We won’t know exactly how until widespread vaccination gets COVID-19 under control, but our experience under the pandemic is sure to change many things about our lives, including how we work and how we shop.

But perhaps nothing will be as disrupted more than the movie industry, where the isolation forced by the virus is accelerating changes already in progress. In the future, much more of the movie-watching experience will happen at home, as more studios choose to stream even their biggest productions at the same time they reach theaters.

Maybe it’s pandemic fatigue speaking, but we hope it doesn’t change too much — there are few joys like experiencing a good movie in a crowded theater.

What happens next is unclear. Movie theaters have been some of the businesses hardest hit by the pandemic. Restrictions put in place as COVID cases surged meant many could not open at all, and in response studios began holding back their releases until more screens were available — meaning that the theaters that stayed open couldn’t draw many moviegoers anyway.

Some nine months on, people are still not comfortable going to theaters in large numbers, so the studios have adjusted. Some began using a hybrid distribution model, sending films to streaming services at the same time they went to theaters. That’s what Disney did with its live-action version of “Mulan,” which went to the Disney+ streaming service, and for the first three months of its release was available only to members for an extra $30.

Theaters were riled that they wouldn’t have first crack at the biggest movies. But as the pandemic has gone on, studios have been more and more open to bucking them.

Last week, in the biggest move yet in this area, Warner Bros. Pictures announced that it was sending its entire 2021 slate of films, including such potential blockbusters as the next “Matrix” movie and “Dune,” to HBO Max, available free to subscribers, at the same time as theaters.

The studio had already announced it would do the same with “Wonder Woman 1984,” which comes out this month and was expected to earn as much as $1 billion at the box office. Now, it will be offered free on HBO Max in an attempt to draw more subscribers to that new service, just as Disney is using its new movies to attract viewers to Disney+.

That strategy represents a major shift, and shows the priority many media companies are putting on streaming. It could change Hollywood.

“I don’t think the genie will ever be back in the bottle,” veteran producer Peter Guber, president of Mandalay Entertainment and former chief of Sony Pictures, told the AP. “It will be a new studio system. Instead of MGM and Fox, they’re going to be Disney and Disney+, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, HBO Max and Peacock.”

Not all studios are taking this tact. Paramount, which does not have its own streaming service, is holding on to productions such as “The Quiet Place: Part II” and “Top Gun Maverick” until theaters are fully open, though they are selling some of their medium-sized movies to places like Netflix and Amazon Prime.

The streaming strategy raises questions. Will new streaming subscriptions replace the $1 billion movies like “Wonder Women” could have made under the traditional model? What happens when new releases stop bringing in new subscribers?

But the biggest one is whether the pandemic will have long-lasting effects on the theater-going experience, which has brought people who don’t know each other together for more than a century, allowing them to bond over shared entertainment.

We hope that experience doesn’t become yet another victim of the pandemic. After the last eight months, we could all use some time sharing the same stories with strangers.


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