Dwindling Audience Attendance at Movie Theaters

Because of the modern power of streaming services combined with that pesky old virus COVID-19, movies premiering in theaters now undergo a period of only about 35 days before they are made available on platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, and the like.


With such a short waiting period between a film’s premiere date in theaters and its inevitable availability on streaming platforms, is there still even any point in going to the cinema to see a movie?


I would say that there absolutely is, but as the years go by, less and less people seem to agree with this sentiment.


In all fairness, I am a recent convert to the idea that going to the theater to watch a movie is a valuable experience. Only in the age of COVID have I personally discovered why the movie theater business is important. Although, only recently have I developed any sort of real interest in movies as an art form.


Perhaps I am simply grasping onto any remaining opportunity for human connection because I, like everyone, have been denied that experience for over two years now. Perhaps I just enjoy making it more difficult for myself to experience things that are otherwise easily accessible to me (note: my money-squandering habits of buying vinyl records, CDs, and the box sets of my favourite TV shows). Perhaps I merely took West Side Story’s box office flop personally (I am obsessed with this musical). These are all definite possibilities. However, I do think that there is something fundamentally valuable to watching a film on the big screen, with a room full of strangers who care just as much about seeing the film as you do that you spend all the time out of your days to come to the theater and experience it together.


I went to see two of this year’s big movie productions – “Dune,” and Spielberg’s re-telling of “West Side Story” – at prime times (both Friday nights) in virtually empty theaters. 


“People must be trying to avoid going out because of COVID,” I thought, which made perfect sense to me. Until, lo and behold, “Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse” opens to sold out theaters everywhere and continues to do well at the box office even now, about a month after its initial release.


I can’t think of any films that would have been better to see on those jumbo movie theater screens than “Dune” and “West Side Story.” And yet, these films both underperformed at the box office. “Underperformed” is a relative term; “Dune” was the 11th highest grossing film of the year, but still did not do as well as anyone predicted. And “West Side Story” – widely anticipated to be one of the biggest movie events of the year – generated a mere $44.1 million at the box office, marking a huge flop and a financial loss for Disney. 


This is upsetting to me for two reasons. For one, Spielberg’s remake of the classic musical is a phenomenal film, arguably surpassing the beloved original in terms of quality, and definitely surpassing the original in terms of its ability to tell a story about the danger of hating those that are different from you in a far less racist manner than the 1961 film was able to achieve. The movie is a love letter to musical lovers everywhere and was profoundly moving to watch on the big screen. 


Second, this story is just as important now as it was in 1961. An adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, the musical is told through the lens of two warring gangs in 1950s NYC who face immense tragedy because they can only see the one thing about the other group that makes them different, instead of the countless things that make them extremely similar. I am of the opinion that West Side Story is the greatest musical of all time and deserved a remake in the hands of such a capable filmmaker such as Spielberg. A box office flop of that calibre means that fewer studios and production companies will be willing to invest in similar films, despite its vast critical and audience acclaim.


However, “Dune” and Spielberg’s remake are not the only films that were brushed aside in 2021. Other than “Spiderman: No Way Home,” virtually every film – even the other Marvel blockbusters released this past year – underperformed at the box office in 2021. 


So, why did people leave their homes and head to the theaters in droves to see the latest addition to the Marvel franchise, but generally opted to stay home the rest of the year? I honestly have no idea, other than that the threat of spoilers has become a motivating factor when it comes to these film franchises, and if you wait too long, you will likely have the film’s biggest plot points and surprises ruined for you.


All of this has forced us to ponder what we really miss out on when we watch a film at home instead of at the cinema.


I think it all comes down to this: you can truly see a film come alive in a theater. Watching a cinematic sci-fi spectacle like “Dune” is an experience that far surpasses watching the same movie at home on Netflix. And while “Dune” is a prime example of a film best viewed on the biggest screen available to you, more often than not, the value of the experience you can get watching any movie in the theater is well worth the price of admission. The larger-than-life screen. The booming surround sound audio. A theater full of laughter, tears, gasps, and applause throughout the film that first brought you and the rest of the audience to the same place at the same time to begin with… it’s simply an irreplaceable experience.


There is something in our brain chemistry that yearns for communal experiences. The ability to attend concerts, plays, and live sporting events has been restricted in the age of COVD, and that loss on its own has been deeply upsetting for many. Watching a great film in the theater provides a similar experience. 


If that isn’t reason enough to head back out to the theaters the first chance you get, perhaps think about the circumstances that independent theaters are facing in the age of COVID. Independent movie theaters will be the first to go when the box office industry goes bust. This is the direction we’re heading, and it is an upsetting destination.


The history, beauty, and individuality that can be found within the four walls of an independent theater has provided me with enough magical film experiences to last a lifetime. Among the most cherished of these memories is going to see the 1975 cult classic “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at The Westdale in Hamilton on Halloween weekend just this past year. The interactive, campy legacy of Rocky Horror screenings is something to behold on its own, but experiencing this at the iconic Hamilton theater allowed for a truly perfect film-viewing atmosphere and a night I’ll never forget. 


In a now-infamous article for the New York Times, esteemed director Martin Scorsese writes, “So, you might ask, what’s my problem? Why not just let superhero films and other franchise films be? The reason is simple. In many places around this country and around the world, franchise films are now your primary choice if you want to see something on the big screen. It’s a perilous time in film exhibition, and there are fewer independent theaters than ever. The equation has flipped and streaming has become the primary delivery system. Still, I don’t know a single filmmaker who doesn’t want to design films for the big screen, to be projected before audiences in theaters.”


I am in no way a film purist who even understands the first thing about movies, but where Mr. Scorsese and I can agree is that these Marvel blockbusters will eventually push out any space for independent and smaller-budget films to prosper in the theaters. 


Now, something like “West Side Story” – with a production budget of $100 million – is by no means a small-scale film, yet even an extraordinarily legendary director like Spielberg has already experienced the downfalls of movie franchises monopolizing the industry.


I feel like I should make it clear that I am all for people going to see Marvel movies in theaters. In fact, I think this is ideally how they should be watched if movie watchers are trying to maximize what they get out of those films. I only hope that we collectively decide to share this same enthusiasm for non-franchise films as well. If you won’t listen to me, just think of Scorsese!

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