The Why and How of the Decline in Theatre Attendance

On Dec. 9, the release of The Sitter and New Year’s Eve marked the worst U.S. box office opening since Sept. 5, 2008. The previous weekend, which did not premiere any films, outperformed Dec. 9 by 4%.

Think of it like your friend being more likely to visit your house when you’re not there. It’s weird. But why are young Americans forgoing the movies like this, en masse? Ticket sales and revenues have continually declined since 2009. Last year’s annual ticket sales of $1.25 billion are the lowest since 1995’s $1.22 billion. Roger Ebert sums up the causes of the attendance problem excellently, but it’s important to understand that this is not a new problem, and it’s not just about kids today and their illegal downloads. Actually, if you lived in the ‘50s, it would be déjà vu.

Kill Your TV (and other devices)

Though television was introduced in 1939, it didn’t become popular, in America, until after World War II. David A. Cook’s A History of Narrative Film reads, after the war, theatre attendance “decline[d] in direct proportion to the number of television sets in use.” According to Cook, 90 million people attended the cinema in 1948, while 1949 only saw 70 million.

If black-and-white television kept 20 million people from the movies in 1949, add DVDs, video games, Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, and why not throw in The Pirate Bay. Specifically, Netflix accounts for 30% of Internet traffic at peak times. Additionally, Cook notes that film held visual superiority over TV, but with HDTV, “virtually every advantage that film once possessed over video [is] lost.”

Shit’s Expensive 

This chart, based on information from Box Office Mojo, shows the average ticket prices between 1989 and 2011. It took nine years (from 1990 to 1999) for the price of a ticket to increase $1. Since then, it takes about half that time for ticket prices to increase. Inflation has become a big obstacle to movie ticket purchasing. If you’re 25, without a job, you’re not going to spend $25 on a movie date.

The chart on the right combines information from Box Office Mojo and InflationData.com to compare U.S. and movie ticket inflation between 1990 and 2010. Early ‘90s ticket prices remained well below U.S. inflation but, by the 2000s, the opposite became true.

Who Goes to Movies Anymore?

According to Cook, Hollywood misunderstood that it’s audience changed from a “middle-aged, modestly educated, middle- to lower-class group to a younger, better educated, more affluent, and predominantly middle-class group.” With this, comes an obvious change in values and more importantly tastes.

There is a cultural shift occurring now in America. Older generations were primary spenders, and now this generation is coming into a little disposable income. The most marked result of this is a byproduct of Gen Y being more visually aware than any previous generation. Television, film, video games, Internet, and mobile devices expose Millennials to images continuously. Furthermore, Video-on-Demand, Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, etc. mean Millennials have a cinematic sense spanning different times and cultures.

How Do We Fix The Movies?

The strategies that purport to have an answer to the movieplex dilemma always answer this question: What can cinemas do that  ___________ can’t do? In 1950, the blank was televisions. In 2010, the blank is computers, Internet, video games, etc.

Bwana Devil (1952) was the first American color 3-D feature and was “roundly thrashed by reviewers,” as Cook put it.  Regardless, it became a box office sensation. Studios rushed into 3-D production, and between 1953 and 1954, 69 3-D features were produced. Sound familiar? This chart depicts the growth of American 3-D films since 2007. (Remember, James Cameron’s massively popular Avatar premiered in 2009.) From there, 3-D production doubled and continues to rise. Cameron himself sees the obvious connection.

However, movie attendance continues falling as 3-D production rises, and the costs grow exponentially. But, obviously, contrary to the opinion of the studios, fancy, 3-D blockbusters that break the bank aren’t successful in the long-run. Out of the 44 most expensive films of all time, 30 were made between 2007 and 2011. Check out the list and make your own judgments as to whether more money equals more acclaim or just more CGI.

There’s Still Hope

Bonnie and Clyde (1967), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and The Wild Bunch (1969) marked a change of pace from the ‘50s.  They were drastically different from the unimaginative, big budget fluff productions of the previous decade, with balletic violence and overtones of rebellion.

To envision the films initiating cinematic courage, observe current independents. The ‘50s’ saving grace were independents like The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Paths of Glory (1957). Of Ebert’s 2011 top 20 films, 17 seventeen are indies. They are quiet, yet challenging, limited-CGI stories that play-with and pay-homage-to our cinematic expectations.

Millennials will return to theatres for the thoughtful-not-sanitized, tributes-not-rehashes, and authentic visuals-not-candied effects. Only then can the instrutry truly hope for a rebound.

What do you think? Why have ticket sales dropped so much in the past few years? Tell us in the comments. 

Steven Paquin Sometimes I watch seven movies a week and then read 80 pages of "A History of Narrative Film," looking for more movies to watch. In Dublin, a drunkard mistook me for Maxwell Smart and told me about how he previously took seven hits of heroine a week, only to spend his spare time finding ways to get more heroin. All I kept thinking was, "Man, that would make a great film," but then I remembered "Trainspotting."

View all posts by Steven Paquin

3 Responses to “The Why and How of the Decline in Theatre Attendance”

  1. Renee Mitson

    I remember when going to the movies was like $7. And I am not even old. Also, if you live near any major city the price skyrockets. This is understandable as the cost of living is higher and therefore the cost to rent out cinema space but it seems a bit out of whack. For instance in Fenway Park neighborhood its like $11 a ticket. Now I live in Toronto and its about the same, sometimes higher.

    There seems to be tons of people willing to pirate these films, and stream them straight to your computer the week they come out. I am not saying this is right, but that’s another trend. Why would someone choose to pay $22 on a date when they could instead watch the same movie, minus teenybopper noise in the comfort of their own home with free popcorn.

    I think the change in cinema will come from the experience. There are a couple theaters that offer dinner and a movie type deal. But it doesnt mean just that. Fans want to experience something new, something that we have not experienced before or that we cannot get at home.
    Personally I would love to go to a theater that offered a 10 minute intermission because I always have to pee. I would pay $11 for that.

    Reply
  2. Steven M. Paquin

    You definitely right about the ticket prices. The information here is based on averages, which includes your city cinemas as well as $2 second run theatres, outside the suburbs. It’s interesting to consider that a general, weekend evening ticket at AMC, Cinemark, or Regal in or near a city will be $11, but if you see it in 3-D or on one of their larger screens, ETX, XD, and RPX respectively, that will cost about $15 a ticket.

    You bring up an interesting point with the popcorn. Roger Ebert argues that not necessarily larger prices alone, but that in combination with larger portions drives customers away. Think of it like this. “Why am I paying over $10 for something I definitely can’t finish?” Also, some of the major theatres, I know Cinemark for a fact does this because I worked there for a time, make their medium and large sized popcorns equal. Essentially, when you pay for a large, the only difference from a medium is that you are paying for a refill. However, as Ebert noted, you’re not going to finish your popcorn, so why bother paying for the refill? It’s things like this that further annoy customers, when they’re already dissatisfied with the entertainment, something theatres can’t control.

    Reply

Leave a Reply