Unlikely heroes are reviving the classic cinema experience.

Despite fears that streaming services are threatening the life of big-screen cinemas, new brand investments indicate a heightened focus on the in-theater viewing experience—paving the way for a future iteration of cinematic entertainment.

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The Cinema at Selfridges
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High-end department store Selfridges is branching into film entertainment catered to their luxury consumer base. In November 2019, the retailer opened an in-store cinema at their Oxford Street flagship in London, in collaboration with independent boutique cinema Olympic Studios. The permanent theater will screen blockbusters and indie films and will offer a premium membership scheme.

Most notably, Netflix—who has been widely blamed, along with other streaming services, for killing the movie theater—is now reviving iconic theaters and restoring the classic movie watching experience. The streaming giant is heavily investing in traditional theaters, turning to the very entertainment habits they originally disrupted in an effort to, firstly, differentiate in a saturated market and, secondly, solidify their credence in the high-brow film scene.

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Netflix premiered Marriage Story at the Paris Theater

In November 2019, Netflix took a ten-year lease on New York’s iconic 581-seat Paris Theater. The Paris shuttered in August after 71 years, the last remaining single-screen cinema in the US dedicated to first-run platform release movies. Though Netflix has previously rented cinemas, this is the first long-term lease the company has acquired. The streaming giant noted that the theater would “become a home for special Netflix events, screenings, and theatrical releases.”

Additionally, reports began surfacing in spring 2019 about Netflix acquiring the historic Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles. Negotiations are still underway but, according to recent news, the sale would continue to support weekend viewings of historic films, rarities and indie cinema, organized by the American Cinematheque, while Netflix will utilize the theater for screenings and premieres on weekdays. Aside from supporting a continuation of its current programming, the influx of cash would likely also deliver a much-needed renovation and boost the programming by American Cinematheque, according to the organization’s chairman, Rick Nicita.

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The Irishman. Courtesy of Netflix.

Starting last year with Oscar-winning “Roma,” Netflix has released select films in theaters, necessary for their consideration during award season. More recently, “The Irishman” had its theatrical release on November 1, 2019 followed by digital streaming on Netflix starting on November 27th and “Marriage Story” began a limited theatrical release on November 6, 2019 with digital streaming following on December 6th. With Martin Scorsese directing and an all-star cast, “The Irishman” is the latest in Netflix attempt at being viewed as a real player in high-brow filmmaking. The movie has been called a passion project for the veteran filmmaker and in his own words: Netflix “alone allowed us to make ‘The Irishman’ the way we needed to.”

While the acquisition of the Paris and Egyptian theaters has been met with no shortage of critique, some are suggesting this is not a short-lived phenomenon—that Netflix has long-term cinematic intentions. Beyond needing a home to showcase its award-contenders, Netflix also needs these investments in traditional theaters to continue attracting talented filmmakers, according to Variety writer Matt Donnelly. “Auteurs like Scorsese revere the big-screen experience, but they also need backing for their passion projects. With the major studios focused on making tentpole movies and sequels, Netflix is filling a void,” Donnelly says.  “A more robust theatrical component could be important if Netflix wants to keep filmmaking giants such as Scorsese and Cuarón in the fold.” The takeaway from Donnelly and from Scorsese here: Netflix isn’t necessarily a foe to great filmmaking. In fact, it could be a supporter of the arts, financing projects that big studios won’t. Even if the tech company is merely seeking credibility in the film industry, that can be a win for the creative scene.

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Netflix

While Netflix so far is the only streaming service that is investing in brick-and-mortar cinemas, it has remained a leading force in the space. With more and more services launching, such as AppleTV+ and Disney+, and with Amazon producing its own award-winning film content, it’s not unlikely that this is a precedent that will be followed by others.

What’s more, challenging the critique that streaming services are deterring a night out at the cinema, a 2018 study from Ernst & Young’s Quantitative Economics and Statistics group found that people who go out to movie theaters are also consuming more films via streaming services at home. And though 2017 marked a three-year low at the North American Box Office, the following year showed more than 1.2 billion tickets, representing a 4.8 percent increase over 2017 (a total of more than $11.8 billion in ticket sales). Similarly in the UK, theaters saw their highest attendance since 1970 last year, with 177 million trips being made. With the numbers to back it up, Netflix could be kicking off the next wave of disruption for cinema—and other services may well follow suit.

Netflix, which led the charge in streaming disruption, is now perhaps setting the stage to drive a resurgence in traditional movie theater viewing. While a revival in classic cinema viewing is clearly underway, the question remains: can Netflix do for movie theaters what it did for streaming?