This year’s box office sales are down 80 percent from pre-pandemic times. courtesy Piqsels

Movie theaters are dying, slowly but surely

Movie theaters have been on the decline for a long time, and people are just now starting to take notice.

Going to the movies is one of America’s long standing traditions. It’s a trademark date scene, the perfect choice for a short family getaway or the only pastime you can find to spend your lonely Saturday evening. It’s got something for everyone. Movie theaters have stood the test of time for nearly 120 years, offering a variety of entertaining films and snacks to keep us distracted from the monotony of our lives.

However, movie theater attendance has been declining for almost two decades. Peak ticket sales in the last 40 years occurred in 2002, with 1,575.75 million tickets being sold at the North American box office. Before 2002, overall ticket sales had been rising. What changed?

The sudden plunge in box office sales last year can be attributed to none other than COVID-19. The pandemic effectively shut down all movie theaters and halted the majority of film production for most of 2020 and the beginning of 2021. Even as movie theaters began to open their doors once again, attendance was nothing compared to what it had been before the pandemic began. Movie theater attendance has still not recovered, and I don’t foresee it reaching pre-pandemic levels any time soon, if at all. Most are ready to put sole blame on COVID-19 for the tumbleweeds bouncing around empty theatersーand while the pandemic did severely incapacitate theaters, it was not the sole perpetrator.

Streaming services and their DVD rental predecessors are responsible for chipping away at theater audiences. Before Netflix became the multi-billion dollar company it is today, the business started out in 1998 as Kibble: a mail-in DVD rental service. Next came Redbox, the aptly named DVD rental kiosks that began popping up in grocery stores and gas stations in 2004. Convenience and low costs began to turn movie-watchers away from theaters, as they could easily rent a movie from one of these services and watch it at home. This was originally Blockbuster’s business model, but they could not compete with the prices or accessibility Kibble and Redbox had to offer. Blockbuster succumbed to the competition a decade later, and movie theaters are following suit, albeit at a much slower pace.

The game changed permanently when Netflix offered online streaming services in 2007, with Hulu launching a year later and countless others after that. Now that we have so much content right at our fingertips, people are opting to stay home and watch virtually anything they want at their own convenience rather than making the long and bothersome trip to the nearest theater, where the viewing options are limited, the seats are sticky and you have to pay exorbitant prices for mediocre snacks.

Our dependence on streaming services was highlighted by the pandemic as there was little else to fill our time while we were quarantined for the better part of a year. For a long time, movie theaters have been staples in the film industry but that is changing. Now, we are seeing movies skip the theater run and heading straight to digital release. We are even seeing movies being released in theaters and on streaming platforms simultaneously, or with very little delay. This is a testament to how profitable streaming platforms are becoming and how much less dependent movies are on theatrical releases.

Movie theater magic is slowly becoming a thing of the past as streaming services dominate the competition. But now that our lives are getting back on track and theaters are releasing blockbuster hits such as “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and “Black Widow,” we are already seeing a sharp rise in theater attendance. With more highly anticipated releases such as “Dune,” “Eternals” and “The Matrix Resurrections,” we are going to continue to see this number rise. However, movie theaters are no longer our primary source of film entertainment and it won’t be long until these highly anticipated releases are available on our smart TV’s and computers at home. Why risk catching a virus at the theater when I could be watching Keanu Reeves in my pajamas from the comfort of my living room?

Post Author: Shelby Hiens