The Last Picture Show?

Global pandemics and lockdowns have consequences. Who knew? Apparently, not everyone.

There was a sense, shared by some, that after we were all vaccinated, everything would return to normal. And while things will again be normal, they certainly won't be the same. It turns out that after a business has been shuttered for over a year, and all the cash has run out, there's a chance it might not reopen.

Case in point: ArcLight Cinemas and Pacific Theaters are no more. This cinema company operated more than 300 movie theater screens in 16 locations mainly in Southern California – with a particular focus on Los Angeles – as well as theaters in Boston, Chicago, and Bethesda. In a statement, the company bid farewell, "To our guests and members of the film industry who have made going to the movies such a magical experience over the years: our deepest thanks. It has been an honor and a pleasure to serve you."

The closing of the flagship theater complex on Sunset Boulevard, two blocks from the Hollywood Walk of Fame, will seem particularly unkind to true cinephiles. The complex was among the first theaters to offer a premium experience with assigned seating, on-site cafe and restaurant, Q&A get-togethers with filmmakers, and no talking, texting, or late entry. The adjacent Cinerama Dome, built in 1963, featured one screen with seating for 800 patrons. It was a landmark with a rich movie history. The Dome, like the company's other theaters, has been closed since the pandemic began. Sheets of plywood cover its doors.

The news comes as a shock to their loyal patrons and movie buffs in general, but as no surprise to anyone who's been following the economic fallout. It's also no surprise to anyone who's been watching Netflix or any other streaming service every night for the past year. It's really swell to have a thousand movies to choose from, from the comfort of your sofa. Streaming is pretty awesome. Who knew? What will happen to landmark locations like the Cinerama Dome? Who knows. Maybe Netflix will buy them.

Is the decision to close ArcLight Cinemas and Pacific Theaters a canary in the coal mine? Obviously, the management knows far more about the cinema business than I ever will. But I think the timing of their decision is particularly instructive. We are getting vaccinated, there is a sense that ordinary things – things like going to a movie theater – are resuming. How much longer could this possibly go on? Surely management could see some light at the end of the year-long tunnel. And yet they close down now. Surely they could have stayed closed for a few more months, then reopened. But no – the closure implies that management decided that even after the pandemic is over, their movie-theater business has no financially viable future.

Now, this is just one company, and a smaller, regional company at that. Before the pandemic, the nation had 41,000 screens. The financials for the big theater chains could be entirely different. But this outfit was in the presumably lucrative epicenter of the movie industry. According to the Wall Street Journal, several ArcLight locations were among the top-performing in the U.S. And they couldn't see a way forward. That just can't bode well for the future of movie theaters.

If movie theaters disappear or, more likely, become a niche business, the reason for their demise will be debated forever. Was it the availability of low-cost, visually superb, big-screen TVs? Was it the rise of streaming? Was it the pandemic? Or did the pandemic simply hasten the inevitable? Cassette decks. LP records. Minidiscs. Compact Discs. DVDs. Record stores. Movie theaters. Times they are a-changin'.

In other news, Jeff Bezos reported last week that Amazon's Prime Video service now has 200 million subscribers. Amazon spent $11 billion on video and music content in 2020; that's a sizable increase from the $7.8 billion it spent in 2019. Those sums cover both content for Amazon Prime Video and royalties for Amazon Music. Mr. Bezos did not comment on the widespread rumors that the company is building a Minidisc factory. Just kidding.