About two years ago, I introduced my kids (13 and 15) to Jurassic Park on the big screen. For me, it was a journey back to my early 20’s to see a gold standard in motion picture entertainment. For them, they couldn’t understand why they would waste their time on something they had already seen…on TV. But something not totally unexpected happened: they were amazed at the quality of the story, visuals and excitement generated by such an “old movie” on the “big screen.” It’s okay, kids. Father knows best. By studying my kids’ reaction to a big screen spectacle, I realized that movie theaters are no longer the glittering beacons of escape that they once were. Rather it’s the small and portable screen with access to content anywhere, anytime, that is fast becoming the gold standard. In making this discovery, I wanted know if the trend was growing with kids in the same age group as well as adults. What I learned was astonishing.
Domestic attendance for ages 12-24 was down 15% in the first nine months of 2014, according to Nielsen, and ages 18-24 worldwide was down 17% in 2013, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. Nielsen also reported that the downward trend goes back to 2007! It would seem that attendance is diminishing despite movies becoming more visually spectacular for the big screen. Not only does it seem movie theaters are becoming less important to Millennials, but the movie studios themselves are struggling to maintain a growing audience with newer products. Millennials would rather Snap Chat and Instagram their lives in motion rather than go to a place that practically outlaws the use of mobile devices all together. Maybe movie-watchers are finding fresh alternative content made for the small screen to be more compelling than what the major studios have to offer. Amazon, Netflix, HBO and others, are putting movie theaters and big studios on notice, letting them know that their products are not the only 5-star attractions in town.
Does this mean that movie theaters are on the way out? No, but I don’t expect there to be substantial growth going forward. Even with the major studios releasing “golden tentpoles” like Jurassic World and Star Wars alone will not be enough to get more attendance in the long-run. I expect 2015 to be a record-setting year with those two titles alone. But considering that it takes 2 to 3 years before sequels make it back into theaters, I would caution that this year is going to be a blip on the radar as the decline continues.
With hopes to stave off shrinking attendance, theaters are employing numerous tactics to gain more patrons, including in-theater dining and beverage service, and vomit-inducing motion chairs from a company called 4DX that pitch, rock and occasionally squirt water in your face during a 2-hour movie. Your overpriced drink and popcorn is no longer safe. And ladies beware, your makeup is at risk, too. These advancements are really distractions that generally take you out of the movie rather than immersing you in it. These will eventually go the way of smell-o-vision once audiences have enough of it, I’m sure.
With two years of investigation and study into the movie theater business, it’s become clear to me that the old pastime of going to the movies is ripe for change. Although the industry has been in the midst of change for quite some time, a truly compelling alternative has not emerged. Going out to the movies remains a pretty mundane and predictable activity: grab a bite to eat, find a parking spot, wait in line for tickets, find seats, wait in line again for concessions, watch the movie, wait in line one last time for the bathroom, go home, and repeat.
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