The Memorial Day weekend launched the unofficial beginning of the summer season. Movie theater owners are holding their breath in hopes that consumers, once vaccinated, may start to return to the cinema. Is it a false hope?
Much has been written about the demise of the movie theater, even before the world was ravaged by the novel coronavirus pandemic. Sky-high prices for tickets and the exorbitant costs of concessionary items like $8 bottles of water, and $15 baskets of popcorn had made the movie-going experience almost as costly as a rock concert.
At the same time, consumers were being offered the choice of sitting at home, while watching a steady and increasing stream of big-name stars and high-quality films for a $15 monthly fee. This growing competition from streaming companies like Netflix, HBO, and Amazon Prime, and the climbing cost of the movie experience, left the future of movie theaters questionable at best.
And then along came the pandemic. Box office revenues plunged 80 percent or more last year as all 5,477 of U.S. cinemas were closed in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. That left the Hollywood studios with little distribution and only one major product outlet -- streaming.
In an additional blow to a struggling business, the largest theater chain, AMC theaters, agreed to collapse its theatrical "window" of exclusive access to new movies from three months to 17 days. Streamers such as Disney Plus and HBO Max also began offering simultaneous openings on both their streaming channels and in movie theaters for additional fees or as part of their promotional services. Major film producers like Sony, that lacked big, affiliated streaming companies, sold their movies to organizations such as Apple TV+ and Amazon.
Fast forward to today, in what movie theater companies hope may be the beginning of a post-pandemic return to the cinema. Memorial Day box office returns, usually a preview of the summer season, were somewhat encouraging. "A Quiet Place Part II" made $57 million over the three-day weekend. "Cruella," which opened simultaneously on Disney Plus and in the theaters, generated $26.5 million, which was solid and above expectations.
While more theaters are open than not, we are still in the early days. Thus far, total box office gross this year amounts to about $650 million with around 71 million tickets sold at an average price of $9.16 per ticket, according to The Numbers, a data-gathering organization on movie theaters.
The question is whether the pandemic has accelerated the disruption caused by home streaming, or will the pent-up demand and excitement to go out, give the theaters a reprieve and reinvigorate attendance?
Roughly half of adults surveyed by Morning Consult, a research intelligence group, said they felt comfortable at the movies, and nearly 4 in 10 adults said they would feel comfortable returning to the movies in the next month. Generation Z respondents (as well as Millennials) felt the most comfortable in a movie theater, while Baby Boomers lagged with under 50 percent expressing comfort in the idea.
It has become accepted wisdom that going to the movies is passé. For many, it's a place your parents went to make out when they were teenagers. Many argue why go out when you can stream at home, or on the go? When you can get a month's worth of good flicks for the price of one movie ticket? They have a point.
Maybe the streaming companies are right and moviegoers will dwindle down to a couple of chuckleheads like me willing to pay for that buttered popcorn, or that over-priced box of Raisinets. But I suspect there is still an audience out there, and maybe more of one than anyone imagines. I still feel that thrill in my chest when the lights go down, the curtains rise, and for an hour or two I am whisked away to a different world. How about you?