It may seem an ironic suggestion to make in the shadow of a stellar weekend at the box office, but the movie theater business is still fighting for its life. At least that's the gist of a film-viewing preference poll recently conducted by Engine Insights.

As it turns out, most consumers are still content to skip a trip to the cinema and enjoy the flick at home. Perhaps the most damning detail buried in the survey's results, however, was that the majority of these consumers are willing to wait several weeks for a film to be added to a streaming service's free-to-watch library rather than paying a premium to watch it at home while it's still in theaters.

The survey strongly suggests that the big change many people feared would happen as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic is happening.

A family of four sitting on a couch, eating popcorn, and watching TV.

Image source: Getty Images.

Consumers are content at home

It would be easy to conclude otherwise, to be sure. Led by the release of Sony's Venom: Let There Be Carnage, U.S. movie theaters sold an incredible $129 million worth of tickets this past weekend. That's the second-best weekend for the film business since the world (sort of) pushed past the COVID-19 pandemic, according to numbers from Box Office Mojo. It fell $10 million short of the Labor Day weekend opening of Walt Disney's (DIS -0.02%) Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, but it topped the opening weekend of Disney's Black Widow. AMC Entertainment even pointed out it just saw its highest post-reopening weekend revenue.

Don't be too quick to jump to conclusions regarding the movie projection business though. Ticket sales fell off a cliff following Shang-Chi's solid opening weekend, and we could see a similar cratering this time around.

Much of this waning interest in theaters likely stems from the lingering fallout from the pandemic, and at least a partial retraining of sorts of consumers.

In its recently completed poll of potential movie-goers, market research outfit Engine Insights indicated that less than half -- only 48% -- of respondents are willing to visit a theater in the next week. Their biggest concern? Incredibly enough, it isn't safety, although that was a noted factor for 39% of the survey's respondents. Rather, a little more than half of those questioned have enjoyed cheaper snacks and drinks when watching a movie at home, while a little less than half appreciated being able to avoid steep box office prices. Moreover, a full 63% of them said they would "strongly consider" paying a premium to view a newly released film via a streaming service such as Disney+ or AT&T's (T 2.15%) HBO Max. Indeed, roughly half of those people queried indicated they would either be willing to sign up for a new streaming service to see a particular film or use someone else's login credentials for an on-demand platform to do so.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Engine Insights' findings, however, is just how many of these respondents suggested they were not only content to skip a trip to a movie theater, but willing to postpone their viewing until that film no longer required a purchase in addition to the monthly price of a streaming subscription. A little over 55% of these people said they'd be willing to wait 45 days to see it for free with a streaming service like HBO Max or Disney+.

Pie chart of how U.S. moviegoers prefer to view a film, divided between going to a movie theater, streaming at home for a fee, and waiting 45 days and streaming at home for free.

Data source: Engine Insights. Chart by author.

And they've practiced what they're preaching. Of this crowd, only 15% paid a premium to watch Mulan via Disney+ when it was also a new release in theaters. Only 16% paid to watch Black Widow at home.

We're not going (all the way) back

It's still not the end of movie theaters. As I suggested earlier this month, there are just some films that have to be seen on a big screen to be fully enjoyed. It would also be naive to think the coronavirus contagion still doesn't weigh on most people's minds, even if only subconsciously. As the pandemic fades, so too will the fears about visiting enclosed public spaces like a movie theater.

It would be just as naive, however, to ignore the fact that the pandemic has not only given rise to the idea (and viability) of selling new releases directly to consumers, but it's also prompted a serious rethinking of home-viewing by consumers themselves. A wide swath of them clearly like it, and a bunch of them may permanently lose at least some interest in paying a 2021 average of $9.16 per ticket just to then be forced into buying overpriced popcorn and drinks.

It's all clearly great news for streaming platforms like Disney+ and WarnerMedia's HBO Max, the latter of which has already agreed to offer theater chains AMC and Regal -- owned by Cineworld -- 45 days of film exclusivity before making them available as streaming titles. Disney hasn't yet made such a commitment, but it is offering the remainder of this year's releases exclusively to theaters for the same 45-day window. Given Engine Insights' data, it doesn't appear as if either deal will really crimp the marketability of HBO Max or Disney+. 

On the other hand, the rise of HBO Max and Disney+ during the pandemic still dials down the post-pandemic draw of theaters.