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Why movie theaters aren’t dead yet

The “theatrical window” has shrunk. But it’s still there.

Edward Vega joined the Vox video team as a video producer in 2021. His coverage focuses on all things cinema, from the intricacies of film history to the nuts and bolts of filmmaking.

Covid-19 looked like it could have brought about the end of movie theaters. Theaters couldn’t show movies. Some of the biggest American theater chains were on the brink of bankruptcy. And US movie studios started flirting with an idea: releasing movies digitally and in theaters at the same time.

The “theatrical window,” when a movie plays only in theaters, typically has a minimum length set by deals between movie studios and movie theaters. You might remember a time when the theatrical window was long and you had to wait close to a year before a movie would come out on video or DVD. But over the years, as options for home viewing have proliferated, that window has shrunk. By 2019, many movies were becoming available at home less than three months after their original release.

Behind that shrinking window were decades-long negotiations between theaters and studios over how long that window should be — and it seemed as though movie studios had gradually gotten the upper hand. Then the pandemic gave studios leverage like never before. Now they could bypass movie theaters altogether.

But in the end, they chose not to. Big movies still come out in theaters first. The theatrical window still exists. Why?

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