Pass the Popcorn: The evolution of the movie-watching experience

There is no doubt that Americans love movies. But how much do Americans love movie theaters? Last year, domestic box office revenue was just under $12 billion. While this might seem like a record amount, the bigger picture reveals just how our movie-watching habits have changed, thanks, in part, to the availability of streaming services and on demand platforms.

Although box office revenue increased by 9% from 2017 to 2018, revenues decreased from 2016 to 2017. Many industry watchers point to a 4% price increase in the 1.3 million movie tickets sold last year as one reason for last year’s revenue increase, along with the release of several blockbuster films (Black Panther, Avengers: The Infinity War and Incredibles 2). Domestic box office revenue through June 30, 2019 is down by almost 10% compared to the first half of 2018.

While box office revenue appears to be stagnating, revenue for streaming services has skyrocketed. More than half of all homes in the US subscribe to at least one streaming service, spending more than $2 billion every month. A report prepared last year by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) revealed that 25% of the population in North America do not go to movie theaters at all to see films.

So, what does all this mean for the future of movie theaters?

Going to the Movies

Forty years ago, multiplex theaters began popping up all over the country, offering moviegoers multiple screens playing different films at the same time. As the popularity of the multiplex theaters increased, so did the number of screens. But along the way, the movie-going experience began to change – many say not for the better. Adding all these screens meant that the space of each theater became much smaller, compared to the single-screen theaters these multiplexes were replacing.

The popularity of multiplex theaters made it difficult for independent theaters to compete and many of them went out of business. Today, about half of the more than 40,000 screens in the US are owned by one of three corporations – AMC, Cinemark and Regal.

While the space of each theater in multiplexes has shrunk, the cost of going to the movies has skyrocketed, with increased ticket prices and the astronomical cost of concessions – 85% of every dollar spent at the concession stand goes into the theater owner’s pocket in profit. These prices have left many movie lovers skipping the theater and turning to streaming services. It costs approximately $25 for a movie ticket, soda and popcorn for one person at a multiplex. That’s the average cost for two months of a streaming service like Netflix.

And it’s not just moviegoers who are turning away from the theater chains because of the excessive profits these corporations rake in. Film producers are also turning to streaming services and on demand platforms as the major source of revenue for their films.

This is exactly what Rhode Island-based producer Chad Verdi of Verdi Productions has done with his latest release, Vault. The film, released in June, tells the story of the 1975 Hudson Fur Storage heist in PVD. Verdi says that the majority of profit from the film will come from streaming services, choosing to bypass the standard theatrical release, and instead going straight to Amazon Prime, iTunes, Vudu and other platforms.

“Theater owners need to be more willing to compromise on how the profits for a film are split,” says Verdi. He points to the industry standard of a 70/30 split as being cost-prohibitive, especially when you add in the cost of distribution. With these large bites of the revenue apple, there is little left over for the filmmakers. But streaming and other online platforms are giving producers and filmmakers other options to bring their stories to the public and keep more of the profits.

While the popularity of streaming services has put a substantial dent in the larger movie theater chains’ profits, they just may prove to be a boon for the independent theaters and art house cinemas. In addition to complaints of the cost of multiplex theaters, many moviegoers also lament the loss of the immersive experience that theaters used to provide. Instead of focusing on the experience, multiplex theaters focus on the convenience, providing more screens for more film options, but these options often leave customers crammed into small screening rooms, wondering whatever happened to the “big screen.”

And that immersive experience is something that streaming services also cannot offer customers. People who love film still love going to the movies, too. In a survey conducted last year by Art House Convergence, 65% of the more than 20,000 moviegoers surveyed said they considered their local theater a valuable factor for their overall quality of life.

Unlike multiplex theaters that tend to offer only the latest studio blockbusters, local theaters often showcase the works of independent filmmakers, foreign films, cult classics, older films and niche films.

Verdi thinks there will be a comeback for independent theaters, “As long as a theater is financially stable, they have many more options to attract moviegoers than the large chain movie theaters.” He points to his own film, Vault, as a perfect example. Although the film debuted last month on streaming services, it has also been running simultaneously at Empire Cinemas in East Providence for the past eight weeks for those who want to enjoy the film in a theater instead of at home.

RI currently has two dedicated independent movie theaters operating in the state, Avon Cinema (www.avoncinema.com) and the Jane Pickens Theater & Event Center.

The Avon Cinema, located at 260 Thayer St., Providence, has been around since 1938 and has been owned by the same family since the day its doors opened. Walking into the lobby of the Avon is like stepping back in time, with its original art deco styling throughout the building.

The Jane Pickens Theater & Event Center (janepickens.com) can be found at 49 Touro St., Newport. Built in 1834, the art house cinema began showing films in the 1920s. Today, the JPT Newport offers film lovers a full schedule of films and events throughout the year.  

No matter where you’re watching a movie, whether it’s in a theater or in your living room, don’t forget the popcorn!

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