Let’s All Go to the Movies – Things That Hollywood Can Do to Help Save the Theatrical Experience

It’s hard to think of what the theatrical experience was like 10, 20, or more years ago.  The theater experience has been an ever evolving thing with the times, with multiple changes made by the theater chains done in order to boost the amount of people coming through their doors.  But one thing is for sure, this century old industry has never had a easy road to success.  It takes a lot to get people to leave the comforts of their home and pay money to sit in a dark room with a bunch of strangers.  To make that happen, movie theaters need to be special places and not just a place to see a movie.  That’s why so many movie theaters today are trying very hard to make their venues more than just a theater.  With the increasing standard of lounge style seating in every theater and in some places interactive features like the 4DX experience with motion seats and in theater effects, movie theaters are making the effort to lure audiences back after several years of struggle.  When the competition is the living room, people need to be reminded that movie theaters offer a far better experience that immerses you better into the movies.  But, not every movie theater can change so quickly with the times, and that has led to a bit of a contraction within the industry.  Thankfully, the movie theater industry is not dead yet, but they have been barely hanging on after it’s near Armageddon during the Covid-19 pandemic.  And hopes of a huge bounce back post-pandemic have largely faded due to a variety of factors, but mostly the lack of event worthy films in the market.  There certainly have been some incredibly successful films in this post-pandemic era, but they have been coming few and far between compared to how they performed in the last decade.  It seems increasingly like the box office may never in fact reach the same highs of the 2010’s ever again, as the future looks increasingly less favorable to the theater business.  But, is that something that Hollywood wants to see happen?

To understand the state of the movie theater industry, we have to examine what is ailing it.  First of all, the under-performance of movies at the box office.  Box office is a tricky barometer for gauging a movie’s success, because it’s the most immediate information we get about how a movie is performing.  Movie studios pay very close attention to the box office receipts, because it’s a definable number that they can gauge their economic outlook on, which is helpful for getting the attention of investors.  But because box office numbers are public record, this can be a double edged sword as a movie’s failure can also be a visible thing.  Unfortunately, too much has been made about these immediate box office numbers as a defining factor in a movie’s success.  There are many cases where movies became bigger hits outside of their initial runs in theaters like The Big Lebowski (1998), Fight Club (1999) and The Iron Giant (1999) due to success in home video.  Sometimes it’s not about how well a movie opens, but rather about how long it’s remembered that helps to separate the successes from the failures.  Sadly, Hollywood over time put too much value in theatrical performances, especially in how movies do in their opening weekend, and it unfortunately leads to many films getting abandoned before they actually have a chance to build momentum.  It was definitely a true thing for movies before the pandemic, but the economic bind that the market disruption has put the studios through has made this reality even worse.  Unless a movie delivers on expectations, some of which may be unrealistic, the studios are likely to abandon it and leave movie theaters hanging with a movie that has to perform all on it’s own.  You see this now even with big movies; a less than stellar opening weekend, and the marketing for that film immediately dries up.  There isn’t even enough time to wait and see if word of mouth can help turn the fortunes of a movie around.  Studios are more willing to throw in the towel opening weekend and focus on what’s next than giving a movie a chance. and it increasingly gives movie theaters a hard time as more and more movies are shuffled through.

Of course the changes in the streaming market have changed the dynamic.  A lot of the movies that once used to give audiences a variety of choices at the movie theater have since moved to streaming, leaving the theaters with far fewer choices as a result.  The mid-ranged budget movies like comedies and action thrillers no longer are believed to be competitive with the likes of mega franchises like the MCU.  So, these movies have gone over to streaming instead, mainly because they don’t have to feel the pressure of showing strong box office numbers once they release.  Twenty years ago, comedic movies were seen as some of the strongest performers at the box office.  Even bad comedies like Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill (2011) were still capable of pulling over $100 million at the box office.  Now, those kinds of broad comedies are absent at the box office.  Sandler himself even abandoned theaters all together, as his Happy Madison production company now makes everything exclusively for Netflix.  It’s crazy to think that in the last five years the only Adam Sandler film released in theaters was the Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems (2019).  But this is where Netflix and other streamers have made a huge difference in the variety of movies that make it to the big screen.  Now, movie theaters can only depend on big studio tent-poles to bring audiences in, as well as small, low risk independents to fill in the rest.  The middle range that helped to give movie theaters an extra boost is all but dried up.  No more $50 million movies capable of grossing $200 million.  For most tent-poles now, $200 million has now become the minimum needed to turn a profit, and some movies now even require more.  With the bar for profitability now so high, it’s easy to see why more studios are opting for the streaming option, because if no one watches their movie, they won’t get that stigma of a public box office failure attached to their film.

The current problems for the film industry stem from these long in the making disruptions, but a lot of the problems they face are also self inflicted wounds that could’ve easily been prevented.  For one thing, the lagging box office of this Summer in particular is very much attributable to the needlessly prolonged strikes that occurred last year.  In the end, the studios ultimately acquiesced to the demands of the unions, showing that they could’ve easily reached a deal early on, but chose to string things out in the hopes that they could make the unions cave, which they didn’t.  So, Hollywood has no one else to blame for a work stoppage that went 6 months longer than it had to, and we are only now a year later beginning to feel the cost of that blunder.  The Summer 2024 movie season has not been on fire thus far.  So far, we’ve seen two movies perform well under expectations (Fall Guy and Furiosa) and another that is meeting expectations but not exceeding them (Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes).  Some worry that this is a sign that the Summer season will be one of the worst ever, which is going to put pressure on a movie theater industry that is still reeling from the pandemic.  We’ve already seen a record low Memorial Day weekend, and given the lack of overall films due to the gap made by the strikes, there’s few films on the horizon that look to reverse the trend.  Also the lack of restraint on the way movies are budgeted is making it near impossible for for the theatrical market to pull it’s wait in showing that it can turn a profit for these movies, so many are trying to compensate by raising the prices of a ticket.  But, raising ticket prices is having it’s own negative effect on the movies, as cash strapped customers are more willing to stay home than spend a whole bunch of money on a movie.  It’s this combination of ticket inflation and the underwhelming product coming out of the studios that has led to this perfect storm of problems plaguing both the studios and the movie theater business, though it’s especially harder on the theaters.

The thing is, there are movies that still are managing to drive business to the movie theaters.  Since the re-opening of the theaters post-pandemic, we’ve seen record shattering runs for movies like Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), Avatar: The Way of Water (2022), and Top Gun: Maverick (2022).  Even this year, movies like Dune: Part Two (2024) and Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire (2024) have managed to demonstrate strong box office holds over multiple weeks.  It’s just that Hollywood is looking at all these examples of success, and not absorbing the lessons.  The thing that all of these movies had in common was that they were events.  They were the kinds of movies that demanded the attention of the audience, and were clearly movies that were meant to be experienced and not just watched.  Unfortunately, there’s no organic way to manifest a larger than life movie event that will generate the kind of box office that these movies did.  The Barbenheimer phenomenon was the biggest story in movies last year precisely because it was so unexpected.  The movies Barbie (2023) and Oppenheimer (2023) were expected to do well, but not to the tune of over $2 billion dollars collectively at the box office.  Movie theaters very much needed that Barbenheimer effect, but it’s something that could only have manifested in that particular moment, so it’s not something that can be conjured on demand.  But what Hollywood can do is to try to make movies that that are distinct from one another.  When the studios try to play things safe, all their movies will tend to just look the same, and audiences will eventually grow tired of that.  It’s something that is especially plaguing the super hero franchises at the moment.  The problem though is that Hollywood takes it’s time to adjust course and try new things.  Sequels and prequels are more likely to get the greenlight before any new intellectual property is ever gambled with by the industry.  And given that the examples I gave of the movies that performed spectacularly well in the last couple years were also franchise movies, the chances of anything new coming out of Hollywood anytime soon seem pretty remote.  But, the fact is that Hollywood has the capability of bringing audiences out to the theaters if they focus on the appeal of these movies and making them worthy of the big screen.  What ultimately draws audiences out of their living rooms is knowing that a theater gives them something more.

There are many ways to make the movie theaters more of a destination to be sure.  Going back to the early days of cinema, the medium of film was a place to experiment with many different techniques.  The introductions of sound and color made movies a whole lot more special, and when televisions started to challenge the superiority of the movie theaters in terms of exhibition, a new type of experience called widescreen began to emerge.  There were also gimmicks that didn’t quite take off as well as people hoped, like 3D and Smell-O-Vision, but these two had the effect of making going to the movies more than just “going to the movies.” There were also mad wizards like William Castle who went so far as to install buzzers into the theater seats to make his horror movies that much more electrifying for his audiences.  One wishes that kind of showmanship extended out into movies today.  In some places, you do see movie theaters that do cater to more to their audiences than just screening a movie.  There’s the Alamo Drafthouse style of Dine-In theaters that give you restaurant service within a theater setting that goes well above just popcorn and soda.  Also, one thing that has been consistently growing in success in the theatrical market in the last few years has been IMAX.  The company that produces the film stock has seen their business grow at a time when the rest of Hollywood has been either stagnant or shrunken.  More audiences are interested in seeing movies in premium formats rather than the standard presentation.  It was a big reason why movies like Oppenheimer and Dune: Part Two were able to be as successful as they were is because the IMAX format was essential to the experience, and audiences were willing to pay the premium ticket price to see these movies in the most ideal way possible.  They were also movies shot specifically for the format, meaning you are not truly seeing the true version of the movie unless you were watching it in IMAX.  True, IMAX is not ideal for every kind of movie, but what is ideal is for more movies that are made with the intent of utilizing their place on a big screen.

One other big thing that Hollywood should consider is to expand the exclusivity window for their films in theaters.  One of the unfortunate outcomes of the pandemic on the theater industry is that the theater chains gave up ground to the studios to allow for movies to go to digital platform earlier than they did before.  Before the pandemic, movie theaters had a 90 day window of exclusivity that allowed them to generate as much revenue as possible from a theatrical run before the movie would be available to buy digitally on places like iTunes or Vudu.  With theaters closed during Covid, the studios began demanding that the chains loosen that restrictive window to allow them the freedom bank off of these movies without having to wait three months.  The exclusive window was cut in half and has remained that way ever since, even with things large back to normal.  This change also allowed studios to begin a day and date style of release in both theaters and on streaming.  Unfortunately for both the theaters and the studios, this has caused a change in audience behavior that has caused movies in general to make less money in the long run.  People are no longer running out to see a movie when they know that it will be streaming within a matter of weeks.  This is especially true for family films, as parents are finding that it’s much less expensive for them to wait for the movie to appear on streaming than to spend tons of money on tickets and snacks from concessions.  The studios need to realize that there is no economic advantage to closing that exclusivity window tighter.  What is fascinating to see is that the movies that actually perform the best on streaming platforms are the ones that had full theatrical runs.  Disney’s Moana (2016) has consistently been present in the top ten streaming charts every single week, making it the most streamed film ever, even eight years after it first appeared in theaters, where it also did well.  It seems that movie theaters are still the ideal way for a movie to have it’s first good impression and that streaming is better used for the residual success that a movie experiences in the years after.  The big flaw of streaming is that the algorithms that they run on are geared to the viewers tastes, and for a movie to be seen on the platform it has to come with some built in awareness on the part of the viewer.  Otherwise it just becomes yet another thumbnail that we scroll past.

A lot of people are trying to assess what is going on with movies in theaters, but I don’t think anyone has the answer to how to fix it.  Even I don’t know, and my suggestions are just based on a handful of historic examples.  But, the sad truth is that movie theaters may never recover to where they were before.  We may be in for a period of decline that ultimately will lead to a significantly reduced theater market.  That doesn’t mean that it will go extinct.  There will always be a demand for the theatrical experience; it’s just that this kind of group of movie fans will have to be catered to with fewer options.  It saddens me when I see any movie theater closing, but it’s something that we are probably going to see much more of in the coming years.  Demand is not meeting up with the supply, so a contraction is inevitable.  But those theaters that do survive will be all the more cherished.  I worry most for those small town, mom and pop movie theaters as they are sometimes the only outlet for rural communities to have that cinematic experience, especially the ones that program an art house selection of movies.  But, the movie theater industry did face one of the worst shocks to it’s system during the Covid-19 pandemic and most movie theaters are still here, which is a hopeful sign.  Now Hollywood just needs to figure it’s own self out and actually see the value in making the kinds of movies that drive people to the cinema.  Not everything needs to be an IMAX sized event, but we do need a reminder that any type of movie is better seen on a bigger screen.  Whether it takes gimmicks like 3D, exclusive merchandise like custom popcorn buckets, or viral marketing like AMC’s Nicole Kidman ad, there are many ways to get people to come back to the movies. There’s also the great sense of community that comes from laughing and cheering with a room full of strangers during a great cinematic experience.  Streaming offers a lot of nice things, but it can’t replace the aura of a theatrical experience.  In this regard, the Nicole Kidman ad says it all: it makes movies better.