As America works to recover from the various social, cultural, and economic impacts of the COVID pandemic, it’s becoming increasingly clear that one segment of the economy is facing a particularly difficult challenge: movie theaters.
The data on movie theater ticket sales tell a very sad tale for the industry. Ticket sales hit a high point in 2018, when 1,311,300,934 admission tickets were sold, producing revenues of $11,945,954,034. Sales dipped a bit in 2019, the last full pre-pandemic year, when 1,228,763,382 tickets were purchased–and then the bottom fell out. In 2020, when theaters were closed for most of the year in most of the country, only 221,762,724 tickets were sold, and I would guess most of those sales came in January and February, before shutdowns occurred in earnest in March. From that low point, sales rebounded slightly in 2021, to just under 500 million tickets, and if current trends continue, ticket sales in 2022 are on pace to hit just over 725 million–which is slightly better than half the industry’s best year.
In short, if you go to the local movie multiplex right now, you’re likely to find a lot of empty theaters, and you’ll get pretty good seats.
Interestingly, Gallup has periodically asked Americans about their movie attendance, and the recent data is dismal. In January of this year, Gallup announced that its polling data showed that Americans watched an average of 1.4 movies in a movie theater in the prior 12 months. The more compelling story, though, is told by individual movie attendance: 61 percent of respondents didn’t go to a theater at all during that 12-month period, 31 percent went out to watch between 1 and 4 movies, and 9 percent (figures are rounded for the math mafia out there) watched 5 or more movies. In 2007, by comparison, 39 percent of respondents attended between 1 and 4 movies in theaters, and 29 percent saw five or more movies. The Gallup data shows that movie attendance is particularly depressed among older Americans.
Gallup suggests that the movie theater business was grappling with challenges posed by competition from streaming services when the pandemic hit. With theaters then closed during the early days of the pandemic, and many people avoiding reopened theaters as new COVID variants emerged, the question now is whether people’s habits have changed to the point where going to a theater to watch a movie is even considered. And some of us would question whether the offerings being served up by Hollywood, where superhero movies and special effects rule the day, are going to entice broad groups of Americans to buy a ticket and a box of popcorn and settle into a theater seat to watch a film again.