Our Lustrum Trends Assessments.

For the past 20 years, about every five years (a lustrum) DANTH, Inc. has engaged in a review of the social, economic and political trends that are — or soon will be– affecting the health and well-being of downtown, urban neighborhood and Main Street commercial districts. We do this because it is an essential asset when we work on any kind of revitalization strategy for our clients.

Being a curmudgeon, I must also strongly opine that being aware of these trends and their potential effects is an essential component of any district manager’s job. Unfortunately it is a job function that too many managers ignore.

The results of DANTH’s last trends assessment in 2003 are available free of charge at:

Below is a “tease” excerpt from the first installment of the 2008 assessment.

Downtown Movie Theaters Are Very Vulnerable.

Downtown movie theater closures are bad news because:
• They are usually important downtown assets
• Closed cinemas are usually large, highly visible spaces, occupying considerable frontage and consequently a huge negative for a downtown’s image. It is also usually very hard to re-tenant an empty cinema — too many stay vacant for numerous years, often for decades. Some of the conversions, e.g., bingo halls and flea markets, are often less than desirable for spaces having prime locations and large size.

Movie theaters are in an increasingly weakened position because:
• Their hold on adult audiences is small and diminishing. By a five-to-one ratio Americans view films more at home than they do in movie theaters. Move theaters account for only about 12% of the movie industry’s revenues.
• Even the most frequent movie goers prefer home viewing
• Many theaters have low operating margins based primarily on revenues from concession stands and screen ads. Just a small drop in the paid attendance can be devastating financially: a mere six percent drop in attendance in 2000-2001 put most of the theater chains into bankruptcy.
• A relatively modest reduction in paid attendance by a small group of frequent moviegoers could easily erase these meager margins. The frequent movie goers do not have to completely stop visiting movies theaters for the impact to be devastating. This is an important point.
• The frequent movie-goers have demographic characteristics that highly correlate with the use of computers and other electronic home entertainment equipment
• Many theaters lack amenities such as many screens, large screens, first run films, stadium seating, clean restrooms and theaters floors. This is especially true of cinemas in small and medium-sized downtowns
• Theaters provide a very small revenue stream for the major movie studios. Consequently, the studios are incentivized to make decisions that will help other film distribution channels although they may hurt the theaters

Rival Home Film Distribution Channels Are Poised To Grab Market Share.

Competing film distribution channels have been improving, many finding formulas that are aimed straight at the three key variables that most impact film viewer behavior — convenience, film selection and cost:
• On-demand cable TV has great convenience, wide household penetration, competitive prices and indications that some large operators will be offering significantly greater film selections. The introduction of HD broadcasts will also improve product quality and enhance competitive strength
• Apple TV and Vudu have a strong films service formula that could really grab market share if they can offer sufficient film variety. They, too, already offer on-demand convenience and competitive prices. Apple, because of iTunes, has a large amount of household penetration and brand loyalty.
• The competitive strengths of the brick and mortar DVD shops and the mail delivered DVD services versus movie theaters has been improved recently by the growing presence of large HD TVs in American households and the final victory of the Blu-ray HD DVD format.

Tipping Point Scenarios.

Below are some scenarios under which a tipping point might occur:
• The cable TV and Internet film services improve their film libraries sufficiently to become real competitors with movie theaters.
• Real household incomes erode to the point that the cost of movie consumption grows in importance in consumer decision-making. The cost advantage of home viewing, popcorn, sodas, baby-sitting, etc, is substantial. Given the recent low growth in median household incomes and the soaring costs of medical services, energy, college educations, etc. and the reduced values of private homes, this scenario is likely to have substantial impact.
• The convenience and comfort of home movie theaters increase to the point that consumers prefer the home viewing experience even more than reported in the 2006 Pew survey. This is occurring now; the question is how big its impact will be.
• The major studios finally go for “simultaneous releases.” In 2006 and 2007 there was a lot of discussion within the major movie studios about releasing films to theaters, cable TV and Internet film services at the same time, with DVDs being released three months later. A major survey of movie audiences in the USA, Japan and Germany, which account for over half of the world’s film market, found that simultaneous releases would enable the studios to increase their revenues by 16%, but cause the revenues of movie theaters to shrink by 40%. More recently there has been some discussion of simultaneous releases for a limited number of films.
• An accumulation of impacts from all of the above.

The Complete Report

DANTH’s complete assessment of the dangers that downtown movie theaters will be increasingly facing will be posted on our website and publicly available by March 24th, 2008. As our current work on trends progresses, I plan to periodically post the complete reports of our findings on our website and excerpts on this blog. Here are some of the other topics we’ve been looking at in our assessment:
• Time-pressured people continue to be downtowns’ best friends
• Retailing is in for much tougher times
• Post-Kelo redevelopment
• Boomers are now seniors and a great market segment for downtowns
• Green redevelopment
• Owners or renters: downtown residential redevelopment
• Downtown crime redux
• Downtown solution trends:
— Mixed-use projects
— Transit-oriented development, getting more important every day
— Place-making
— Niche development
• Downtown organizations: a time to alter missions, roles and responsibilities
• The internet and downtown revitalization

Unfortunately, some of the trends DANTH identified suggest that downtowns will soon be confronting major new challenges. DANTH believes that being forewarned enables downtown organizations to be forearmed. Although proven solutions to these emerging threats do not exist, I will try in my postings to outline some approaches to finding them, while welcoming other members of the downtown revitalization community to share their solution suggestions.