I work at an art house movie theater where attendance frequently fluctuates. In the weeks leading up to Sunday night’s Academy Awards, we’ve been busier than normal as the public pays more attention to films generating big buzz and critical praise. During lighter months, I see dedicated movie-goers trekking out of their homes to see any and every film. Whether they enjoy it or not, it’s more about the physical action of taking part in the experience than being alone on the couch.
The traits of movie-goers correlate to basic human necessities. We live in an age in which we can live full lives within our homes, with practically no excuse of stepping outside. Technology serves our every desire. Most movies are accessible, legally or illegally. And yes, digital streaming has hurt the movie industry tremendously, but theater attendance remains steady. NATO (National Association of Theatre Owners) reported the Annual U.S./Canada Box Office Grosses at $11.376 billion for 2016 as compared to $9.17 billion in 2006. Higher ticket prices are partly responsible as the annual average ticket price increased to $8.97 in 2017, two dollars higher than 10 years prior.
Corporate chains like AMC Theatres spent $600 million in 2014 to offer moviegoers comfortable, fully reclining seats to moviegoers. In addition to popcorn and soda, AMC serves restaurant-quality cuisine at your seat and offers an array of alcoholic drinks. These nuisances are created to entice attendance by evolving the moviegoing experience into a lifestyle brand. The AMC Stubs membership program promises premium accommodations like the food and beverages. AMC’s investment is paying off — in September, it announced that there were 10 million Stubs members.
Pampering experiences aside, the movie itself remains the focal point that drives audiences out of their homes. Watching a movie on a gigantic screen with all-encompassing sound rouses the senses for a larger-than-life experience. Big, splashy live-action blockbusters draw the most sizable crowds, suggesting that a small screen doesn’t do justice to an epic production. “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” has grossed $1.32 billion globally, while the “Jumanji” closes in on $900 million. Even the live action musical “The Greatest Showman” has exceeded expectations, earning $150 million internationally. Animated features also remain strong, as Disney’s “Coco” has grossed a combined $700 million worldwide. And “Black Panther” is on its way to becoming box-office legend. Studios spend vast amounts of marketing dollars to ensure its mammoth investments see profitable returns. We, in the art house theater community, may sometimes brush off these movies as baby food for the masses, however, the revenue made from these massive sensations keep studios afloat which subsequently support the productions of smaller films.
Whichever movie influences our attendance, we share the basic need for escapism. I am thrilled to see our customers lingering in my theater’s lobby or café, having a conversation over a film they’ve just experienced. They may share words with a complete stranger or disagree over a critically acclaimed film. Movies still provoke dialogue, whether it’s a discussion on a particular subject, acting performance or cinematography or based on an instant emotional reaction. Watching a movie at home consists, almost solely, of just viewing the film. Basic social interaction remains a desirable force for physically showing up.
At the art house theater where I work, we have more than 10,000 members along with the general public. That may not seem like a large number, but through the four decades of our theater’s existence we’ve built a strong reputation in our community as a respected curator of film offerings. Members invest their time and money based on their respect for our special selection of films. Our films, from international releases to small documentaries to classic films to niche genre series, cannot be seen in large chain theaters. As a bonus, we regularly host special guests from Hollywood and throughout the film industry giving moviegoers access to insiders. The key to our longevity is our personal touch.
The movie-going experience never will completely die. Though the digital age lead to more isolation, it can’t kill the simplest fulfillments that we desire.
Raj Tawney is a multimedia journalist and producer with a focus on film history in New York.
This article was updated to correct the name of the Star Wars movie that grossed $1.32 billion globally.