You may have heard that movie theaters are dying a slow, painful, lamentable death. There are rumors that even the word cinema is a thing of the past. If you’re like me, you may have at least one movie theater in your town that is about as busy as your local mall. After the tepid ticket sales this summer, critics and analysts are again circling the wagon on the viability—or vulnerability—of the movie theater experience. Could it be over?
My commentary on this prospect goes something like this:
The most seminal movie-going moments of my childhood flash before me. Trying to hide in my mother’s armpit in The Empire Strikes Back when the Wampa snow beast slashed at Luke and took him back to his cave to, presumably, eat and/or rape him. Being one of dozens of clumsy kids doing the crane technique kick in the movie theater hallway after The Karate Kid. Laughing so hard at Chunk’s Truffle Shuffle in The Goonies that I almost died for a second time, and then having my mother pull me by the ear back in the movie we were supposed to be seeing, Return to Oz. Being driven to tears at Mozart’s death, of music’s death, in Amadeus. Shaking so bad that I nearly peed myself as Charlie Sheen’s character awaits an ambush in the Vietnam night in Platoon. There was something about each of these experiences in the theater, all filled with other kids and people charging the darkness of the theater with a palpable collective energy, that I can’t imagine recreating at home.
There are, of course, signs of an industry in decline. According to the ultra-trustworthy accountants in Hollywood, revenues are down. Profit margins are tightening. The valuation of the big movie studios has shrunk (aside from Disney, which owns the Star Wars franchise and markets the bejesus out of it). Theater attendance has stifled. And almost no films actually make a profit. Sounds unsustainable, doesn’t it? It also sounds familiar. The music industry went through a similar foot-dragging into the MP3 era, where a reliance on physical media and the comfort of the long-running money machine system that favored executives over artists left the industry claiming that a severe decrease in profits was a death knell of music. Time has shown us that the music industry has restructured and been forced to become more efficient and discerning, but the appetite for music hasn’t left us (even physical media, like vinyl, hasn’t entirely dried up).
For years, movie theater ticket sales have stagnated and more than ever the overall box office is propped up by the Hollywood blockbusters—this year, of the top ten grossing films domestically, Get Out stands alone as the only non-sequel, non-animated (or in the case of Beauty and the Beast, based on a popular animated film), or non-comic book superhero movie. Mostly forgettable genre films for the teen market, like the horror origin story Annabelle Creation, are rarely considered blockbusters but are regularly churned out by the industry for their low budgets and high profit margins.
What is certainly true is that Hollywood has been derelict in adapting to the new ways of consuming first-run films. The quick evolution of cable and streaming services has shown great success with original content, like Netflix’s House of Cards or Amazon’s Transparent, saturating the market for good, character-driven dramas. Virtually all films make most of their profits post-theater run, in DVD and blu-ray rentals and sales, on native-digital subscription streaming services such as Hulu, on cable and satellite, and where digital copies of films to own are sold, like VUDU or iTunes. Dramas that 20 years ago would have been distributed through movie theaters across the country and may have done well now are lucky to get the straight-to-DVD or -digital treatment, if they are even made at all.
These industry trends may lead us to believe that the appetite for theater-going has waned. Most people have big-screen HDTVs. Most people still have some sort of television service. Even cord-cutters have tons of movie content through streaming services. It makes sense that it would take more than we can get at home to entice us to the theaters. In many areas of the country, the cost of one movie ticket is more than an entire month of any major streaming service.
It’s not that we don’t want to go to the movies. It’s more that it’s not cost efficient to do so unless we know we’re going to get an experience that just can’t be replicated at home. A day at the theater for a family of four is roughly the cost of a new water heater.
But perhaps it is the theaters that need to replicate the freedom, convenience, low cost, and variety of the home experience. That’s the position of a company called Moviepass (moviepass.com). The biggest game-changing approach to theater-going comes at the time when theaters most need the help. The model of Moviepass is this: one $10 monthly subscription fee gets you access to a movie a day at 95% if movie theaters across the country—and that includes all of the major theater chains, like Regal, Loews, and AMC (although AMC has cold feet). Essentially, this is the Netflix model of going to the movies. It only counts toward 2D showings, and you can only see each title once, but you can go every day if you see a different movie. Moviepass has actually been around a while, and by all accounts it worked well. But it was much more expensive in the past, with some people online claiming they were paying $50 a month for the service.
Whether this sort of approach is financially feasible for the long haul is still to be decided. But if I am paying for a subscription, I am going to use it. And that means more income for the theaters, more exposure to non-blockbuster fare, and, likely, a lot more people frequenting their local theater. It’s probably also good for restaurants and small businesses around these theaters. It may even be a good thing for your local ghost town mall. And if I’m going to have a subscription to see whatever I want, I am going to want more variety than The Boss Baby 4 and Captain America: Superheros Never Die (and Neither Will Sequels to Them).