Summertime Sadness: Movie Attendance is Lowest in 25 Years

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Stop me if you’ve heard this before: the movie industry is in trouble. We’ve been hearing it every year for what feels like forever. Just look at 2012, or 2013, or 2014, or 2015, or 2016. Hollywood is on the hot seat. And maybe now more than ever.

According to the LA Times, this summer’s box office haul is down staggeringly from recent years. Generating an estimated $3.8 billion this summer is a drop of 16% from last year. In layman’s terms, that is NOT good. Considering summer box office makes up around 40% of yearly ticket sales for Hollywood, this is troubling for studios and theaters alike.

It’s not just overall revenue though, it’s also ticket sales in general. Sales this summer were only around 425 million. That is the lowest attendance since 1992. That $3.8 billion is a lot of money, but the number of butts in seats is not. For studios and theaters alike, this means less people to make money off of. And when there is less people to make money off of, that means prices increase. And when prices increase, people stop coming altogether.

So yeah, Hollywood might be freaking out a little bit.

But, we’ve been here before. As I said, we’ve seen these stats and analyses every year for the past 5 years! I don’t think the movie industry is going anywhere. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed. It just might need to change a little bit. To figure out what that change might need to be, we need to look at the reasons attendance is down.

Why is No One Going to the Movies?

These Movies Kinda Suck

There are good movies to see. There is always a good movie you can go see. I swear to god that is true. But the big ones, the ones that make that rush to the air conditioned theater feel exciting, are often letdowns. The whole “Hollywood isn’t original” thing has been beaten into the ground. Sure, it’s partially true, but it also works. A lot of those sequels, reboots, IP capitalizing, cinematic universe building blockbusters pull in cold, hard cash. They setup franchises that can be milked til the teet falls off. If your movie has a 10% on Rotten Tomatoes but pulls in 200% its budget, well, shit, you’re gonna make another one of those damn things. It’s not Hollywood’s fault people are stupid.

And it isn’t, but people are getting less stupid. It’s becoming easier and easier to know when a movie is good or not, whether it is worth pulling out the wallet. Metacritic, the aforementioned Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB, general ease of access to others with similar movie preferences have made it all so much easier to know when a movie is not worth it. And it’s finally showing in the box office.

Studios or the shit directors behind the movies can complain that they “made it for the fans, not the critics” when that rotten tomato splooge is plastered over the movie’s rating, but audiences aren’t falling for it anymore. Saying it was made for the fans isn’t a truth, it’s just an insult to the viewing public’s intelligence. People know that a well reviewed movie is more worth it, and a movie that is just absolutely shat on by every reputable critic is not. Sure, comedies have a little bit tougher time with critics, but the good ones generally stay above 40%. Don’t put out trash and say that the movie is too crude for these pretentious critics. It just isn’t funny.

There will still be successful movies that are also very poorly reviewed. There will always be a Transformers: Age of the Dawn of Decepticon Robot Car War. But they are happening less and less frequently. So while Intellectual Property and Moneymaking Brand: The Movie might make a couple hundred mill, there seems to be less of them doing so. A sign of, as I said, audiences getting smarter. Something that studios do not want, but will have to accept if they want to keep making money.

Check Out The World, See Some Shit

Or maybe audiences aren’t getting smarter. Maybe the public just thinks spending their time and money on other things are more important. Just as we have done with everything else (and I. mean. every. thing. else.), millennials are killing the movies too. I think the millennial stuff is bullshit, and it mostly is, but one thing is true: this generation likes to experience things. Go to that streetfest, hit up that concert, bike around some trails, have a picnic, see that new art installation, get drunk at a rooftop bar, make cool food, etc. There are a million fun things going on, and a billion more that you can just make happen yourself. So why would we go and sit in a cold, sometimes gross theater, with a bunch of people that could probably ruin the whole experience, when I can hangout, talk with friends while sipping down my 17th mimosa at a brunch on a cruise ship on a lake?

It isn’t even just millennials. People in general just seem to be more interested in “experiences” now. If these huge blockbuster summer movies aren’t even attempting to become a real event, submerse you in the experience, then the whole point is lost.

For families, these kind of movies are hugely important! Taking your kids, with wild imaginations, to bigger than life movies with cool characters and mindblowing action and sets is a nice escape for the whole fam. Mom and Dad can finally get loose of the grasp of raising children and drown in the excitement of an explosive movie while kids get to eat candy and go insane at big monsters or funny, wisecracking Chris Pratt’s. But if you’re not assuredly getting that, you’re probably not going to spend money on it. You’d probably rather spend that money on a sure experience, a tried and true event or hobby. Knowing you’re just seeing a merchandising scheme (looking at you, Minions) isn’t exciting or worth it for both parents and kids. Ma and Pa could just buy a few toys if they wanted to waste their time on a bunch of products. Which leads into the next reason.

Turn Off Your Cell Phone, Let Me Recline, And Shut Up

Movies shouldn’t be products. By definition, they are. But they aren’t. They are experiences, moments, events. They should be things that fill you with emotions and excitement and the desire to discuss with someone else. When you’re only getting these product movies, these IP merchandise pushing blobs, you’re not getting that. And spending two hours in a theater, that isn’t particularly nice, all for that? That isn’t gonna cut it.

Theaters are improving, and there are a ton across the nation that are hip and trendy and progressive. Pushing forward what it means to go to a movie are what places like Alamo Drafthouse and CineBistro are doing. By offering exquisite food, relaxing viewing, and special events these theaters and chains hope to entice audiences into experiential moviegoing. Combining things like dinner and a movie is something that regional chains near me have done (Marcus Theatres) and implementing comfy recliner chairs in place of your standard theater seats is something a lot of chains are doing anyway. Making that moviegoing trip into more of a luxurious feeling goes a long way to bringing it into that realm of an experience many desire.

This works in downgrading that stigma movie theaters have. Sticky floors, noisy and rude people, and overinflated ticket prices are just some of the general problems people have. It doesn’t mean it’s entirely gone. People still suck. They will ruin your movie for you and not care. They will talk to their friends, text on their phone, chew loudly, react or laugh obnoxiously, essentially just being the worst. Unfortunately, there’s just not much anyone, from you and me to studios and theaters, can do about these walking, talking dumpsters.

Ticket prices are an even bigger concern. For many, spending $10-$15 (sometimes higher) is not worth it for something you’re not 100% sure you’re going to enjoy. And the overinflated concession prices aren’t exactly attractive either. Spending 20 bucks on a bucket of popcorn and a fat drink on top of that hefty ticket isn’t winning anyone over. Why spend $40 when you could stay home and watch something of similar quality for much less, with much less interruption?

I Scream For Streaming

Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon are all here to steal that business. Streaming your favorite TV shows and movies (even new ones!) from the comfort of your own home is a tough one to beat. Pausing when you have to pee, having your own homemade snacks for pennies compared to those overinflated tubs of popcorn, and the option of changing to something you like more without spending more money is quite the value proposition.

And it’s not even just those services, although they contribute to this facet. TV is fucking good. Like really, really good now. Game of Thrones offers more time to occupy yourself and matches those big blockbusters in budget and spectacle. Mini-series like The Night Of and American Crime Story are compelling dramas that unfold over more time. They’re addicting when you watch, and being able to just let it roll into the next episode is pure bliss. The stories of mini-series aren’t comparable to those that unfold in movies but they are equally intriguing. And sometimes, they do more. They delve deeper into characters. Build out plot more. It’s tough to want to see a maybe ok big budget movie when you have a sure thing you can roll on through the rest of the day without leaving your couch.

We’re past the Golden Age of TV, but the bubble is yet to burst. So much TV is put out now it’s hard to keep up with, which makes it even easier to put off seeing a movie knowing you have 27 other shows you can stream through. In a time with so many entertainment options, why spend money when you can just chill, stop, and start an episode whenever you want?

How Do We Fix It?

Make Better Movies, or Market Your Good Ones

As I have stated, audiences aren’t dumb anymore. They know trash when they see it. They want good movies. And they want to know about them. Marketing is a big aspect of selling a movie. Your movie can be amazing but if you don’t let people know about it, no one is going to see it. Just ask Logan LuckyPut money behind good movies, behind good scripts, behind creative talents. Put money behind those movies by those people, and you will make money back.

Actors don’t sell anymore either. There hasn’t been a bonafide movie star in a long time. Will Smith doesn’t pull people in, Tom Cruise doesn’t, Chris Pratt kinda does but might not really. Sandra Bullock doesn’t, Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t, no one does. And the dumb ass IP doesn’t either if it isn’t a good movie.

It comes down to making good movies. It’s harder than you think it is, but success is more likely if studios are trying to actively make good ones. Instead of focusing on strictly money and universes and future spinoffs and merchandise, studios need to focus on making the best movie possible. This doesn’t mean IP and franchises have to stop. Franchises are still very enticing, but only when they are good. Once studios care about the audiences and care about the product they are putting out, people might go to the movies more.

One last thought related to franchises and universes: if a moviegoer knows that a particular film is only the first in a line of sequels, why would they invest emotionally in it? Knowing that a movie is going to have a sequel or is part of a larger universe which it will be interacting with can peel away all drama and suspense and interest if we know how it will end. This doesn’t mean audiences need crazy twists and whatnot, but it would be nice to see a movie where we know everything isn’t for sure going to reset at the end and that everything happening isn’t without consequences. Immerse people in a movie, allow them to connect emotionally and invest, and it’s more likely they are going to come back.

Overstuffing the season is a big problem in the summer too. Movies still make a lot of money when they are good. Get Out, Logan, The Big Sick, and Beauty and the Beast are all examples of movies that succeeded in their releases because they were strategically planned. The industry was actually looking really good until the summer began because of movies like that. Studios need to plan releases throughout the year. August has been barren even though movies in the past few years have proved that people will go to the theater in August if they are good. For some reason, no studio decided to really capitalize on it this year. Instead they shot all their releases for the same 5 weekends in June and July so people could only choose 1 or 2 of the 7 blockbusters that were all in theaters at the time. Movies being released in a less condensed timeframe allows audiences to breathe and avoid prioritizing certain movies over others. Spreading out releases also gives a higher chance of big box office returns, considering there will be less competition. It is not a hard concept, but the summer season attracts so much that its almost too big to break.

Figure Out Them Prices

Pricing is another issue. I don’t agree entirely with people who say movies are wayyyyy tooo expensive, but I get it. I mean, you can just eat out one less time, buy a couple less drinks at the bar, etc. but you should also be able to go to a few movies a month without your wallet being burned through. Prices have inflated and all these special IMAX or 3D or Dolby Ultrasound tack on unnecessary dollars. A ticket should be like $5-$10. Never more.

Prices can’t drop unless a ton more people go to the movies, but luckily one company is trying to supplement the payment for movies. Moviepass offers the ability to go to all the movies you want for just $9.95/month. If this lasts and if it actually works is something that time will tell. But currently, it seems like a phenomenal option for moviegoers. It helps everyone honestly. Studios get their money, theaters get full ticket prices paid and more people to buy their concessions. Audiences get to see a ton of movies without going bankrupt. It’s a genius idea, as long as the price doesn’t raise irrationally, theaters don’t boycott preemptively, and MoviePass doesn’t run out of money.

There’s another way that audiences respond. Special days with special prices. Marcus Theatres offers $5 Tuesdays, where every movie is $5. And the theater is always bumping. Other chains do similar things. People are more likely to spend $5 on a movie that might suck than they are to spend $13. $5 is less of a risk and waste, and people know that. That’s why those special priced days are always bonkers. Obviously, this can’t be done everyday but a few days a week could pull in a lot more paying customers.

The Experience

Finally, making the moviegoing an actual experience is something that needs to be done. If the movie sucks, the audience should at least still have the opportunity to have a good time. Comfortable seating, fun environments, good food, and alcohol are all great ways that are being done to compliment the actual movies. When a movie totally blows but you were able to still have a unique experience, it’s likely the customer will leave somewhat happy, as opposed to pissed off they wasted a ton of money watching an assortment of actors say terrible lines while shooting aliens in an uncomfortable seat with a 400 pound man breathing loudly behind them*.

*This is not an experience I had personally, but there isn’t a doubt in my mind that someone had this happen while seeing Suicide Squad.

Overall, it sucks that people don’t go to movies as much anymore. It equally sucks that there aren’t that many exciting big movies. Movies aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and there is still hope for the future. Audiences have to adjust their expectations, theaters have to offer a quality experience, and studios have to try and make the best movies possible.

Now, let’s all stop worrying about this, and enjoy life while It makes a bajillion dollars for the next three months.

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