Some Background
As a result of DANTH’s 2008-2013 downtown trend assessment work, we became very concerned about the future of movie theaters in a lot of medium-sized downtowns,so we keep our eyes out for news about the movie industry. In my February 24, 2008 posting, “DOWNTOWN MOVIE THEATERS WILL BE INCREASINGLY IN PERIL”  I noted that according to a PEW survey:“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”

And, according to that same PEW survey, this trend toward watching movies at home was growing. The implicit danger posed by this trend for downtown cinemas, that often are just scrapping by, is a relentless deterioration in attendance and revenues.

Some Recent Observations in the NY Times

A recent article in the May 29, 2011 edition of New York Times had a title that grabbed my attention: “3-D Starts to Fizzle, and Hollywood Frets,” The reporters, Brooks Barnes and Michael Cieply, state  that: “The box-office performance in the first six months of 2011 was soft — revenue fell about 9 percent compared with last year, while attendance was down 10 percent.” That’s off of a 5.25% attendance decine reported by for 2010. To give those delines some perspective, remember that a mere six percent drop in attendance back in 2000-2001 pushed most of the theater chains into bankruptcy.  The current drop in attendance and revenues might be explained by our stalled economy and/or rocketing gasoline prices, neither of which promise to soon disappear.

Many Hollywood big wigs, such as James Cameron and Jeffrey Katzenberg, have argued that 3-D movies would save the industry by bolstering audiences and revenues. But Barnes and Cieply also report that now “there is strong consumer resistance to high 3-D ticket prices” and “the novelty of putting on the funny glasses is wearing off.” While the best 3-D feature films still are doing well at the box office, 3-D films of more ho-hum quality are taking a box office beating in the USA.

Barnes and Cieply also reported that rentals in video stores during the first part of the year fell 36 percent. This fact would be consistent with the crumbling of the Blockbuster chain and a substantial growth in the streaming and downloading of films to home TV and computer screens through Internet services such as Netflix, Amazon and iTunes. The latter was a possibility DANTH’s trends assessment feared would be all too likely.

My Take-Aways

With retail gasping for breath in most downtown and Main Streets commercial areas, their entertainment niches have taken on an even greater importance than they have had in the past. Downtown movie theaters are often the cornerstones of these niches and the recent decline in attendance suggests they may be facing substantially increased financial stress.

Strengthening downtown entertainment niches in small and medium-sized communities will probably follow two strategic paths:

  • Buttressing the magnetism of the movie theaters through a package of improvements that includes: 3-D and IMAX screening capabilities; tie-ins with adjacent or in-house restaurants, bars, brew-pubs, ice cream parlors, etc.;  clean theaters, with comfortable seating and audiences displaying civil behavior
  • Developing non-formal entertainments, most importantly in well-activated public spaces and restaurants.

What’s Happening in Your Downtown?

Please let me know what is happening in your downtown or Main Street district. If thereare sufficient responses, I will report on them in special posting to this blog.

N. David Milder

3-D Television

This past Saturday my wife and I stopped by the Samsung showroom at the Time Warner Center in Manhattan. They were featuring a number of 3-D TVs and we were able, after donning the appropriate glasses, to see what their images really looked like.

I was frankly surprised by how good it was. This technology is worthy of respect.

For downtown theaters it is one more technological improvement that makes home movie viewing their most serious competitor.

That said, it also should be noted that using the glasses is a pain in the butt and one wonders just how many films and TV programs would benefit from 3-D imaging. However, technology for a 3D TV system that does not require special glasses is now in development.

The future is ever present.

Movies Update

For several years now, I have been arguing that the average downtown movie theater is in trouble as more and more people watch more and more films at home or even on their mobile devices. To counter this trend I have encouraged downtown theaters to rekindle “going to the movies” as a special occasion by adopting modern digital, 3D and IMAX projection systems and/or by integrating their cinemas with a restaurant, brew pub or ice cream parlor.

An article in today’s Wall Street Journal shows that 3D and IMAX are indeed having a positive impact on attendance:

  • “After a record-shattering year of revenues last year, when the box office soared beyond $10 billion for the first time in history, revenues are running about 10.3% ahead of the same point last year, with attendance up by more than 8%.”
  • “3-D has helped boost those figures. Last weekend, some theater owners significantly raised ticket prices—mostly on 3-D and Imax showings. In some cases, the price increases ran as high as 26%.”
  • “Consumers, so far, don’t seem to mind the higher prices, as long as they come with premium experiences.” And we are still climbing out of the Great Recession!

Article Here


I have been an avid film buff since my Mom took me to see Anchors Aweigh in 1945. Though I liked James Cameron’s Terminator 2, one Alien was more than enough for me and I could not bring myself to see Titanic. Cameron, in my book, did not belong in the same league as Lean, Ford, Hawks, Lubitsch, Capra, Wilder, Spielberg, Cukor, Hitchcock, Coppola, Scorsese et al.

But, on Christmas Eve I went to see Cameron’s latest, Avatar, a 3D film, in all of its glory on an IMAC screen. I went despite my opinion of Cameron as a film-maker/director because I have been reading that the latest 3D technology would be the savior of movie theaters against the growing trend for people to watch films on their home TV screens, laptop computers and even small mobile devices such as iPods. I was particularly interested in how the 3D technology might impact on downtown movie theaters, many of which are relatively small, with fewer screens and less able to support badly needed investments. The primary question I brought to my viewing of Avatar was: Could the 3D technology produce a movie experience that was so unique that it could draw people off their couches or away from their handheld devices and back to movie theaters – especially those in downtowns?

Avatar plain blew me away! It is a watershed in movie-making and one of the most impressive films I’ve seen since Lawrence of Arabia. Watching it you keep asking yourself what kind of mind conjured this reality up and what technologies are putting it on the screen so realistically and so competently? Your immersion into a totally strange, yet coherent, detailed and comprehensive new world is staggering – so much so, that the storyline, which is too often hokey and filled with 60’s political stances, seems acceptable. I intend to see Avatar on a regular 3D screen to determine how much of this impact was due to the huge IMAC screen and the immersive experience it supports, though published film reviews also report about the strong, unique viewing experience Avatar generates on normal 3D screens.

Avatar definitely created a type of experience that I would abandon my easy chair and ignore the four full length films on my iTouch to enjoy again in other movies shown at my local cinema.

However, this experience may be due as much or more to computer-generated, special effects that are not 3D related. For example, the Na’vi, a humanoid race at the core of the film, are completely realistic, with little evidence of contrivance. The biggest grossing movies for the last 10 years (Transformers 2, The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 3, Dead Man’s Chest, Revenge of the Sith, Shrek 2, Return of the King, Spider-Man, Harry Potter / Sorcerer’s Stone, The Grinch) all were either heavy on computer generated special effects or computer animated. These movies are costly and studios are making about 15% fewer films than last year, probably as a result.

The studios’ emphasis on big budget, high tech films that are sequels or remakes increased attendance at movie theaters in 2009 by close to 8%, according to data published by With recession restrained ticket prices remaining steady, box office receipts increased by about the same magnitude as attendance. That would place 2009 as the fifth highest in attendance over the past 10 years, still 8% less than the peak in 2002.

It appears that evidence is starting to accumulate indicating that downtown theaters that can show films using 3D and other digital special effects technologies will be able to compete with home theaters and personal film viewers such as the iTouch and iPhone.

But, I doubt that 3D or other digital special effects can be used to enhance the viewing experience for movies such as Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, On The Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, Annie Hall, The Godfather or the vast majority of lower budget films such as Juno, Education and It’s Complicated, that have recently been turned out by independent production companies. The “indy” films have been a source of strength to some of the most successful movie theaters in large urban neighborhoods and medium-sized downtowns. The audiences at these often packed theaters are overwhelmingly composed of the almost 25 million Americans aged 55 or more who go to the movies every year.

But, the competition is also getting stronger. High tech innovations are also increasing the lure of home entertainment equipment. Tim Bajarin, of Creative Strategies, who I think is the best in the business on computer related markets, sees 3D television taking hold soon, while DVDs rapidly are being displaced by on-demand streaming of movies. (See: PC Mag Article Here).

Consequently, I think that downtown cinemas need to not only be capable of digital projection and showing 3D films, but they also need to:

  • Make watching a movie with others in an audience a very pleasurable and therefore desirable experience. This not only means clean and comfortable seats, clean floors, good sound equipment, etc., but the enforcement of rules that are absolutely intolerant of patrons acting without civility to those around them
  • Integrate the movie-going with unique eating and drinking opportunities such as a quality restaurant, a coffeehouse, a first-rate ice cream parlor or a brew pub
  • Court and pamper the 55 year old + audience. It has accelerating growth.

N. David Milder

Apparently, The Recession Is Not Saving Movie Theater Attendance

In past blog postings I have argued that movie theater attendance is being significantly eroded by the growing ease of watching movies at home, where — as a Pew survey showed – Americans now watch most of their movies.

But in the first three months of 2009 attendance jumped 13% over the previous year and observers in the news media were claiming that depressions and recessions induce higher movie theater attendance as folks are looking for affordable entertainment. In an April 18, 2009 posting, I cautioned against jumping on this analytical bandwagon, noting that movie attendance in 2008, definitely a recession year, was the lowest since 1997.

More recent attendance data, as reported in an article in the Wall Street Journal, (see:Lauren Schuker, “Summer Box-Office Sales Cool Down –,” Article Here.) indicates a reversal of this trend: “Attendance for the summer season, beginning on May 1, is down by 4.36% compared to the same time last summer, with revenue edging down by 0.77%.” This means that movie attendance has dropped to a really low level, since the 2008 stats were the lowest in over a decade.

N. David Milder