services such as Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, CBS All Access and HBO Max and HBO Now, plus a horde of smaller platforms to choose from, the viewing audience found many options at its disposal for entertainment. 

The number of Disney+ subscriptions worldwide skyrocketed from 26.5 million in the first quarter of 2020 to 50 million in April to 60.5 million by August, according to the statistics website Statista. Hulu, which is only available in the United States, has grown from 30.4 million subscribers in the first quarter to 35.5 million in the third quarter.

Netflix, which sat at 167.09 million subscribers at the end of 2019, reached 192.95 million subscribers in the second quarter of 2020. 

It can be tempting to spend an afternoon binge watching with so many options available on a given streaming service. However, Overfelt said while he probably watches movies more frequently than he did before the pandemic hit, he still limits himself to one or two movies at a given time. 

Audiences increasingly turned to the expanding world of streaming services in search of entertainment amid the coronavirus outbreak. Recently, however, movie theaters have started to reopen, posing some competition for business.

In August, Marcus Theatres reopened three of its four locations in Lincoln. The company also reopened two theaters in Omaha and a location in Bellevue. AMC Theaters, another big theater chain, also recently opened two locations in Omaha and a theater in Grand Island.

Other theaters across the state have resumed operations, too. Since mid-June, Seward’s Rivoli Theater, Kearney Cinema 8 and The World Theatre in Kearney, Beatrice Movies in Beatrice and the Sun Theatre in York have all reopened. 

The Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s campus also reopened last month. Danny Lee Ladely, the center’s director, said the center shares many of the university’s safety precautions.

They encourage audience members to socially distance while in theaters. The theaters themselves operate at 50 percent capacity. Everyone must wear a mask. Additionally, staff members have placed sanitizer stations in the theater lobby, ticket counter and concessions counter. 

Audience members are also encouraged to show up only if they’re completely healthy.

“Right in the front of the building, we have a sign that tells people if they’re having any symptoms of COVID-19 they should not be there, they should not come in and they should go home,” Ladely said.

According to Ladely, the University has increased the amount of fresh air being drawn into the building as another precaution. The time between showings increased from 30 minutes to 45 so staff has enough time to sanitize theaters.

They’ve also cut down on the number of screenings. There are two showings on weeknights instead of three. On weekends, the center hosts three screenings instead of five.  

Tickets are available online in advance, and audience members can purchase concessions before arriving at the theater. However, Ladely noted that since reopening, attendance has been sparse.

“We get two or three people a night,” he said. “I really expected that because I think people are really weary, and they should be, of going out too much at this point.”

Audience members facing potential safety concerns when going out to see a movie amid the pandemic face a dilemma. Will they remain home and continue streaming, or will theaters begin to see rising attendance numbers as places reopen? Ladely said he believes attendance will increase as theaters continue to reopen and production on blockbusters resume.

For example, the Christopher Nolan film Tenet released on Sept. 3 and grossed $53 million overseas and $20 million in the U.S. in its debut weekend.

Tenet did a lot of business over the weekend, so people are going to the movies,” Ladely said. “Our attendance is seldom ever as high as a blockbuster movie because we show movies that have a limited interest, but that’s really our mission is to show these movies that wouldn’t normally be seen in theaters.” 

The true answer likely lies somewhere in the middle. Moving forward, both streaming services and movie theaters figure to play a big role in how film is consumed. Tenet’s opening week box office numbers in the United States may seem small. However, theaters in key markets such as Los Angeles and New York City remain closed. 

When those markets reopen and more movies are released, box office numbers will likely rise. At the same time, streaming services figure to continue to play a big role in audience viewership. In fact, people may choose to utilize a combination of both moving forward.

“For new movies, I’ll probably still go to the theater,” Overfelt said. “For reshowings, I feel like if it’s on a streaming service I’ll probably do the streaming service.”

I am a senior journalism and sports media and communication double major at UNL.