Moviegoing Hit a 20-Year Low in 2014. Is the Death of the Movie Theater Inevitable?

Your film editor went to the movies this weekend. True story! It happens far, far less than you’d think; you see, us film writers are lucky enough, in most cases, to attend media screenings, in which we have a theater or even a cozy private screening room all to ourselves, several days or even weeks before a film’s release. And as a result, the often-miserable experience of actually going to a theater, paying money, and watching a movie with a bunch of strangers is somewhat under-reported. Then, when we hear that moviegoing has dropped to a two-decade low, there’s a tendency for entertainment journalists to wonder how this could possibly be. But it’s kind of a no-brainer, if you actually put yourself through the motions of going to the movies like a regular human being.

Let’s use my little weekend expedition as an example. I badly wanted my wife to see Selma, the best film of last year. But it’s still in limited release, so when I went to check showtimes, I saw that our first choice was sold out, and I figured I’d better order tickets online. So the already-hefty $15-per-ticket charge was upped by another three bucks, for a total just shy of $33. (If we were seeing something in 3D or IMAX, it would’ve been more.) My wife is a movie snacker, so once we arrived at the multiplex, she spent nearly that much on popcorn and nachos and sodas, after waiting in a concession line for nearly 20 minutes. Our theater of choice has 25 screens over five floors, and yet only the first-floor concession stand was open — on a Saturday night. Once in our seats, we settled in for 20 minutes of trailers and commercials, followed by the movie, occasionally interrupted by the odd outbursts and bright cell phone screens of our fellow audience members. Ah, the magic of the movies.

This was a comparatively mild moviegoing experience — I’ve had far worse, and I’m sure you have too. But once we arrived home and I scrawled out the king’s ransom check to our babysitter, I thought about The Interview. No, I didn’t regret taking my better half to Selma instead of Rogen and Franco’s assassination comedy. But if that had been our preference, this entire process would have been far easier, more enjoyable, and way cheaper; when the baby went to bed, we’d have curled up on the couch with our homemade snacks, downloaded it from iTunes or YouTube, and watched in the comfort of our own home.

James Franco, Lizzy Caplan, and Seth Rogen in "The Interview"

The Interview wasn’t available to us on demand by design — it was the result, as we all know, of the fumble-fucked “Do you guys really wanna show The Interview?”/ ”OK, never mind, we’re cancelling it” / “OK, never mind the never mind, we’re releasing it” imbroglio. Because the major chains had refused it, The Interview, a big studio comedy with major stars and a significant budget, was released like an indie film: on a handful of independent screens, simultaneous with video-on-demand. And the results of that experiment were telling, particularly since VOD revenues are so rarely reported (and certainly not with the sports page-ish breathlessness of theatrical box office).

In those first four days of online release, The Interview made $15 million. In the same period, it made $2.8 million in theaters — and even factoring in the limited number of screens showing it (331, about a tenth of initial, wide-release projections), the film’s per-screen average was equally unimpressive (about $5K/screen, or 13th place for the weekend). Even if you factor in the “safety concerns” that prompted its initial ousting from the major chains, the message was clear here: given the choice between seeing a major, well publicized (too well, ultimately!) studio release in a theater or in the comfort of their own home, the vast majority of moviegoers said, “Home, please.” It’s a controllable environment, and a more comfortable one — and it’s cheaper by a mile.

The major theater chains know this, and they’re terrified of it. Editorials have insisted that The Interview’s VOD success wasn’t a game-changer because it’s such a special case, and maybe they’re right. But the exhibitors know which way the wind is blowing. When consumers choose to watch movies at home, the bulk of that rental or purchase fee is going to the studios — without the theaters skimming their noteworthy percentage off the top. And more importantly, when we stay home we’re not buying those overpriced concessions, which is where the theaters make their real money anyway.

Earlier attempts by the studios to collapse the theatrical-to-home viewing window have met with braying resistance, but it’s all stopgaps at this point: threats and boycotts, moviegoers waiting out the increasingly brief turnaround from theatrical release to streaming and disc (it used to average six months; these days it’s often three or less), and studios placing all their chips on spectacle movies, nickel-and-diming their young target audience with surcharge-happy bells and whistles like 3D, IMAX, and whatever the hell “RPX” is. One of two things is going to happen: either exhibitors will have to get competitive by making the theatrical experience more enjoyable and more affordable, or the free-fall will continue and moviegoing as we know it will just plain bleed out. It’s not hard to pinpoint is which is more likely.