While movie theaters are not directly related to books and ebooks, the issues facing movie theaters in the present day because of streaming have a lot of parallels to the ones facing bookstores because of ebooks. I’ve touched on this a couple of times over the last few years, especially in light of the MoviePass discount movie ticket subscription program. In light of the changes to society prompted by the novel coronavirus, it’s time to look again.

A couple of days ago, I noted movie studio Universal’s move to permit immediate online rental of new movies simultaneous to their release to any movie studios still in business. Based on that decision, commentator Jeva Lange at The Week suggests there may be no going back for the movie industry once that genie is out of the bottle.

For one thing, if such rapid rentals are profitable, the studios won’t have that much incentive to go back to the old ways. They would get about the same amount of money per viewing as from the movie theaters, but without the added costs of distributing the movie to those theaters. It’s also an open question just how many movie theaters will actually be left standing after the quarantine ends, and what they’ll look like. Big theater chains will probably have deep-enough pockets to survive, but small art houses and other sole proprietorships may face the same problem as independent bookstores: if they have to stay shut down for too long, the bills will pile up until they have to declare bankruptcy.

It’s amazing how swiftly things can change. Just a few months ago, I was excited to hear that two new arthouse theaters were going into downtown Indianapolis, and wondered what kinds of movies they might have on offer. But at this point, who knows if they’ll even be finished?

It used to be that movie theaters had most of the control over the way new-release movies were shown to the public. When MoviePass launched its deep discount program, theaters worried that its failure would lead to the public staying away from movie theaters if they had to pay full price for tickets once again. They also worried about MoviePass succeeding and being able to dictate terms to them (just as the Big Six publishers had worried the same way about Amazon’s $9.99 price point). And of course they flatly refused even to consider the notion of letting studios release their movies simultaneously to streaming video and movie theaters.

Irony abounds. In the end, MoviePass ran out of money and shut down, but theater chains started to implement their own, more reasonably priced discount programs. For example, AMC Stubs A-List would allow three free movies per week at a cost based on geographic location. (When I checked what it would run for me, using it in Indianapolis but not out of state, it would run $19.95 per month—not at all a bad price for three movies a week!)

But it turns out that what might really kill movie theaters is not so much price issues or control issues as it is a pandemic that suddenly makes it undesirable to be closer than six feet to any other person. As the photo above demonstrates, even the comfy easy chairs movie theaters now use put you closer together than that if all seats are occupied.

Even after the pandemic is finally controlled, the stigma of those reminders to stay so far apart will remain in people’s minds, and it’ll be hard to get them to go back to giving up that much personal space—especially if they can now see those same movies from the comfort of their own home. And given that movie theaters are being forced to close for the time being, they don’t exactly have any room to complain anymore about movie theaters presenting their movies another way.

So, consumers are finally getting the simultaneous home video release that they’ve clamored for, all on account of a virulent disease. Of course, this does depend on other studios following Universal’s lead in moving to immediate home video release—but if the pandemic proves to be as bad as worse-case estimates suggest, people may be confined to their homes for a good long time, and’ll they have to do something with all those movies they can’t release theatrically yet.

Suddenly it doesn’t seem like such a big deal that the Justice Department is relaxing antitrust rules to let movie studios own movie theaters again—because the way things are going, theaters might never again be the powerful force they once were. Perhaps they’ll dwindle to more of a curiosity, the way drive-in movie theaters have—though, ironically, drive-ins may be poised for a comeback in the social distancing era, since they allow people to see movies from the sanctity of their own cars.

But does this mean that bookstores will also be doomed if they have to close for the duration? Possibly not. Leaving aside that many independent bookstores may run into the same bankruptcy issue as independent movie theaters, there’s not really anything about bookstores that makes them undesirable in and of themselves. They don’t force people to sit close together for extended lengths of time. They’re still one of the best ways to shop for and obtain paper books immediately—and people have shown that they do still seem to prefer paper books, even now. So, although those of us who prefer ebooks wish that they would be, ebooks still aren’t quite the threat to paper bookstores that streaming movies could be to movie theaters.

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