Movie theatres are dying. They’ve been dying for nearly 20 years; and each year seems to get worse and worse. Some film purists, like myself, are terribly upset by these developments, but I find most people to be less sympathetic. As far as I can see, average people react to the impending death of traditional cinema like when an old celebrity they used to love gets diagnosed with an illness: “oh they’re dying? That’s sad…”. And then they move on with their day. How has cinema reached this sorry state and what can it do to save itself? Spoiler alert for the first question: it’s the theatres’ own fault! (You read the title, right?)
I don’t think it’s a secret that movie theatres were already in decline before the world went into quarantine (North American box office hit a 25 year low in 2017), but in this pandemic-afflicted climate, their situation has gotten a lot more dire. Just want to note up front: a lot of the content from this article was inspired or pulled from a university essay I co-wrote called The Slow Demise of Exhibition Cinema. I kind of just shortened it –by a lot– and added some “word spices” to the mix. For that essay, my partner (Sofia Valyaeva) and I conducted interviews of patrons at the Cinesphere in Toronto, Ontario (the first permanent IMAX theatre in the world) to see what compels people into theatres. We also talked with Janine Marchessault –a Professor at York University with professional experience in curating events for the Cinesphere. NOTE: This article won’t be about the Cinesphere, but a lot of my data was gathered using the Cinesphere as a case study.
I want to begin with an anecdote: when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and live sports were cancelled, my brother spent months venting his frustrations over lack of sporting entertainment. I heard considerably less complaints out of him about theatres being closed (and he happily worked at one for months). Come to think of it, the rest of my family and friends weren’t particularly broken up about the closing of theatres either. They missed the experience but weren’t upset or put-out by the loss. Frankly, I think my mother missed movie-theatre popcorn more than the movies… All over the news and radio I heard complaints about various places being shut down for the pandemic: restaurants, music venues, sports arenas, etc, but very little about movie theatres (except to complain when they did re-open). And judging by recent theatre turnout rates for new films like Tenet and Unhinged (Tenet is up to $250 million globally in its third week, which is really really bad for a film that was supposed to “save movies”), general audiences weren’t clamoring for a return to theatres once the world began to re-open.
I know a great deal of theatres haven’t opened around the world yet, but the box office numbers as they stand are still abysmal. And I honestly don’t think the poor turnout can be blamed entirely on the films or the restrictions. It’s not as if people weren’t gathering and going places anyways, Covid be damned… That said, going to theatres is more dangerous than other places. I’m aware of that. I’m just saying, people are doing worse every day.
So what’s going on? Why don’t people want to go anymore? Truth of the matter is movie theatres are making themselves irrelevant. There’s a lot of problems to cover, but for the first: the industry doesn’t innovate enough. Cinemas as we know them are a distinctly 20th century exhibition venue which hasn’t fundamentally changed since their inception: you sit in a dark room and watch moving pictures for a while. Sure there have been fun little tweaks to the formula over the years like synced sound, colour, 3-D, digital technologies and IMAX (OK, those are all pretty big deals…) but the core experience really isn’t all that different than 100 years ago. If anything, it’s worse!
Ever been to a theatre where people won’t get off their phones? I’m pretty sure that wasn’t a prevalent problem even 15 years ago. Patrons used to enjoy a movie for entertainment, but now films are just a side show for whatever Twitter is upset about today (for some folks anyway)… I take this time to put out a PSA: TURN OFF YOUR PHONES IN THEATRES!!!!!
Speaking of diverted attention: theatres also used to be the dominant form of video entertainment for the masses, but now they have to compete with a myriad of streaming services, TV, video games and even the same masses who would watch their movies! There’s too much content to pick from and, when services like Netflix can release their own original movies, theatrical exclusives sometimes get lost in the shuffle. Entertainment was a lot simpler when a small group of elites in their craft made all the content and theatres were the one place you could view said content. Now anyone with a phone and a YouTube channel can get famous by accident and garner a dedicated following if they play their cards right.
Even indirectly, this modern influx of entertainment affects people who would attend theatres regardless of content. During my interviews at the Cinesphere, moviegoers commented that they sometimes have trouble finding others who will attend films with them. For social beings especially, that can be a deal-breaker to visiting theatres.
That said, the number one factor interviewees (in my field study) claimed prevented them from seeing more films was “time”. That could mean a lot of things, so I’m not going to waste time theorizing. The number two factor for interviewees was expense. I completely agree with that sentiment. Movies are freaking expensive! Prices vary around the world, but here in Ontario most theatres charge $13/ ticket and another $20-25 for concessions. So you’re looking at an average of $30 for a single person for a couple hours of entertainment. If you’re a family of three, that’s nearly $100 for one outing! Even if this hypothetical family saw just one movie a week, they’d be spending $400 a month and $4800 yearly. Most families can’t afford that… While streaming service selections might not always be great, you can still get multiple services for less than $30/ month. For such inflated costs, it’s no wonder general audiences have low incentive to visit theatres.
Branching off that point– increases in home-video technology have also hindered the desire for theatrical viewing. Once upon a time, that huge screen was imposing and grand, and the sound systems were incredibly immersive. Even a bad theatre had to be better than your tiny box TV that got reception from antenna… But now HD flat screens are affordable and anyone with a decent budget can install a passable sound system for themselves. Home theatres are enticing because they offer quality viewing without making an excursion and dealing with the outside world. Cause that would be terrible wouldn’t it? Actually, right now, it would be… Stay home if possible.
In summation: lack of industry innovation, over-saturation of media, expensive prices and comparatively affordable home-entertainment are why fewer and fewer people want to visit theatres anymore. If it’s not obvious by now, I’m bitter about new media and frustrated with the state of exhibition cinema… But I have hope!
To quote my essay: “[theatre attendance rates] can be tempered by offering general audiences a diverse array of content, utilizing technologies to provide a unique cinema-going experience, targeting broader audiences through advertising and, ultimately, pushing past the boundaries of traditional exhibition cinema itself.”
Let’s start with the first bit there: diversity of content. Usually when people throw around the word “diversity” they’re referring to ethnicities and genders and orientations; and, regarding film, they often use diversity to comment on the various crew members making up a set. Are there are a variety of faces and creative voices on and behind the camera? All those things are important factors, for sure (the more unique voices in the industry, the less chance for content to get stale) but on-set diversity is only one aspect of a larger issue.
Right now, the American film industry is rather dull. During a general year we get to pick between trash movies, good movies that are marketed terribly, sequels, reboots/ remakes of popular intellectual properties and Oscar bait dramas nobody cares about (the irrelevancy of the Oscars is a separate discussion. Golden Globes all the way!). I’ve seen multiple reports on this topic, so my numbers might be a bit off, but the average person only sees something like 4-5 films in theatres per year! Out of those 4-5 they usually only see the sequels and Oscar bait because they seem the most “important” or are the most “safe” (the blockbusters and award nominees).
In our essay, Sofia and I concluded that “to urge attendance the content of cinema needs to be appealing on a wide level, yet unique enough to pique the interest of jaded audiences.” To achieve this, theatres ought to cater to a diverse type of film-goer: franchise devotees, awards enthusiasts, fans of cinematic artistry (and the artists that create the works, like specific directors) and various genres, etc. Sofia and I noted how a film like Black Panther (Coogler, 2018) had a perfect mix of all those attributes. Because of this, the movie attracted a wide variety of film-goer and raked in $1.3 billion at the global box office. The movie was also good, which didn’t hurt, but quality isn’t exactly a good marker of box office potential. I’ve seen many good films bomb and many trash films make a billion dollars (Transformers: Age of Extinction [Bay, 2014], I’m looking at you. That film followed some of my “variety formula” too though). Black Panther succeeded because it had a wide audience to draw from and was also a unique story in both the superhero genre and Hollywood entertainment. I’ve heard the film was even popular among people who don’t usually watch Marvel movies, and that’s telling.
Besides varied stories, artistic voices and genres, theatres MUST adapt new technologies to survive. Honestly, this is maybe even more important than the content of the films themselves. Audiences have been proven to flock to something they’ve never seen before. Motion pictures literally started as fairground oddities that shocked and delighted people. Since then the movie industry has tried to innovate in ways that will confound and amaze us. Presentation has always been a major part of the experience and, like any show, if/ when the novelty dies down, so too will the attendance. So theatres must find new ways to enhance our experience of watching. Theatres need to give people something they absolutely cannot get anywhere else. Don’t ask me for ideas on what that could look like. You want an idea? I just suggested further innovation. There’s my contribution.
In tandem with fresh stories and technology, theatres also need new marketing strategies. Usually you’ll see advertisements for movies, and you automatically assume you have to see those movies in a theatre. Well how about marketing for the theatres? Make audiences want to taste the buttery popcorn, bask in the glow of a screen bigger than their entire living room, experience audio more powerful and immersive than their home systems, etc. Anyone going to the movies probably goes to the movies on occasion anyway. Theatres need to target the people who aren’t coming.
Finally, theatres need to rethink the way they use their space. As a self-proclaimed theatre-purist, I cringe at this notion, but maybe cinemas shouldn’t just be for films anymore. Professor Janine Marchessault, in her capacity as a curator for the Cinesphere commented for my essay:
I would have artists experiment with the many different kinds of audio visual presentations, and holography… is one of the many things they were thinking about so… there are creative ways of activating [the Cinesphere] and I don’t think they have [attempted them]… I actually think to develop something around games would be very interesting, maybe watching games competitions and esports.
I fully agree with Janine! There are better ways to catch and keep public attention and cinemas simply aren’t doing them. Most of the theatres I attend don’t even open till noon. They’re just wasting potential laying dormant half the day. What if the rest of that time was used for something so unique and fun that late-sleepers couldn’t resist? Once again, don’t ask me what that would be. My idea has been shared… But screens could also open up for sports games, business presentations, some kind of tournament where a screen would be required, etc. The possibilities are huge!
Movie theatres are dying. They’ve been dying for nearly 20 years; and each year seems to get worse and worse. But they’re not dead yet! With a little creativity, theatres can be saved. Right now they’re failing because they’re sticking to the tried and true and getting drowned out by more daring competition. People want to be amazed and surprised! Theatres, from the very beginning have been about the experience— not the content. If they can lean into their potential and draw general audiences back to a visual spectacle which can’t be seen anywhere else, movie theatres will survive and thrive! If not, they will fade into obscurity. As a lifelong film fan, I hope theatres choose the former.
Do you have any ideas on how theatres can adapt to the times? Let me know in the comments. Also, if you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know that as well.
Till next time,