John Poelking
John Poelking is a Gaming Analyst at Mintel. His passion for live entertainment, movies, television, video games, technology and travel informs his sector knowledge.

When movie theaters were shut down in March 2020, a huge hole was left in what had traditionally been a stable market. Even as movie theaters have started to open up in most states around the US, disappointing box office returns have confirmed the movie industry’s fears: people are still staying home.

The way people watch movies in the US will be changing drastically over the next few years. Informed by Mintel research on movie theaters outlook, here are some of the ways moviegoing will change in 2021 and beyond:

Safety will be a sticking point

The fear of contracting COVID-19 is keeping half of consumers away from theaters. Three in 10 adults won’t feel comfortable going to movie theaters until there’s a COVID-19 vaccine, while an additional quarter of consumers don’t even know if they’ll go to movie theaters in the future. Mandatory mask-wearing and sanitation protocols are more likely to convince people to go back than new movies or theaters opening up. Movie theaters will need to prioritize safety precautions in order to break down the barrier that the virus has put up so firmly.

Independent theaters and drive-ins will engage cinephiles

Three movie theater chains (AMC, Regal, Cinemark) were the primary destinations for three-quarters of US moviegoers before the pandemic, according to Mintel research on movie theaters. However, the casual moviegoers don’t necessarily see the need to return to movie theaters, putting movie chains in jeopardy of losing an audience that traditionally saw movie theaters as the standard for distribution. Independent movie houses have worked on maintaining their audience of dedicated movie fans by scheduling specialty screenings during the pandemic. Meanwhile, drive-in theaters have begun to pop up around the country. While neither is going to necessarily replace big screens from reliable chain brands, they will be repositioned as safe havens for cinephiles to dig into their film passions. These types of moviegoers will continue to find a way to see movies in theaters, making them a valuable audience to engage as some of the most casual moviegoers find alternative means of movie viewing.

Delayed releases in 2021 will chart the course for the future of theaters

As early as March 2020, distributors began delaying the releases of movies to 2021. F9, Black Widow and West Side Story are just a handful of movies set to release in 2020 that got pushed to 2021. Despite these delays, three in five movie viewers are excited to see movies that were delayed to 2021 in theaters. There is a chance these highly-anticipated blockbusters could reinvigorate the movie theater experience in 2021 should theaters be appropriately deemed safe to return to.

Distribution strategies will be more dynamic

When movie theaters shut down, distributors scrambled to make sure their movies could still get in front of an audience. Netflix and Amazon purchased the rights to some movies, while others went straight to digital purchase. The rental market produced a new-tier of “premium rentals” that were set to release in theaters and cost $20 for a rental, as opposed to the traditional $4-7 the digital rental market has seen. That price point may be too high for consumers in the long term though, as three-quarters of moviegoers agree that $20 is too much to rent a movie. Still, this time has shown distributors that movies don’t need to be seen in theaters to make an impact on the world around them. Movie theaters will no longer be the de facto release plan for movies, and distribution strategies will be tailored to the movies, rather than the other way around.

For more on the future of movie theaters, check out Mintel’s ‘Little Conversation’ podcast, as Mintel’s expert analysts discuss the outlook for theaters and streaming platforms.