Since before the pandemic there have been articles about movies which expressed an anxiety among directors as to what the audience was willing to go see in a theater.
And I say "directors" because some producers and most any movie studio will not care what the public pays to see as long as they're paying. And the box office had been doing rather well during the 2010s, but only for certain types of movies. Ironically, the person complaining in the Washington Post article was Steven Spielberg, who has a lot to do with inventing the modern blockbuster he now no longer makes.
it would probably lead to tiered pricing at movie theaters, whereby “you’re gonna have to pay $25 for the next ‘Iron Man’ [and] you’re probably only going to have to pay $7 to see ‘Lincoln.’
This quote reveals a big part of the problem in arguing about the importance of movie going. The whole prestige of working in movies is the fact that it pays very well and, when successful, makes an awful lot of money. It does this because film shoots are relatively short, a lot of movies can be sold internationally to larger audiences with less additional work than TV shows, and they can be sold in various different ways. In other words, it's always been about money and not people. That's why the prospect of having a larger audience that pays less is not appealing -- even though if you asked a fanfic author, who already makes nothing, if they'd like to have a much bigger audience, not many would say no.
The problem is that at the moment we don't know what the audience for a film like Lincoln might truly be -- at least not within the 3 month time frame that most films actually spend in a theater. I have no interest in seeing Lincoln-type fare in a theater and the price (and inconvenience) is certainly a big part of that. But I actually did see it some time later when I could watch it on TV. (I thought it was well made but tried too hard to be "a serious film.")
Of course, perhaps Spielberg thinks it's a problem because at a lower cost the box office receipts would make Lincoln seem to be a less successful movie than, say, The Avengers. But if Hollywood stopped reporting success in dollars and instead in attendance, then all movies could be ranked equally regardless of how much people paid to see something. The problem is coming from inside the house.
As many fans as there are for MCU movies, if price were less of a problem many non-genre fans would probably go to cinemas to see non-genre movies. There have long been, for example, fans of classic movies or non-English films, or arthouse films. The problem is that this number of people has been relatively small (compared to, say, a franchise movie audience) but that doesn't mean they're not willing to go to theaters. There are whole cruises run by TCM to celebrate classic films! People are spending significant money to see films they've usually already seen before, just with added content or with fellow fans. Genre fans are not the problem with movie attendance -- quite the opposite. They have saved movies and postponed the life of cinemas for at least another 10 years or more. It's both the accounting of movie receipts and the barrier to viewers that has kept all but those most interested in turning a film into an event from showing up.
“Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie,”
What does that even mean? For the longest time HBO had only movies and documentaries but it was always viewed through TV. If something is a one-shot 3 hour or less story, it's a movie. Perhaps we should say that any movies with sequels are not really movies? Spielberg is responsible for the Indiana Jones series -- which aside from having sequels was based on the serials that used to run in theaters before TV became ubiquitous. At one time creating something for television really was different -- it was shot differently because TVs were square (and they also had less sharpness than what you'd see on a movie screen). But that hasn't been true for some 20 years now. So the fact that a piece of content goes directly to home viewership doesn't prevent it from going to a movie theater too. We have, for example, the success of the Downton Abbey movie which spent years on TV before going to the big screen and doing quite well. The movie in a theater was significant in a fannish way, a way of getting people together who loved a canon.
We also have art house theaters in even small cities, which run all those movies the major cinema chains either won't run or don't have room for (including revivals). What makes Spielberg think movie theaters will go away? I mean NYC has long had Radio City which ran both stage shows and movies (and surely it's not alone). Why would any city with a theater not be able to also run movies? Why doesn't he complain about the consolidation of the cinema industry? Why doesn't he invest in a cinema chain, especially for drive-ins which really are fading into the past? Or do only certain kinds of venues count in his view?
The discussion of Fathom is very on point. It brings events that can be seen only in certain locations to many locations, in a place designed for collective viewing. I only wish this was much more common. It would both benefit live theater and musical performances as well as cinemas (and obviously, viewers who are otherwise shut out). But Spielberg is very clearly not concerned about people who can't see content because of location or income. Nothing should have made clearer how much people do want to see movies than what happened with Movie Pass. Make it affordable and many more people will go, or will go multiple times. But as we already established, Spielberg isn't actually interested in more people seeing what he created. He's concerned about the clout he can have by having a high performing movie bringing a studio a lot of money.
I feel rather firmly that his take on the issue has little to do with collective movie viewing (what about all the $1 theaters?) and rather more with the perceived prestige of making films, which he feels is being eroded if any company can become a movie studio, and any director can become a movie director.
I get the desire to make a movie release an event. But the point is that every movie both can and can't be an event. We have multiplexes running 6, 8, 20 movies at the same time. They can't all be events. And since the pandemic began, most of these multiplexes didn't even have enough new content to fill all those screens. They instead resorted to showing older content that most people had already seen anyway, just to have more chances to tempt people in. If it hadn't been worthwhile, they would have just stuck with a few of their theaters being open.
And yet all movies could be events for specific audiences. But then again the start of a new TV series season can also be an event, ask any fan. I'm not surprised Spielberg is associated with nostalgia because he wants to return to an era when there were hardly any events because there was such a limited amount of entertainment, and there was very little viewer response possible either due to limitations in technology, communal discourse, or social status. Now an event is what the audience makes it, and it's not limited to movies.
The filmmakers complaining about the importance of a live audience and communal viewing are the very same people least likely to see a movie in a regular theater as opposed to their private screening rooms. Regular theaters are not ideal places to see movies, especially since the era of the smartphone. People coming and going, eating, talking using their phones, or maybe spoiling films even as you're watching are not examples of audiences passively taking in an auteur's genius on the screen. And theaters know that home viewing is more comfortable and convenient -- they are starting to offer loungers, TV trays, diverse dining options and meal delivery while a film is showing, all as ways to get people in the door. But it's hard to beat the pause function, closed captioning, dialing the sound up or down, or simply taking a break when the movie has offered some difficult content. People are more than wallets and eyeballs to take in content the way a director wanted it to be seen. Apparently none of them have heard about the death of the author, but the death of movie palaces has already happened.