I hope you’re sitting down, because I have some difficult news to share: Almost everyone hates going to the movies. After cinema attendance hit at 16-year low last year, a new study has found that only 3% of U.S. consumers consider moviegoing “a frequent source of entertainment.” Is this news as bad as it seems? And if so, what can be done about it?
Maybe the most depressing thing about the survey in question is that it’s really easy to imagine why movies have fallen so dramatically in popularity (Two years ago, 28% of people rated moviegoing as a frequent source of entertainment, to give you an idea of just how sharp the decline is). After all, going to the movies is both expensive and, often, not that fun of an experience; bad crowds, bad seats and bad movies can all end up ruining the night out. When you start to think about all of the variables that can make moviegoing a less than optimal way to spend your time, suddenly alternative plans become much more attractive.
What exactly is the problem, though? Consider for a second Marvel’s The Avengers, which has been breaking records as easily as most of us find breathing since its release last month; when you look at the success of that movie, there’s a sense of “The movie industry’s in trouble? Really?” Add in the hype/expectations/hope for things like Prometheus ahead of its release, or The Dark Knight Rises, and there’s a sense that perhaps the problem isn’t moviegoing in general, but that most movies just aren’t trying hard enough to excite audiences.
Certainly, that’s something that seems to be suggested in the survey itself; results show that bad movies are quickly killed on social media, lessening people’s desire to venture out for one of their apparently infrequent trips to the theater to try it out – John Carter‘s swift fate, anyone? – and so, maybe the answer to the problem of “How can we lure people to the movies more often?” really is just “Make better movies.” And yet…
…There’s a sense, for me at least, that what really helped Avengers become the juggernaut that it is wasn’t that it was a good movie – or not just that it was a good movie, at least – but that it was an event. Like The Dark Knight Rises is currently doing, Avengers was promoted not as a movie, but as an inevitability: “You’ve come this far, seen all these other movies with these characters,” the advertising seemed to be implying, “Don’t you want to see what it was all leading up to?” Even before the movie opened, expectations and anticipation were at an unusually high level of fever pitch; it’s not as if Avengers was just any movie that happened to be awesome, it was the result of literally years of planning and teaching the audience to be excited about.
That’s not an easily repeatable feat, and the idea of cinema needing more of that is… not necessarily a good thing, in my mind. Not only would it be exhausting to find yourself constantly in a push-and-pull of different franchises building themselves (and you) up into a climactic frenzy over a number of years, going from the Marvel movies to the DC movies to the toy movies to the and so on and so on – Hell, I find the summer movie season exhausting even now, the idea of extending that to the rest of the year is horrifying – but it’d be amazingly expensive and risky to the studios to actually make happen, considering the cost of those movies and the potential for another Battleship or John Carter (Oh, Taylor Kitsch, what did you do to deserve such a cruel box office fate this year?).
Not to mention, wouldn’t that make the movie industry even more homogenous? It’s not as if there’s a spectacular variety in the movies that make it to theaters these days as is, and so trying to create even more movies-as-events in the hope of finding a regular stream of films that will push infrequent moviegoers out of their seats and into the theater’s more-plush-more-dirty seats seems like a recipe for a very dull selection at the multiplex, to say the least.
None of this, of course, can be seen as good news for theater owners. Movie studios, after all, can find new lives with alternative distribution models – “You don’t want to see movies in theaters? Fine! We can sell them to you on DVD or Blu-ray or stream them to you or let you download them, whatever you want!” – but the theaters themselves? This is genuinely bad news for them, and there doesn’t seem to be a silver lining to be found anywhere soon. Perhaps they should look to their own alternative business models, too; show the big movies on evenings and weekends and more specialist fare during weekdays, perhaps?