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Is The Death Of Movie Theaters Upon Us?

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The Alamo Drafthouse chain was acquired by Sony Pictures this week following Alamo’s bankruptcy … [+] filing

Courtesy of Sony Pictures

This question is becoming as ubiquitous as bankruptcy filings by theater chains. Spoiler Alert: I don’t think the end of movie theaters is growing near. But 2024 is certainly testing my confidence. Box office for the entire month of May was $ 520 million. You have to go back to May 1998 ($ 510 million) to find a worse start to the summer blockbuster season. To put it in perspective, every film released last month (The Fall Guy, Angry, Garfield the Movie, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes among others) combined to make less money than Avengers: Endgame (2019) made in its first eight days of release.

The comparison is certainly not apples-to-apples. Avengers: Endgame was the conclusion of a multi-year cinematic event. Although the Mad Max universe and the Apes films are well-established franchises, only the Star Wars cinematic universe ever rivaled the box office machine created by Marvel in the 2010’s.

Martin Scorsese caught endless flack on social media for comparing Marvel films to amusement park rides. He said summer blockbuster films are less “cinema” than bombastic events tailor-made for the big screens and rumbling sound of movie theaters. The box office certainly bears out his theory. (Scorsese also put his career and money where his mouth was. His two most recent films, The Irishman and Killer of the Flower Moonlargely avoided theaters and went to Netflix and Apple TV+, respectively.)

Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon (above) largely skipped theaters by partnering with a … [+] streaming service (Apple TV+) for its distribution.

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

It’s also worth pointing out that Avengers: Endgame was released pre-pandemic, the year before quarantine, masking and social distancing became commonplace in our country. Film critics who incorporate sociology in their economic analysis find the general public simply became comfortable with staying at home. Dinner out and a movie turned into GrubHub and Netflix.

No lines. No one talking through the film. And, no chance that a random disgruntled individual decides to shoot up the theater like the midnight premiere screening of The Dark Knight (2012) in Aurora, Colorado. Everyone seems happy to remain in their personal bunkers post-pandemic and keep to themselves.

Not to mention the cost of going to movies as a family. A family of four with concessions routinely breaks the $ 100.00 barrier for a night out. Parents can be heard muttering, “I didn’t want to buy the place.” Theater chains responded by creating membership clubs where a flat monthly fee (usually $ 30 to $ 40) gives subscribers the right to see multiple movies per week. It might be ideal for a retiree with the time to see three movies a week, but the family of four would still be paying $ 120 to $ 160 per month for such passes without enough family-friendly fare to justify the expense.

There’s also a significant time investment that comes with theater-going. The drive to the theater, finding parking, standing in line at the concession stand, commercials, trailer after trailer, the running time of the film and the return trip home. Depending on the size market you find yourself in, going to a single movie can easily be a half-day affair. I’m an evangelist for the theatrical experience, and there are days I think: “I could watch two films on the Criterion Channel or MUBI or Netflix in less time than it’ll take me to go see one film at the theater on a busy summer Saturday.”

Wondering why theater attendance is on the decline keeps film distributors and exhibitors awake at night. Is it inferior product? (I still can’t bring myself to refer to a motion picture as “content”.) We simply haven’t made the next Avengers: Endgameand if only we could find the right formula, people will return to theaters in droves. Is it a shift in society? People want movies. They just want to experience them away from screaming children and chit-chatty adults.

The challenge for theaters isn’t so much finding better product. They have no actual control over what Hollywood produces. The challenge for theaters is to create a better “experience” than movie fans can have staying at home. The Alamo Drafthouse chain did just that for quite awhile by offering food, alcohol and a strict no-talking policy at their theaters. Yet just this week the chain was acquired by Sony Pictures following Alamo’s corporate bankruptcy filings.

The answer may be simpler than we think. People want the theatrical experience, but they’re building those theaters at home. According to the June/July issue of Sound and Vision magazine, the sale of 85-inch televisions has increased 1200% in the last year. Samsung is currently selling 98-inch televisions at Sam’s Club and CostCo. The Chinese electronics company TCL (which stands for Telephone Communication Limited) is selling a 98-inch television at Best Buy for $ 2500.00 (which can often be financed for twelve to twenty-four months for those who don’t want to stroke such a sizable check). The 2024 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) featured many televisions with screens over 100 inches that are shipping now.

I bought an 85-inch Sony Bravia in 2019. It squatted like a giant metal bird of prey on a short chest that housed my stereo system. You could stand inside the empty box. It looked like the TARDIS telephone booth from the Doctor Who television series. My wife and friends thought I’d lost my mind. They wrote it off to my out-of-control cinephilia, the endless quest for a perfect picture and big sound. Five years later, it’s the most popular television size in the country.

The theater industry is in a competition with technology itself. The same advances that used to put butts in seats at the local multiplexes is now putting behinds in recliners in living rooms. When it comes to technology, “build it and they will come” has turned into “build it and they’ll stay home”.


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