Netflix vs. movie theaters? While some film folks may view the narrative of how contemporary audiences consume content as being this simplistic, the truth is much more knotty and complicated. And a recent study put out by Ernst & Young and the National Association of Theatre Owners (via Variety) finds that the relationship between streaming and theatrical content is much more symbiotic than first imagined. The study finds that, in fact, streaming movies are more likely to be watched if the title also received a theatrical release.
Of the over 2,000 respondents of the study (funded by, it should be noted, an organization with an ostensible vested interest in making movie theaters look good), 62% said they’d be more likely to stream a movie if they knew it was also in theaters, with only 3% saying they were less likely to stream a movie also theatrically released. In fact, folks who regularly visited the movie theater during the year (nine times or more) streamed more content at home than those who visited the theater less times during the year. In other words, as Phil Contrino, director of media and research at NATO, puts it: “It’s just lazy to say younger viewers are abandoning movies… The disruption talk is overstated.” To me, this doesn’t feel like “disruption” at all — it feels like a straight up conclusion that people who see movies in theaters also see movies at home.
Contrino further opined that “a theatrical release creates more of a conversation,” and I tend to agree. With so much content available so readily at our streaming fingertips, knowing that a title made enough of a splash to merit a theatrical release helps cut through the clutter instantly. Even if you don’t want to go through the effort of finding the one theater in your town playing Marriage Story or The Irishman, you’ll know it’s worth streaming. Contrino went on to say that “the coming launch of all these streaming services means it’s only going to get harder for something to break through. Success in movie theaters is one of the top ways for content to stand out.”
This study may have a great effect on Netflix’s business practices moving forward — not to mention their rivals, both established and new to the market. For some time, Netflix straight up eschewed any theatrical releases, until the acclaimed filmmakers producing content for them (like Martin Scorsese or Alfonso Cuaron) insisted on the company providing some kind of exhibition, however brief. In fact, the exhibitions offered by Netflix were still too brief for many major chains, who have a practice of only carrying films meant for streaming if they’re given a traditional three-month exclusivity window in theaters. Will Netflix, bolstered by this data, change their plans soon? It’s too early to say just yet, but it does look like we will all, indeed, still be watching.