Are movie theaters dying?

By Lauren Knisbeck, Collin Bouressa, Keyonna Gellin & Valeria Tavarez


Maybe the movie theaters actually aren’t dying. But they’re not quite living either.

It’s no secret that the pandemic was a staggering blow to the theater industry thanks to production delays and social distancing restrictions. In addition, streaming services have undoubtedly taken audiences away from their theater predecessors. While the common assumption is that movie theaters are steadily declining, the numbers themselves suggest a steady comeback to pre-pandemic turnout and revenue. The movie theater business may be waking up from its pandemic-induced coma, but even before the shutdown, the culture of movie-going has been on its way out the door.

Comparing pre and post-pandemic numbers and trends:

2019 was a healthy year for theaters. An article by Business Insider reported that the North American Box Office earned a cool $11.4 billion that year. The Cinema Foundation report showed that the number went down dramatically in 2020, coming in at only $2.27 billion. In 2022, the sales were up to $7.53 billion, implying that movie theater attendance is on the rise. One factor that impacted box office success was the number of movies that came out in the post-pandemic years. 2019 saw the release of 112 movies that would play on over 2,000 screens, according to Cinema Foundation, whereas 2022 saw 71. This year, there are estimated to be 107. Another factor that comes to mind is inflation. While the national average of ticket prices in 2022 was $10.53, adjusted for inflation, this was cheaper than the average cost of seeing a movie in 1971. All signs point to a return to pre-pandemic totals so far.

The age of streaming:

The statistics about the average cost for a ticket compared to the ‘70s may make you question why more people aren’t going to the theaters. Take that $10.53 and compare it to the cost for a month of Netflix’s streaming service, which is $15.49 for the standard plan. At the theater, you get to sit and enjoy the movie for around two hours. But that $10.53 is before you make your way to the concession counter and get yourself a bucket of popcorn and a large soda. At the Green Bay East Marcus Cinema, a regular popcorn costs $9.65, and a large soda is $7.20. Add it all up, and you’re at $27.38 in total. This is without mentioning the cost of gas to get to the theater. To really put it in perspective, not a lot of young Americans can say they make that much an hour. It’s not just us who think that these prices are intimidating. Marcus Majestic Cinema employee Mia Bolyard said that though she works there, she thinks their items are overpriced.

From your couch, the price of movie watching is considerably cheaper. Not to mention that you have thousands of options anytime you log in, instead of paying for one movie at a time, like in theaters. UW-Green Bay student and movie-goer Emma Bliskey said that while she enjoys going to see movies in person, viewing at home provides more comfort. “The best way for myself personally [to watch movies] is watching it at home because I can pause, fidget, and do what I want when I am at home.” UWGB Film professor Zack Kruse addresses how streaming services can lessen the need for theaters, “I’m not going to go see something that I’m going to get on Disney+ in 10 days.  I’m just not. I’m not going to spend that kind of money on it, but I will see something that I think is going to be special or really valuable to see in that theatrical setting.” Kruse also keys into the current culture shift to streaming. “There’s something that happens in a movie theater that you cannot replicate in a house.”

The global analytics firm Gallup conducted a study spanning multiple decades to measure movie theater attendance. The study found that the average American from the years 2001-2007 had watched approximately 4.8 movies per year. 29% of that demographic reported they had watched 5 or more films in theater. In comparison, the average American in the year 2021 had watched around 1.4 movies in theaters. Only 9% had reported seeing 5 or more movies at the theater. In a survey we performed, 70% of respondents said they would rather see a movie at home than at the movie theater. A majority cited cost as the reason. This drastic decrease in movie attendance also shows in ticket sales. In 2002, we saw a peak with over 1.5 million tickets being sold. The top movies being shown at the time were Spider-Man, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Graph by Statista. Different streaming platforms subscriptions in the US.

Streaming giants have expanded since the late 1990s when Netflix was born, and now streamers have seemingly limitless options at their fingers. Over the last ten years, Netflix has seen an increase in subscriptions by over 200 million. In 2007, the year Netflix started to offer online streaming services, the platform had just around 7 million subscribers. Today, that number hovers around 238 million. According to Forbes, 78% of US households subscribe to one or more streaming services as of 2023. In the anonymous survey we performed, 98% of respondents subscribe to at least one streaming service, and 85% of those people are Netflix subscribers. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen online venues take away from their brick-and-mortar counterparts. Kruse talked about how this phenomenon is mirrored in other media.

“Remember how … 10 or 15 years ago, everybody said that paper was dead.  No one’s going to read paper books again.  It’s all gonna be your Kindle ‑‑ or your Barnes and Noble Nook.… And that was the myth.  That was the lie that we were told and that we kept telling ourselves…Well, turns out that just never happened.”

Kruse also referenced CDs and vinyl records as declining media forms that are still readily accessible to consumers. This pattern can also be applied to movies.

What’s keeping the theaters on life support:

While theaters may no longer be in their heyday, they’re not on the brink of extinction. Blockbuster films keep audiences coming back for more. This year, the release of Barbie proved it, earning $1.3 billion globally and $574 million domestically. In our survey, one out of every five of our respondents said the last movie they watched in the theater was Barbie. We asked Bolyard if Marcus saw an increase in movie attendance with Barbie, “Oh, boy, did we.  Barbenheimer was insane.” “…this summer, we had a lot of really good releases compared to the previous summer.” “ …[but] Barbie just like, annihilated what we had going on.” After Barbie, their movie attendance more than doubled.

This may be partly thanks to the film’s impressive marketing campaign. Barbenheimer, the portmanteau, was a cultural phenomenon born from the showdown of Greta Gerwig’s Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer – two tonally opposite films with stacked casts and generational directors released on the same day. This online trend sparked debate over which movie viewers would be seeing and acted as a great form of organic marketing for both films. This contributed to Barbie’s impressive box office numbers and helped make Oppenheimer the highest-grossing biopic of all time, generating $912 million globally.

Trends across social media, most notably TikTok, inspired people to make an event of going to see Barbie by dressing up in pinky hues and taking pictures together. Many lines from Barbie became trending audio on TikTok as well. Back in 2022, Minions: The Rise of Gru saw a similar phenomenon. It was a trend for movie-goers to dress up in a suit to see the movie. The movie didn’t bring in quite as much cash as Barbie, but $900 million at the box office isn’t too bad.

Photo by The Wall Street Journal. Friends dressed in their Barbie best to see the summer blockbuster.

Photo by New York Times. #GentleMinion was a social media trend where guys would dress up in suits to go see the Minions: Rise of Gru movie in 2022.

Blockbusters typically star A-list actors, which gives them an upper hand when it comes to bringing in the crowds. Actors may be another life source for movie theaters. They are often paid a portion of ticket sales, and the specific amount depends on their contract. Scarlett Johansson was the lead actress and executive producer of Black Widow. The film was originally slated to release on November 6, 2020. Disney pushed the release back to July 9, 2021. There were still restrictions on many theaters from the pandemic, so Disney decided to have an exclusive release. They released Black Widow on Disney+ alongside the theatrical release, and subscribers had the option to pay $29.99 to see the movie from home. “Black Widow [was] also coming out at the same time as Disney ‑‑ on like Disney+. So you could see it in the theater, or those who were a little hesitant, or who just didn’t want to have to pay for a movie theater ticket would watch it on Disney+,” Bolyard said. Johansson sued Disney over the streaming option because of her agreement with Disney’s Marvel Entertainment, who guaranteed an exclusive theatrical release and based her salary in part on the film’s box office performance. The lawsuit was eventually settled, and Johansson received $20 million in total.

Another A-lister, Tom Cruise, has been adamant that movies should be released in theaters. In an interview, he said, “I make movies for the big screen. I make movies for the public.” He was also asked if Top Gun: Maverick was going to be released on Paramount+ since the movie was slated to come out in the midst of the pandemic on June 24, 2020. He said, “That did not happen and will not happen. Ever.” Top Gun: Maverick was eventually released on May 27, 2022, and it grossed $1.6 billion worldwide. Actors are invested in getting people to the theaters. Academy Awards are another incentive for movies to stay in theaters because only theatrical releases are eligible for awards. “Netflix, when they’ve had movies nominated for Academy Awards, well, that’s because they did limited screenings of the films in theaters. The Irishman doesn’t get nominated if it wasn’t in a theater,” Kruse explained.

Another way for theaters to make money is by rereleasing fan favorites back to the big screen, often for a cheaper price. Bolyard said that this has long been a tactic for Marcus Theaters.  “That is something we were doing pre-COVID anyways. I just don’t think a lot of people realized that because there’s some like big blockbusters that kind of overshadowed that.” This offers fans the option to revisit their favorites in a theatrical setting. Bolyard said that nostalgia sells, especially since the start of COVID. Bliskey, who enjoys going to the movies semi-regularly loves this option to see older movies in theaters. “If I had time and money, I would have for sure gone to Marcus Theaters to watch all of the Harry Potter movies,” she said.  “…it would have been cool to see those movies in the theater and relive my childhood. Make that money. Feed our nostalgia. Period.”

Back to Hogwarts 2023: Harry Potter, a famous movie franchise, just finished its run at Marcus Theaters.

What do movie-goers, a cinema employee, and a professional film buff have to say?

When asked, Bolyard said, “As a whole, I think, especially Marcus Theaters, we’re going to be fine.” “…with the social media presence that Marcus Theater has, we’re keeping people interested in keeping this brand loyalty that really helps us.” Greg Marcus, CEO of Marcus Theatres, is using social platforms like TikTok. Marcus makes videos for the platform that connect with the target audience he is trying to get to come to theaters. Bliskey hopes that the phenomenon of going to the movies stays strong. “ I think streaming will take over just for the sake of ease. But I hope in my heart it continues. Older Gen Z will still appreciate going to the movie theater, unlike young Gen Z and Gen Alpha.” Kruse hopes to see thought-provoking films that bring audiences out of their comfort zone.

“You have to be willing to be challenged, and you have to be willing to sort of face a world that is not, you know, all flowers and sausages. …. [Movies] make you uncomfortable.  It makes you feel weird.  It makes you sad or angry or any number of things.  It’s not a pacifier.”

Kruse reiterates the cultural importance of theaters,

“We need that communal experience.  Even if they’re seeing Marvel movies, we need something that brings us together… We need third places where we can go together as a society and experience something and be a part of something that we can all sort of share.”

But when asked about his consensus on the future of movie theaters, “I think we’re still going to have them.…They’ll likely be fewer and far between.”

The future of the theaters

It’s a mixed bag of how well theaters are actually doing. They seem to finally be rebounding after the 2020 loss, and while several thousand screens have closed since the start of the pandemic, it seems that they’re on the uptick in terms of turnout and revenue again. Our collective opinion is that maybe the business will stay alive, but the cultural phenomenon of going out to see a movie on the big screen is declining in the age of streaming.  Think of ‘80s pop culture and going out to the mall, roller skating rinks of the ‘70s, and drive-in movies of the ‘60s. They all still exist, but only as ghosts of their former glorious selves.


Leave a Reply