Streamers: The end of movie theaters? Not so fast.

The movie theater is not dead: Long live the movie theater!

The big news in the film industry this week was the announcement by Warner Brothers that all 17 of the company’s feature films originally scheduled for a 2021 theatrical release would be debuting simultaneously on the company’s HBO MAX streaming service. While the studio is claiming that this is a unique, one-year arrangement made necessary by the pandemic-related closure of so many movie theaters, many are taking the move as something like a death knell for the big-screen, communal experience that has been the heart of cinema since its invention.

I’m reminded by these concerns of the agita surrounding the video rental industry in the 1990s, when I managed one of Portland’s many fine independent rental stores for several years and then owned another for several more. As high-speed internet (or what passed for it then) became more widely available, trade magazines were full of doomsaying. Once the masses can order up “Jurassic Park” from the comfort of their living room, after all, why would they traipse to the local Blockbuster and face the prospect of extortionate late fees?

Well, it took a while for the intertubes to get big enough that video streaming and downloading was an affordable option for the average household, but when it did, those Cassandras turned out to be correct. Impersonal, corporate chain stores such as Blockbuster and Hollywood went from cultural mainstays to bankrupt dinosaurs virtually overnight. I’d always thought that those places, which made their money by catering to customers who rarely ventured beyond the New Release wall, would be the most vulnerable to the technological shift. And, for once in my life, I was right.