In April of 2017 Mashable ran a story with the headline “The end is near for cinema. Go to the movies while there is still time.” The author, Josh Dickey, was sounding the death knell for the cinema. “The movie theater is poised to die a slow, mostly peaceful death. But it is certain.” Dickey’s dire forecast was based on the availability of movies on demand on your home TV and personal devices.
It’s not the first time that we’ve heard predictions like this. In the 1950’s, many thought the proliferation of TV’s meant the end of movie theaters. And in the 80’s it was the VCR that was supposed to put the cinema out of business. But now, two years after Mashable printed its obit, the future of cinema is not so bleak. According to an IBIS World industry market report the movie theater industry has grown at an annualized rate of 3.1% in the last five years. Some 1.35 billion tickets were sold in 2018. While that number has had its ups and downs through the years, it compares to 1.22 billion in 1995. The increase in the box office is more substantial: $8.97 billion in 2018 versus $4.35 billion in 1995. That is due to the increase in the average ticket price from $4.35 to $8.97.
While the outlook for the overall movie industry is relatively stable, that’s not the case for all movie theaters. The old-school downtown movie theater, the grand urban movie palace and the drive-in are all declining. While the number of screens in the U.S. has jumped from 28,000 in 1995 to 41,000 in 2018, the number of movie theater sites where those screens are located has declined from 7,700 to 5,800 over the same period. The downtown movie theater has gone the way of the downtown department store. Just as the Walmart on the highway knocked out the mom and pop local variety store, the movie chain megaplex knocked out the town cinema with its single-screen double feature.
In New York City two dozen of the grand movie palaces that were built between 1910 and 1932 have been closed down. Some have been razed. Some others have been turned into concert venues or retail stores.
Drive-ins have also suffered a steep decline. If you are in an area with enough people to support a theater business, you need a lot of valuable land to have a drive-in and it’s hardly the most profitable use of that land, compared to say a condo complex. There were 2,084 drive in screens in the U.S. in 1987. There are now 524
One of the reasons the Mashable author gave for his dim view of the future of cinema is: “The magic of the movies has been, is, and always will be exclusive content.” I think he’s missing something. For me the magic is the giant screen, the surround sound, and even the popcorn. I am fortunate to live in an area with a few movie theaters nearby and a healthy selection of movies playing. If I didn’t I might feel differently, but when I want to watch a movie, I want it to be in the theater. I want to see and feel the cinematography and I don’t want to have to answer the phone or the doorbell or be reminded it’s garbage night. Personal devices? No thanks. How would you like to have watched Black Panther on your phone?