Watching Movies Alone Together

Even introverts enjoy the occasional communal experience.

It’s entirely possible we won’t see a major new movie released in theaters before August. That scenario becomes a very real possibility with every new announcement from a studio saying they have pushed out the release of a high-profile film to either later in 2020 or into 2021. Just yesterday Sony moved Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Morbius to March of next year, the latest acknowledgement that theaters won’t be reopening anytime soon.

At some point the big exhibition chains will have to figure out what reopening actually means, especially given the titles available to play are going to be much different than what was originally expected. And while drive-in locations are finding themselves more popular than they’ve been in years, independent theaters, like many small businesses, may not have the resources to make it that long and aren’t going to get the same federal bailout dollars the bigger players will.

Some of the studios that already put their movies out before the Covid-19 pandemic forced the closure of theaters and other venues across the country have sent those titles to home video much earlier than expected. Those changes are bringing more interest and attention to transactional VOD, but consumers are sometimes finding the ~$20 price point for a new release much harder to swallow. Not surprising considering the percentage of the country that’s newly out of work because their employer has closed, reduced staff or altered hours in some manner.

So subscription-based streaming has come along to fill in some of the gaps. A number of services have offered new or extended existing free trials in the hopes of luring customers who find themselves isolating at home and looking for something fresh instead of scrolling through the same Netflix recommendations for the 47th time. The numbers show that streaming at home has increased as statewide lockdowns expand.

It’s a Group Hang

The new reality has also led to an interesting phenomenon: The group viewing party.

In the last week, director Cathy Yan hosted a group watch party for Birds of Prey the day it hit digital download stores.

 

Shortly after that, Nerdist got everyone to watch Clue at the same time. And today AFI launched its MovieClub, which features the tagline “Movies to watch together while we’re apart.” The first feature there is Wizard of Oz, and links are helpfully provided on the page for anyone who doesn’t already own it to download the film so they can join in the fun.

 

It’s a pretty remarkable adaptation to this new and unpleasant reality. While the theatrical exhibition business has lost some of its luster recently, with actual ticket sales falling in 2019 compared to 2018, watching movies remains a communal experience. We instinctively want to share it with others, even if we can’t be in an actual theater with them at the time. It enhances everyone’s viewing, whether it’s pure enjoyment or a hate watch.

A Ground-Up Movement

Like most such behavior shifts, this one is notable for springing from the grassroots. Many started by coordinating over social media and then using Twitter hashtags to organize the conversation and show who’s participating. And the newly-popular Netflix Party Chrome extension, allowing multiple people to watch the same movie at the same time, comes from a third party and not the company itself. AFI’s MovieClub appears to be at least one of the first official efforts along these lines.

My hunch is it won’t be the last.

Most of the bigger recent pre-Covid releases have already come to VOD, but some smaller titles are still hanging out there, while others are forgoing even the pretense of theatrical release and going straight to digital. It would make a ton of sense for some of these smaller studios to organize group viewing events in an attempt to raise the profile of those films and generate some word of mouth buzz. Filmmakers who were shut out of key festival appearances and are now seeking buyers in the streaming services can also rally their followers once those deals are signed and come to fruition.

There’s a lot of potential here, whether it’s a studio or organization that gets people watching as a group or if it’s a filmmaker or actor behind the effort. For new releases, there’s an option of including this activity as a key part of a movie’s marketing as well, one that’s baked into the campaign at its outset.

More will come, whatever form they take, because we all like watching movies with other people, even in an non-traditional setting.

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