Nostra-Dave-us Says Theaters Will Be Gone With The Wind

They’re bulldozing several dozen acres of field and farmland in my adopted city, to make way for a new movie 14-screen multiplex. I wish they’d left it to the meadowlarks and snakes. And I’m guessing that before long, Cinemark, the owners, might wish they had too.

This was a thought I had last winter, before the pandemic hit. That problem has only exacerbated what seemed like an obvious problem to me – we’re building an infrastructure for a product which is in its dying days. It’s like building oat stations along the roads for horses in the 1920s.

It’s not like people in our area have an inability to go see a movie, in good times at least. Two large, modern complexes exist at opposite ends of the city of under 200 000 people, with an older in-mall type of discount six-screen theater in between and a trendy, refurbished old one downtown. Long has it been since a local hasn’t been able to see any hot new movie without traveling more than five miles or waiting an hour or two by the time lunch rolls around. Why add 14 more screens?

Here’s my stab at being Nostradamus. Ten years from now, in 2030, movie theaters will be a thing of the past. A dinosaur. Relegated to the history shows, like so many phone booths and railroad cabooses. Which are apt comparisons. There still are phone booths here and there in some cities and out of the way places and CSX still have a caboose or two they use on a few trains that shuttle back and forth on shortlines where it’s impractical to change the locomotives from front to back routinely. But when was the last time you saw either?

I predict that in ten years, big multiplexes will be similarly rare and left in similar disrepair. Oh yes, a cool retro downtown theater or two may survive and thrive offering old movies with craft beers and full menus to nostalgic crowds but the idea of “going out” to the movies on a Friday night and sitting in a sticky-floored crowded theater watching Star Wars, XVII, scarfing down popcorn and washing it down with a $6 soda will be a thing of the past.

The thought was driven home to me clearly this past weekend when everything we seemed to watch on the “boob tube” was inundated with commercials for Greyhound, a new movie with Tom Hanks. Looks like a big story – Hanks leading a convoy of ships across the ocean during the war – and has big stars. The budget for it was reputed to be over $50 million. And it’s going straight to your bedroom via Apple TV. Not to your local multiplex, but to home streaming.

Aha!, my google-loving friends scream. It is going to “TV” but it was supposed to be a theatrical release from Sony, before the pandemic hit. They simply decided it wasn’t worth waiting for the health threat to dissipate to let people see it, so they bypassed the theaters. True. But what if that brings them in a tidy profit? Why bother planning to go the big screen method next time when people seem to prefer the big screen in their home?

Apple already scored a coup when they brought in Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carrell to star in a flagship show for their streaming service. Stars no longer shun “TV” or shudder at the thought of not appearing in theaters.  More and more of Netflix’s content is made by… Netflix. Already their Roma movie won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Director. Their dreary Marriage Story won Laura Dern both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. The writing is on the wall. Big stars are happy to work for Netflix and Apple; critics and cinema-snobs are starting to accept the made-for-TV works as equals to the traditional Big Screen releases.

All that doesn’t even take into account the Dumbo in the room. The behemoth in the industry is just shifting its gaze to home-streaming too. Disney is starting to make original content for their Disney + service. Think that doesn’t scare AMC and Cinemark? It should. Disney owned the box office in the past decade. A full 14 out of the 15 top-grossing films in the U.S. in the 2010s were from Disney. Universal’s Jurassic World was the only exception to the Mouse House rule. Globally, only three movies have topped $2 billion in box office this century. Two “Avengers” and one “Star Wars” release. Disney franchises both. (And the Star Wars one illustrates another problem for “Hollywood” – people are growing a bit weary of the ongoing franchise. The latest instalment, last year’s Rise of Skywalker took in over $500M domestically. Not bad, but a drop compared to the previous two and down 45% from 2015’s The Force Awakens.) One wonders how long before Disney consider just sending everything to their streaming service, upping the price for that and forgoing the printing of paper posters for multiplexes which cannibalize their home market?

The movie business however, don’t seem to see a problem. Even before the Corona Virus, the number of butts in the too-small multiplex seats was dropping as they kept putting up more and more screens. Deadline reported last year’s box office in North America was $11.4 billion. Not bad at all. Unless you compare it to 2018’s $11.9 B. A 4% drop in one year. They went on to say (around New Year’s before the virus hit) “projections will be down further due to fewer franchises on the schedule” for 2020. In total, 1.239 billion tickets were sold in the States last year. A lot,yes, but also the second lowest number this century and down a remarkable 347 million from 2002.

Yet, the building continues. The number of indoor screens last year hit 40 613, 300 more than the year before and almost 6000 more than existed in 2002, when actual ticket sales peaked. Put another way, on average, 45 000 people filed into every theater in ’02. Last year, 30 500 did. Mind you, ticket prices keep rising in general, to an average of over $9 each last year. Ten years back, it was $7.89. You don’t need a college math or economics degree to figure out which way those graphs are pointing.

When, or if, this pandemic is over, I doubt that number of tickets is going to rise. Fewer were venturing out when times were good; how many will want to go out when jobs are scarce and worries remain about anyone coughing within a hundred-foot radius? When a 26” TV with built-in speaker was a luxury, there was plenty of reason. When more and more people have 60” screens and surround sound in their own living room and the soft drinks aren’t setting you back five bucks a pop, what is the appeal?

I’ve been wrong before. But mostly, when it comes to business, I’ve been wrong in underestimating how much impact anything and all things digital will have. Around 1990, I couldn’t see that home computers would ever be more than a prestige, niche market with no relevance to the average person. In 2005 I thought Amazon might challenge Barnes and Noble but no woman would pick out her clothes without going to try them on, let alone order fresh veggies online. In 2007, my boss at a now-defunct camera store still thought digital photography was a passing fad. I didn’t, but didn’t think people would ever be happy to take photos of meaning, let alone keep them, on their phones.

The popular theater of 2030 is going to look a lot like your living room of today, with a bigger TV in it. Maybe take a photo or two of one soon, to show your grandkids. Good news for meadowlarks and snakes of the future, perhaps.