The Movie Theater Experience Is Alive and Well

Despite competition from streaming services, theaters are still thriving by providing a unique experience worth paying for.

“I’ll wait for it to come out on Netflix,” some might say when they don’t want to spend the money on a movie they’re only mildly interested in seeing. Do sentiments like these mean streaming is slowly killing the moviegoing audience, especially now that services like Netflix are producing their own cinematic content? According to Patrick Corcoran, Vice President and Chief Communications Officer of the National Association of Theatre Owners, the answer is no; in fact, he argues that streaming only adds to the home viewing options without subtracting anything from the wholly unique experience of a night at the movies.

So why does this misconception exist? Before this summer’s healthy box office run, some might have pointed to last year’s more meager take. “What I think it is is searching for a narrative,” says Corcoran, “and one of the things that happened with the rise of the Internet and the rise of streaming, it’s become this monocausal way of explaining everything… That’s been an ongoing thing that we have to fight against: any bad news, any downturn in attendance or box office is a sign of some sort of decline in the industry, and any good news is like, ‘Well, that was a good movie.’”

Corcoran insists that movie theater admissions have been stable and box office earnings have been growing almost every year, with $10 billion grosses domestically for a decade and over $11 billion the last three years, and 2018 looks to be in the same territory when all is said and done. The home theater aspect of entertainment is nothing new, after all, and movie theaters have always provided an immersive, communal experience that has survived several iterations of competition from the living room. Streaming hasn’t changed that.

“If you look at it from a wider view, movie theater attendance was disrupted in 1948 when television came in, and it grew through that,” says Corcoran. “And there was a real decline in moviegoing because it had lost a key driver which was absolute exclusivity on pre-recorded entertainment… but everything since then has been a refinement on what that home entertainment experience has been, whether it’s been cable or VHS or DVD and now streaming, it’s been a change to the home experience, but it hasn’t been a change to the theatrical experience.”

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Even the most extravagant basement media room can’t compete with the feeling of scrunching down in your seat with a box of popcorn, surrounded by a group of people who are all there to be entertained. “The communal experience has always been part of it,” Corcoran says. “There is an absolute qualitative difference to seeing something with people and with strangers in particular in a crowd in public than there is in seeing something at home. Filmmakers when they’re making their movie are aiming at effects based on scale for the large screen in a larger room, but they’re also basing it on how a differentiated audience within that room will react. And that colors your experience… it’s one thing to see something funny at home and you chuckle to yourself or you go back to texting; it’s another thing when an entire room erupts over something that’s really funny.”

If anything, theaters have embraced a wider audience, from the value-conscious consumer to the luxury-oriented moviegoer, not only weathering troublesome disruptors like MoviePass but learning from their mistakes. “The key is to make sure that any program like that is sustainable, and that it grows the pie,” explains Corcoran. “In other words, you get more moviegoers and don’t just move them around to different pricing structures, which I think has been the big concern about MoviePass. The pricing made so little sense and was so unsustainable for them because they didn’t really have a way of cutting their costs other than getting movie theaters to join in… but what MoviePass has shown is that that customer is out there.”

On the other end of the spectrum, there are moviegoers who want more bang for their buck. “Like that value customer, you have customers who want more amenities, who want more luxury, who want a higher level of service, who want an upgraded audio-visual experience… There are a lot of different things that audiences want,” admits Corcoran. “Some of them want that prime, pristine, huge screen, big sound experience; some of them want some chicken fingers, and others want wine and beer and cocktails. There’s that whole range.”

The Internet doesn’t just provide a platform for streaming services to operate, it also allows movie theaters to coordinate second run events across the country through companies like Fathom Events. “For a long time there was a really strong business in repertory houses and revival houses where you could program around a genre… that’s one thing that home entertainment, VHS and DVD, really killed off in a way. It’s harder to get people out for that when they can curate that for themselves at home, which is a terrific thing,” Corcoran concedes. “But what you have now, particularly with digital projection and networking of movie theaters, you have that opportunity to do one-offs and do things across the country on one night and really gather the audience and make it an event, and that’s one of the things that Fathom does with that type of movie.”

Not only has streaming not killed the movie theater experience according to Corcoran; the two methods of consuming entertainment actually go hand in hand. “We conducted a study with Ernst & Young to look at the behavior of consumers, people who stream a lot and people who go to the movies, and what that study found was that people who stream a lot in the home go to movies a lot,” he says. “There’s a direct correlation: the more they stream, the more movies they go to. And it’s basically people who like entertainment; they like art, and if they like it, they want to go see it wherever they can see it… the two complement each other.”

Movie buffs likely realize that when they choose to wait for a film to be released on Netflix, they’re saving what the National Association of Theatre Owners says was an average ticket price of $8.97 in 2017, but they’re also sacrificing the dark and cavernous room, the buttery popcorn, the group laughter, the premium sound, and the massive screen. Streaming may be able to deliver the same narrative content, but there’s only one way to feel the magic of going to the movies: by actually going.

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Michael Ahr is a writer, reviewer, and podcaster here at Den of Geek; you can check out his work here or follow him on Twitter. The full audio of the above interview appears in the Den of Geek Podcast (at 21:55). Subscribe or listen below! Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | Soundcloud