Is Our Great Recession Saving Downtown Movie Theaters?

About a year ago, I wrote that downtown movie theaters were increasingly in jeopardy because people were more and more watching movies at home. Lately, I have been asked if I still believed downtown cinemas were in trouble, since recent media reports indicated that:

  • Nationwide, movie attendance was up 21% in the first seven weeks of 2009
  • The National Association of Theatre Owners claims box office numbers climbed in five of the seven economic downturns that occurred over the past 40 years.
  • It is well-known that movie attendance rose sharply at the height of the Great Depression
  • The stocks of the movie theater chains lately have risen substantially.
First, it should be noted that a seven week attendance pattern ought to be treated with caution, especially when it is contrary to a longer term trend.

Total U.S. & Canada Admissions
Year Admissions
2008 1.363
2007 1.400
2006 1.395
2005 1.376
2004 1.484
2003 1.521
2002 1.599
2001 1.438
2000 1.383
1999 1.440
1998 1.438
1997 1.354

Source: National Association of Theatre Owners

Total admissions in the USA and Canada for the full year of 2008 – when we where already in recession – was the lowest since 1997.

But, the primary reason that I still think downtown cinemas are in trouble is the behavior of highly regarded Hollywood moguls such as James Cameron and Jeffrey Katzenberg and the movie theatre chains. Cameron and Katzenberg both believe that the future of the movie theater business rests on 3-D movies because “going to the movies” has to once again become a special occasion, quite different from watching a flick at home. The movie chains have been investing a lot of money in more IMAC screens and now they are trying to raise between $700 million to $1 billion to convert enough screens—at $100,000 a shot –- to 3-D.

Some smaller, but savvy movie theater operators are doing such things as running “dinner cinemas,” where you get both a good film and a quality meal. Others are opening restaurants or brewpubs next door.

The downtown movie theaters that are really endangered – regardless of how they are drawing now – are those that cannot turn watching a movie into a special occasion. That is the key for the future. Dirty sticky floors, uncomfortable seating, inadequate restrooms, uncivil patrons, run of the mill films, etc., are not characteristics of a special occasion that will draw film viewers from their homes, but far too many downtown cinemas have them. Improving these theaters will not be cheap. Nor will it be cheap to provide them with 3-D equipment.

I do not know whether 3-D is the silver bullet. Here in Kew Gardens, we have a six screen cinemaplex that has absolutely no off-street parking, but it has been packed every weekend for many years. It is located in a densely populated neighborhood and features current “indy” films to an audience that rarely has a teenager in it – I’d say most patrons are over 40. Larry Houstoun reports similarly successful small cinemas near him in downtown Philadelphia. Indy flicks for seniors or IMAC or 3-D or whatever that makes going to the movies a special occasion is what counts!

If downtown organizations want their independent cinemas to survive they will have to help the operators again provide a venue where going to the movies is a special occasion.