Who took away my film?

Will streaming services decimate movie theatres now? Damodar and Harsh Mall debate what entertainment will look like post-pandemic

Harsh Mall

[Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash]

By Harsh Mall and Damodar Mall.

Note: Join the father-son duo on Facebook Live on Saturday August 8, at 7.30 pm IST, as they chat about the inter-generational and inter-cultural differences and similarities they're observing. (If you had registered for an earlier episode, you needn’t register again.) 

By most accounts, Nina Alves has adjusted well to life in a pandemic. She and her family are grateful to have avoided the virus. Daily activities—from her work to her workout—settled into a routine at home, a one-bedroom apartment in Washington DC that she shares with her husband. She has continued to enjoy cooking and even though restaurants in her city are now open, she hasn’t missed dining out. What Nina does miss, and hasn’t found an adequate at-home solution to, is going to the movies. Her husband likes to remind her that the many streaming services they subscribe to contain more films than a multiplex could ever host. But to Nina, Netflix and microwave popcorn cannot replace the experience of visiting a theatre with friends and family—a social event, much like going to a sports game in a stadium. However, like live sports, movie theatres are going to struggle to attract visitors for the foreseeable future because even after the authorities lift restrictions, many will choose to stay away.

Even before the pandemic, movie theatres across the world were under threat from digital platforms. In 2019, digital services surpassed theatres as a source of revenue in the entertainment industry, and Disney and Apple released their streaming apps into a market already booming with the success of Netflix, HBO, Amazon Prime Video, and others. Convenient access to high-quality content on any device combined with an affordable subscription price has consumers hooked and based on the success of the most recent entrants into the category, we can’t seem to get enough. In the US, Netflix alone accounts for nearly half of all available internet bandwidth during peak evening hours—and that was before society as a whole retreated to their homes.

But if the bulk of movie-watching shifts from theatres to couches, does it change how we watch movies as well? In the age of smartphones, a movie theatre is that rare space where you devote all your attention to a single screen. And unlike with your own device, you can’t pause the film in a theatre for a bathroom break, fast-forward through yet another song, or give up on the film altogether, as Nina often does. And she’s not alone. Less than 20% of viewers in the US completed watching Netflix’s The Irishman and Birdbox, two of the streaming service’s biggest hits. With so many options accessible at a click or tap, and no cost associated with ending one film and starting another, viewers like Nina are sampling films rather than consuming them whole.

From YouTube to TikTok and to GIFs, short-form video seems to be the content of choice for the smartphone era. We are hyper-conscious of shortening attention spans and each of us takes turns in indulging in the same behaviour that we often complain about. Nina often chides herself for scrolling Twitter while watching a movie on Netflix.

But there’s a deeper change happening. On the last Facebook Live episode of Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation, my father, Damodar Mall, spoke about how he is dipping his toes into the world of console gaming. He isn’t the only one. Nielsen reports that a whopping 82% of consumers around the world played video games during COVID-19 lockdowns. My pickup soccer group, which would get together to play at a field here in New York on weekday evenings, took to playing FIFA 20 online together when we could no longer meet in person.

Video games, especially console games, defy the media consumption trend towards shorter run times. In 2018, Take-Two Interactive’s Red Dead Redemption 2 smashed the record for the single biggest opening weekend in the history of entertainment, bigger than any box office opening. This console hit provides a player with close to 100 hours of original content and entertainment. Additionally, the most popular games, whether on mobile devices or consoles, are often multiplayer or contain a social element. In effect, a large number of us are choosing a form of entertainment that is interactive, long-form and requires us to engage with other people. In other words, we are willing to devote our attention to longer media but only if we’re allowed to participate. I often tell my clients that users are more tolerant towards longer video ads if you give them the option to skip that ad. We are gravitating towards flicking through films not because of compromised attention spans, but simply because now we can.

Moreover, we still prefer to be entertained in the company of others. Since the pandemic halted sports around the world, my friends and I would get together to watch old cricket and football matches on Google Hangouts. Netflix Party, a third-party web app that allows multiple users to watch the same Netflix show or movie, became an overnight sensation. Last week, Amazon added a similar feature to its own video streaming app.

Is it too early to declare the end of movie theatres? In the US, multiplexes have become commoditised spaces, offering a very functional format for consuming entertainment. Sensorial stimulus is restricted to the story on the screen. Not so in India. Movie theatres in the subcontinent offer something rare—a clean, welcoming public space accessible to all strata of society, and a favourite destination for everything from family outings to first dates.

It remains to be seen if Indian cinemas will enjoy their position as complete entertainment destinations post pandemic, but they will need to evolve. For now, smartphones aren’t competition for movie theatres, even though personal device media streaming has exploded on the back of cheap smartphones and cheaper high-speed data. But the demand for interactivity is ubiquitous and television is blazing the path. Both IPL and KBC, two institutions in the Indian entertainment landscape, added interactive elements in recent years that allow their audience to participate via mobile phones. This trend is here to stay.

The invention of moving images democratised entertainment at the beginning of the twentieth century. The smartphone has broken the wall between the performer and the viewer even further and put us, the consumer, inside the action rather than just be a bystander. For now, Nina is enjoying the freedom of choice provided to her by Netflix and Amazon’s vast libraries, happy to leave a bad movie unfinished.

Damodar Mall: “In India, entertainment outings are an escape from a dire reality”

The Indian reality is different. The role of public spaces as entertainment and escape will continue, he says. Though one big shift he sees is, how each one of us has become a star in our own production. Listen to Damodar’s take:

Still Curious?

  • Watch Episode 2 on the evolving workplace. Bookmark the series.
  • Listen to Piyul Mukherjee’s take on how Netflix Party is recreating the Sholay generation’s experience of partying over movies for millennials.
  • Here’s how TikTok users have adapted themselves to the app—and are becoming stars in their own right.
  • And Haresh Chawla does some trendspotting. Yes, this was pre-pandemic, but the digital trends remain true.

And join the Malls on Facebook Live on Saturday August 8, at 7.30 pm IST, for Episode 3 of Talkin’ ‘Bout My Generation.

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About the author

Harsh Mall
Harsh Mall

Digital marketing consultant

Harsh Mall is a digital marketing consultant based in New York City with experience in product management, market research, and consumer behaviour. At Ipsos, he helps brand advertisers improve their communications strategy through products that measure advertising and media effectiveness. He has also consulted public sector officials in emerging markets on marketing strategy and brand-building. Harsh has an MBA from the New York University Stern School of Business and a B.S. in Communications from Syracuse University.

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