The Last Picture Show: The Decline of the Theatrical Experience

by Felicia Giwa

In 1895 in Paris, audiences first marveled at the sight of moving pictures. The experience was communal. Audience members sat in the dark, with strangers no less, to witness the play of light and shadow on a screen. Fast forward to the present day and most people have their entertainment in a small device tucked in their back pockets. The way we have consumed media has changed a lot over many years. Right now people watch more content than ever before in locations other than the movie theater. Based on this, some are saying that it looks like the movie theater is going away all together.

In 2017, 740 movies had a theatrical release and two-thirds of those movies made less than $1 million in ticket sales. To put it in perspective, in 2009 ticket sales were over $10 billion and with inflation today that is around $12 billion. A big reason for this is that more people prefer to stay at home rather than go to the movies. Many people hate having to stand in line to buy tickets and stand in even longer lines to buy overpriced snacks.

There are things that people still enjoy about the movie theater experience. They can watch a movie on a bigger screen and with better sound than they could at their homes. Also going to the movies isn’t just about watching the film, it’s about socializing. Watching a film with other people brings a sense of community. Everyone laughs together, or everyone cries together. It makes the movie theater experience more enjoyable for everyone.

Even many prestige films are going straight to the streaming platforms with little to no theatrical release. Director Alfonso Cuaron’s latest film Roma (a Netflix original film) is a perfect example of this. While Roma will still have some theatrical releases, the film will otherwise be on Netflix, where most people will see the film for the first time. Netflix has produced a number of films this year, such The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, the new film from the Coen Brothers. If prestige directors like the Coen brothers and Alforso Cuaron have their films heading straight to streaming services then this indicates a major shift in the industry. This trend will probably continue to as Netflix and other streaming services get into the movie-making business.

Movie theaters have had to rethink their value in the age of streaming. Theaters have responded to the crisis by attempting to give the customer a better experience. Over the past few years, some movie theaters have stepped up their game by luring people out of their homes by offering them comfier, recliner-like chairs to watch the movies in. Many theaters now also offer food delivered right to the customer’s overt-stuffed chair. Theaters are also installing better screens, brighter projectors, and higher quality sound systems. Theaters are also starting to lower ticket prices to some movies.

Currently, people are still paying to go see the biggest movies in theaters. In the coming decades the movie theater might go away completely, or the movie theater industry might try to reinvent itself; only time will tell. One thing for sure is that people today are still going to the theaters. But this will only continue to happen only if the theater industry fights to stay alive.

Felicia Giwa is a Cinematic Arts major at HBU. She was born and raised in Houston. Her favorite director is Quentin Tarantino.

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