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The end of the cinema in the digital age

Picture the experience of “going to the movies.” Picture seeing the original Star Wars or Gone with the Wind or Snow White for the first time. In your mind you might see glamour and ceremony, excitement and enthusiasm, hundreds of excited people lined up while some of the stars may even mingle in the mixing multitude. See the bright neon lights, the big cinemas with names like “the Capitol” or “the Royal.”

Imagine the interior: A popcorn machine popping kernels behind a counter surrounded by happy patrons, a well-dressed man or woman at the door taking admissions as people enter the theatre. Imagine the crowd masking the glass window around the ticket booth, where a smiling staff member passes the admissions through the center hole of the glass panel to the eager masses who shove their money under the glass’s bottom slot.

Past the admissions-person at the door, the audience clusters sporadically about the room, whispering to each other in excitement as they sit in the red felt chairs, removing coats and hats. Everyone politely rises when someone has to reach their seat in the middle of the row, and the theatre’s audible buzz is arrested as the lights go black, the audience silencing themselves before the film, containing their emotion as behind them, a young man or woman loads a hefty roll of film onto the projector and starts the show.

That’s what going to the movies is all about, right? Isn’t that the experience we’ve all had at recent shows as well? Not exactly.

Just as movies have changed, so has the experience of going to the movies. The theatres are not quite as full. The food lines are comparatively short, as few want to double the cost of their visit just for a monstrous bag of popcorn. Some theatres have a large audience – Fridays, the ubiquitous movie release day to claim that “box office weekend,” can be packed – but most nights there are still plenty of empty seats.

After fifteen minutes of advertising, public service announcements on cellphone usage, and a certain amount of boasting about the online services of the theatre franchise you are visiting, or the audiovisual qualities of the room you are in, the previews start, before the film ultimately begins twenty minutes after the advertised time.

Both of these past paragraphs could have essentially been advertisements by the two sides that are sparring off as movie theatres dwindle and disappear: the pro-cinema groups and the anti-cinema groups. Whether either of them has anything right can often depend on the theatre itself and the circumstances surrounding it, but let us attempt to take a holistic approach and confront the issue from a general vantage point, regardless of the imprecision of such a stance.

What do these messages have in common about the movie theatre, and what are the differences between them? In both, you find yourself at the cinema, sometimes with a bag of popcorn and a monolithic sugary beverage, watching a film among other people. Sometimes you laugh, sometimes you cry, sometimes you stay the whole time and sometimes you leave early. This general scenario shows that, most times, situational aspects are what change the cinema experience: the theatre is noisy, the lights are too bright, the sound is bad, the food is poor-tasting, or the movie is garbage.

Yet most movie-goers would probably not complain that the lights are always too bright or the sound is always bad or the movies they see are always garbage. They might complain about conveniences, or the high cost of a ticket, or the use of cellphones in the theatre.These are often not necessarily situational aspects, but more the result of changes to the way movie theatres operate and the way people see movies.

What is different tends to be in the imagery: the ideal theatre is bright and festive. It is filled with joy and imagination, it practically exudes happiness. Certain elements of nostalgia for an earlier time occur in the costumes and decorative elements of the theatre: a well-dressed staff and red felt chairs, in particular. In the modern theatre, the image of a massive bag of popcorn at the same price as a general admission ticket – which cost an extra three dollars for 3D and an extra four dollars to choose a seat – is a disappointment compared to the more reasonably proportioned bags of popcorn the audience members of the ideal nostalgic theatre carry. The numerous commercials also leave impressions with the audience, some of them entertaining but others a bore.

This leads me to examine what has actually changed at the theatre and perhaps make some desperate stabs into the abyss to uncover what in fact is killing the movie theatre. Looking over the span of the past 20 or so years, I will examine filmmaking changes, changes in how people see films, and changes in theatres. Some of these points will include statistics, most of which will be from American movie theatres. I will do my best to resist simply quoting off a list of statistics from critics on which movies are “good” or “bad,” as while a critically-acclaimed movie will generally be popular in theatres, many poor-performing films still gross large sums and good audience sizes despite their poor performance in the eyes of the critics – while “niche” or “cult” films which are popular with critics may not always get much attention from audiences either. In essence, I will try to take Roger Ebert’s statements on why movie revenue is dropping, and refresh the article with some more up-to-date information and a better sense of whether Ebert’s hypotheses have merit.

Changes in Cinema

We start our examination looking at the films themselves. What has caused audiences to go to the cinema less within films themselves? Ebert mentions big box-office hits: a year without one will naturally look less impressive than a year with a heavily advertised, big-budget blockbuster. From a purely financial perspective, if we look at the revenues for each year, we can pick out years which had big successful blockbuster films: 1998 (Titanic) or 2009 (Avatar and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) are good examples of this phenomenon relative to the years preceding them and following them.

Hence, we may be led to hypothesize that a movie that has a lot of hype surrounding it is more likely to garner higher total box office sales for the year than years where there is not as significant a box-office success (based on the inflation adjustments of The Numbers, 1998 remains in fact the best performing year for the box office between 1995 and 2013). Other movies which had a great deal of buzz around their release include the first of the Star Wars prequels The Phantom Menace, that premiered in 1999 (still making $75,000,000 less than Titanic, adjusting for inflation) and the new Avengers film that hit theatres in 2012 (beating out all previous records, but when adjusting for inflation still not topping 1998).

Hence, it seems Ebert was correct in assuming years with a big blockbuster film were naturally more likely to churn out high attendance at the movies. The marketing which surrounds such films naturally encourages more people to go to the cinema, and we can see that many such films tend to be led by high-profile directors (James Cameron, George Lucas, or Michael Bay) or exist as important parts of a series (Harry Potter, Transformers, Toy Story, any of the Marvel films).

Looking at trends in movie genres and “creative types” as The Numbers calls them, we can see that comedies gross highest overall (interestingly enough, given that no movie mentioned so far is labeled a comedy, except Toy Story) despite being half as plentiful as dramas, which are only third overall, outpaced by the extremely lucrative “adventure” genre, which has the highest average gross of any genre. Given the fact that, in terms of average gross, the most lucrative creative types for films are ‘Super Hero,’ ‘Kids Fiction’ and ‘Science Fiction,’ respectively, this suggests a pattern. New successful films that draw large audiences tend to appeal to kids and often have a heroic yet “geekier” aesthetic (a word I dislike using but which will suffice) than other films. Critics may mention this growing trend – Ebert does in his article when he mentions the wearying detriment “noisy fanboys and girls” cause to the theatre experience of moviegoers over 30.

Movies that perform well tend to have certain traits: they can be “gritty,” “realistic,” “fantastical” and “grandiose.” Epic cinema certainly functions effectively with exploring the gritty superhero reboots that have grown in popularity or the teen novels which are hitting the screens (Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Twilight). Despite fantastical elements, these films often attempt to be extremely immersive and detailed in their design so that the viewer does not have to suspend their disbelief for long as they watch the film. The superheroes are flawed like all other people, the science fiction and fantasy – except “high fantasy” like Tolkien’s works – drawing from pseudo-scientific explanations that are just good enough to make sense to the average audience member (Pacific Rim, the new Star Trek films, Twilight).

Documentaries which expose the “truth” of the world are popular (Michael Moore’s works), along with movies in a realistic or topical setting (The Hurt Locker, Argo). This trend is very common among many forms of modern media, and as such is not unusual in films. The increased interest in foreign films among English markets is also a sign of the successes of international film festivals and globalization in bringing films from foreign countries to parts of the world where they would not have garnered much notice. This last point will reappear as we discuss the growing competition cinemas face and how that competition has taken advantage of the growing interest in foreign films.

To attempt to draw a conclusion from this data, albeit one which does not account for the many viewers who do not simply conform to the usual pattern, we can see that movies are, by and large, changing to match the tastes of audiences who are more interested in seeing gritty, realistic, action or drama films. Films aimed at younger audiences still receive much attention from older demographics, and many teen book series are snatched up for the screen.

Given that these interests tend to be representative of a younger generation, it is natural for Ebert and others to feel that there is less encouragement for them to go to the cinemas: the interests of Hollywood have moved towards those of younger audiences. This is some part explains the growing popularity of foreign films, more accessible thanks to the Internet and a more global market, as these tend to cover a wider variety of genres and cultures which may appeal more to older audiences. Ultimately, going to the cinema continues to be a matter of taste: if the tastes of the audience do not match the trends of the cinema, they will not be satisfied.

Hence, audiences who are not looking for gritty realism or science fiction, much of which is drawn from aesthetic and similar design elements, may find it harder to see what they want in theatres.

Changes in Watching Films

As previously stated, the big films at cinemas tend to follow certain patterns. However, cinemas are no longer the only place we can find good film. A recent Globe and Mail article by Geoff Pevere suggested that television is the new “medium of choice for people seeking smart diversion.” He echoes feelings familiar to those of Ebert when he comments on the lack of “middle-ground drama,” saying that a movie watcher's choice nowadays “is either marginally released indie art-house fare (which most of us probably watch at home on TV anyway) or yet another movie where the world is nearly destroyed until somebody in tights flies into the 3-D frame to save it.”

These comments may reflect a growing desire among the middle class, at whom Pevere is targeting his article, that the movies are no longer “smart diversion.”

Given the changes and trends listed above, it is clear that viewers who lack interest in the growing cinema trends will look elsewhere for their diversion, and with the plethora of other options available, it is no surprise. While in the grainy nostalgic days of yore the cinema was essentially the only way to see films – early TV being fairly limited in terms of material – now audiences can use a wide variety of on-demand services to see films without having to go out and buy a DVD or even drive to a video rental store, most of which are now closed (Blockbuster being the often-quoted example).

Cable service providers like Rogers, Bell, Cogeco and many other cable providers also provide on-demand movie and TV services, while AppleTV and Netflix provide viewers with an enormous variety of films and TV shows (albeit less recent material in Canada than in the US). Even Youtube Movies provides several movies, for free or paid.

Even without paying for such a service, with a functioning computer and Internet, it is extremely convenient and easy for someone to find movies online, either through torrents or free movie websites, and watch films at no charge. While governments and corporations will try to shut down such sites, such websites are extremely resilient and often proxies are made to keep the sites up.

Yet while these changes may supply cinephiles with the “smart diversion” they are searching for, it is a bad sign for cinemas. Increased interest in foreign films, as mentioned above, and also quoted by Ebert with respect to the large number of popular foreign films on Netflix, which are not as easily found in large movie theatres, also mean that film-lovers will look for other methods of getting a hold of interesting new films. As Ebert warns, “theaters thrive that police their audiences, show a variety of titles and emphasize value-added features.” The rest will need to adapt to survive.

Changes at the Cinema

The theatre itself has changed as well: new technologies like 3D are more common along with theatre design. In Toronto, Cineplex, the largest Canadian cinema company, has a uniform organization of theatres: same prices, same systems, same food. For some movie goers, the options are lackluster. Ticket prices climb close to $20 for 3D or AVX (assigned seating with more leg-room and a boasted stronger sound system), and the price of a “popcorn & 2 drinks combo” for 2 people could pay for a third person to come to the movie. Some viewers find the 3D obtrusive or irritating – I personally have had some frustrating experiences fitting an extra pair of glasses over my own, and then finding that my head must remain centered and upright so that the picture doesn’t distort through the glasses.

Nevertheless, 3D remains popular in theatres and with the large variety of movies which use 3D to some extent; it looks as though theatres will continue to use the technology among new methods of improving video and audio quality in the cinemas, or by having larger screens or seats.

In general, these changes appear to reflect a desire to encourage people to come and enjoy the movies by adopting the mantra “go big or go home,” with large portions, big screens and booming speakers. Plans like Cineplex’s SCENE card dispense free movie tickets when enough points are accrued, allowing cinema-goers who are spending money at the theatre to save on a free ticket after 10 or so movies – although partnerships with Scotiabank mean that Scotiabank cardholders can get free tickets from spending with their cards. Systems like this encourage people to visit more as next time the movie could be free.

But, given that Cineplex has bought all their competition over the past few years (at the same time as most of these changes have come into effect), it looks as though movie theatres in general are faltering. While the map is by no means clear on how its data is calculated, Cinema Treasures gives a bleak estimate of closed theatres compared to open ones in Canada. Obviously many of the theatres closed decades back, as some of the unfamiliar names will suggest, but there are nevertheless a large number of theatres which have closed in recent years – ones near me include the many AMC theatres which stood around the edge of Toronto and in a few choice downtown locations. Many of the closed theatres belonged to smaller companies or were independent.

Those unable to transition to digital film, as Indiewire reported last year, also disappeared quickly from the streets. Time will tell whether theatres will continue to disappear or whether numbers will remain stable for some time yet, but Ebert’s statements seem to continue to apply two years later.



Given this information, it seems that Ebert’s comments back in December 2011 still ring true two years later. With changing trends and theatres no longer living up to their nostalgic charm, audiences are forced to choose: spend a few hours attending a gritty, realistic action-adventure or violent drama with enormous sights and sounds, or stay home and watch a riveting television show or art-house film on their TV or computer. The irony of the choice may in fact be that the television show or art-house film may amaze and excite audiences more than the blockbuster movie without the sensory explosion of the theatre.

While the information used to determine that Ebert’s statements were correct may still lack clarity and precision, we can nevertheless see from a general standpoint that movie theatres have declined in numbers and, based on regular evidence from a visit to a large shopping mall movie theatre, that prices have gone up on average. How this will change over time still remains to be seen, but as long as film continues to expand and spread as a medium, cinemas will need to adapt to, react to and potentially even lead in establishing new ways to enjoy and appreciate films and entertain audiences.   

Forecasted start year: 
2020 to 2025


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