Those Empty Theater Blues

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.

A Downtown Facade

IMG_5130Tonight we’re in Michigan, visiting Russell at Cranbrook.  We had dinner at Churchill’s in downtown Birmingham, a throwback place where everyone, Russell and me included, was smoking a stogie and enjoying our dinner.  The Birmingham downtown area is enlivened by the beautiful facade of the Birmingham Uptown theater — which demonstrates just how much a fantastic, colorful neon sign can add to a nighttime area. Let the weekend begin!

The Rehabilitation Quandary

Last night, on our way to a visit with Richard in Columbus, Missouri, Kish and I spent the night in Terre Haute, Indiana.  (For the record, Terre Haute means “upland.”)  We stayed in a Candlewood Suites downtown.

IMG_5032One block away was a magnificent movie theater — the Indiana.  Located on a corner, it had a fantastic wraparound front, a central ticket window, a fine neon sign, and especially beautiful, detailed stone or plaster work above the entrance.  You could easily imagine walking into the theater to watch new releases like The Wizard of Oz or Gone With the Wind or some other film from the golden era of Hollywood.

I could only imagine what the interior looked like — because the Indiana was closed, of course.  Like many of the magnificent downtown theaters in America, it has fallen out of favor in an era of multiplexes and cinemas where a dozen films are offered and some theater screens as only slight larger than the big screen TV offered at Best Buy.

There was a big dumpster outside the Indiana, and a small piece of machinery that indicated there was a rehabilitation effort underway.  That’s the big quandary for towns like Terre Haute, I suppose.  You’ve got tremendous structures from your glory days, but they just aren’t economical anymore.  What do you do with them?  Do you sink money into them, and hope that you can figure out a way to keep them busy and marginally profitable?  Or do you just recognize that societal forces have sent structures like the Indiana the way of the dodo?

I say give it a shot.  Keep the Indiana, and hope that you can find a way to support something that is beautiful and unique.

The Drexel

Columbus is blessed with a remnant of the days when movie houses were stand-alone, single-theater structures found in many neighborhoods. The theater is called the Drexel, and it is found on Main Street in Bexley, a close-in suburb.

The Drexel is a beautiful art deco structure that features a classic neon sign. It hasn’t quite been preserved in its original state; the big theater has been divided into several screening rooms. Still, it is vastly different from, and in many ways preferable to, the cookie-cutter multiplexes found at most shopping malls. Don’t get me wrong — the multiplexes offer the opportunity to see lots of different movies, and we visit them from time to time. It’s nice, however, to walk under the bright sign advertising one of the features being screened, to sit in one of the original theater seats, and to get a distant whiff of what it was like to go to the movies during the glory days of the 1930s and 1940s.

The Drexel typically screens independent films and, occasionally, repertory fare. It’s owned by a non-profit entity, Friends of the Drexel, and is operated by CAPA. Over the years, many volunteers and charitable folks have taken steps to make sure that the Drexel remains in operation, as a cornerstone of the Bexley community. I’m very glad they did.

Strangers On A Train At The Ohio Theatre

Richard had the excellent idea that we should eat downtown tonight and then watch Strangers On A Train at the Ohio Theatre.  Cath, Brittany, Mom, Richard and I had dinner at Dirty Frank’s, a downtown eatery that specializes in inventive hot dog-based concoctions, and then traveled over to the theatre for some organ music and some Alred Hitchcock mastery.  The hot dogs at Dirty Frank’s were really quite good (I had a chili dog and a combination of frankfurter, brisket, and barbeque sauce that really hit the spot) but the real highlight of the evening was the movie at the Ohio Theatre.

Strangers was being screened as part of the Summer Movie Series, which runs from early June to mid-July.  It is a popular series, I think in part because it is just enjoyable to watch a movie on a big movie screen, in a huge, ornate theatre, with organ music played on the theatre’s “Mighty Morton” organ.  Strangers is a classic part of the Hitchcock library, with all of the interesting camera angles, mounting suspense, tension-breaking humor, and stunning set pieces — in this case, a struggle to the death on an out-of-control carousel — that you expect from vintage Hitchcock.  Watching the film on a big screen, in a large theatre where the laughter rolls around the room like water being swirled in a basin, just makes the movie so much better.

No Summer Movie Series outing would be complete without some accompaniment by the Mighty Morton.  The organ is a massive white object that rises from and then descends into the floor of the stage.  It also is an astonishing musical instrument of great complexity and range; at one point the organist played Chattanooga Choo-Choo and delivered a very credible approximation of a steam engine, complete with whistle.  Watching the organ being played properly, as the organist strikes pedals, tabs and keys, is like watching some kind of intricate Russian ballet.

Events like the CAPA Summer Movie Series contribute mightily to making Columbus an interesting and fun place to live.

Weird Laughter In The Theater

Yesterday Kish and I went to see a movie at the Drexel Theatre in Bexley.  For those who have never been to see a movie at the Drexel, it is one of those theatres that typically screens arts-type films that don’t have the presumed commercial appeal to be shown at an AMC 16 theatre or one of the other big national chains.

Yesterday’s selection was A Single Man, starring Colin Firth.  It was a bit of an accident that we saw it; I wanted to see A Serious Man by the Coen brothers, but Kish misread the Drexel ad and we ended up going to A Single Man instead.  It’s not a bad movie — Colin Firth gives a strong performance that got him an Academy Award nomination — but it is a very bleak film indeed, about a gay and suicidal college professor who is suffering extraordinary pain because his lover has recently been killed in a car accident.

During the film, I experienced one of those moments of mental clarity where you suddenly realize something that should be obvious but that you typically overlook.  In this case, I realized that when you go to a movie theater the other people who are watching with you are complete strangers who could be weird, deranged, or dangerous.  That realization occurred because in one tense and uncomfortable scene, as the Colin Firth character is trying to figure out a neat way to blow his brains out without wrecking his pristine home, some other people in the audience started laughing.  Maybe the scene was intended to be funny, as opposed to sad, pathetic, and wistful, but I didn’t feel like laughing, and I’m not sure I’d want to hang out with anyone who did.

Something similar happened years ago, when Kish and I lived in D.C. and went to see A Clockwork Orange at the old Biograph Theater.  During one scene in which the Malcolm McDowell character engages in some of the “good old ultraviolence” I became acutely conscious of the fact that some of the other people in the theater looked like gang members who might enjoy joining Malcolm’s character on his twisted rampages.  When that movie ended, we hit the road as quickly and unobtrusively as possible.