Theater Thoughts: Are Movie Venues Really Dying?

Blockbuster rentals. Movie theaters. Brendan Fraser’s career. What is the common link between all three of these? The public is saying they’re going extinct. But is this the case?

Blockbuster and Fraser may not be salvageable (although Fraser has been picking up more roles recently) but the movie theater is still a major point of contention in a media-saturated society.

With the rising popularity of video streaming services, the public’s opinion on declining quality in major blockbusters and rising ticket prices, many have speculated that the film industry will soon meet its end.

“Just as customers now generally eschew albums for singles (or streaming services such as Spotify), and hardcovers for more economical e-books, we will eventually stop going to the movies, which are already expensive, limiting, and inconvenient,” Nick Bilton of Vanity Fair said in a 2017 report.

I’ve never felt inconvenienced by the movie theater. Sure, there may be lines or rowdy crowds, but it’s always been a privilege to see new films in the setting the director intended. I have wonderful childhood memories of going to the theater with my father.

Sitting in the creaky chairs, traversing the slanted, sticky floor, and having my attention captured for hours are pleasant memories. The theater today, however, is not the theater I visited in my childhood.

Theaters are not dying. They are changing.

In 2014, legendary director Martin Scorsese penned a letter to his daughter talking about how filmmaking has changed.

“I don’t think I’m being pessimistic when I say that the art of cinema and the movie business are now at a crossroads,” Scorsese said. “Audio-visual entertainment and what we know as cinema – moving pictures conceived by individuals – appear to be headed in different directions. In the future, you’ll probably see less and less of what we recognize as cinema on multiplex screens and more and more of it in smaller theaters, online, and, I suppose, in spaces and circumstances that I can’t predict.”

Scorsese followed up by saying the future for cinema is bright but unpredictable.

In a Hollywood Reporter interview from 2017, media mogul Barry Diller noted the financial burden many blockbusters are, saying “The movie business is no longer the hit movie business. It’s now a horrible thing called a tentpole business. The business formation is now huge blockbuster movies that have to do $500 million to break even.”

Compare this to making a movie through streaming services like Netflix, and the cost is generally a fraction of a film hitting major theaters. Scorcese is releasing his first Netflix produced crime drama starring Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino, “The Irishman,” is slated to be released in 2019.

Some film purists are considering this a betrayal from one of the most revered directors alive. The theater business does not sound very profitable by that standard.

But this does not mean it is dying.

As a matter of fact, a lot is happening to change and update theaters. The theater experience is a topic that will span many columns and thoughts, and how it has been brought into the 2010s.

Theaters have been a staple of American culture for decades. Spectators have been proclaiming doom and gloom on theaters for years. But it has not happened.

There have been many antagonists of the industry in the past, whether that be color television, DVDs or Video on Demand. Yet, theaters appear to be thriving.

According to Box Office Mojo, theater box offices are on the rise, with the most recent peak hitting $11.4 billion in 2016.

“Box office has topped $10 billion domestically for seven straight years, $11 billion for two straight years, and set records in five of the past seven,” John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners said in 2017. “The entertainment industry might be in the midst of disruption, but it’s not happening at the movie theater.”

Theaters are not stagnant. They have needed to up their game to stay relevant to a modern audience.

Today, theaters are offering reclining plush seats, advances in picture quality and some are implementing full food menus. It’s an evening out, not just a way to kill two hours on a rainy day.

They are also focusing on movies that should be experienced on the big screen. It’s one thing seeing huge-scale movies like “Dunkirk” on your phone, but it’s another shelling out the extra money to see it in IMAX, an opportunity you probably will not have again.

“Dunkirk” director, Christopher Nolan said that even if Netflix creates a film to stream if it’s high enough quality, it is worth putting in a theater for the experience alone.

“If Netflix has made a great film, they should put it in theaters. Why not? Stream it 90 days later… If you make a theatrical film, it’s to be played in theaters.”

Beyond the experience are other factors that keep crowds of people flocking to the theater.

The introduction of rewards programs and subscription services like MoviePass have kept local establishments thriving.

Additionally, movie lovers who are passionate enough have opened independent, artsy venues. If the theater industry is dying, these establishments should not survive, but they are managing to stay afloat due to loyal patrons.

Even purist passion projects, like 70mm rereleases of films, like 2001: A Space Odyssey, still attract audiences and are attractions that are not available through home media like Netflix.

Beyond all of the technical aspects of moviegoing though, the theater experience is a novelty. Reacting similarly to an exciting, funny or tense moment in a movie with strangers is unique to the theater.

There is something magical about heading into a dark, huge room to be transported to another time and place for two hours.

When the movie is good, it truly feels like you are returning to the real world when you exit the theater, and that’s a kind of escape someone cannot find through home media.

Although movie theaters keep evolving and adapting, in a world where people are helping vinyl records, cassette tapes and print publishing have a comeback, it’s safe to say cinephiles will not let them fail.