My husband sparked a great conversation This past Saturday night by asking, “do you think that the theater industry and movie-going experience is changing forever because of all the movies that have been simultaneously, or exclusively, released to streaming services over the course of the COVID pandemic?”
It was a great discussion and ultimately, we both agreed that not only do we think the theater industry will never be exactly the same, but also that we don’t necessarily mind, for several reasons.
First of all, I don’t think that the theater industry will go away entirely. I do, however, think that it will become a niche experience, like the vinyl record has become to the music selling industry. Streaming has become the leading way consumers buy music but vinyl records have made a comeback in a niche market and I think that newly released movies are headed in a similar direction where the theater is concerned.
Most of my reasons for having really enjoyed this new movie-release experience can be seen as being related to the fact that I have young children. Doing anything as a family of five can involve a lot of logistics planning as well as high costs. However, many of these reasons can also just as easily apply to our own comfort and spending habits, as adults as well.
Here, I will compare the movie theater experience with the at-home movie streaming experience, from my perspective.
MOVIE THEATERS HAVE BECOME QUITE EXPENSIVE, ESPECIALLY FOR FAMILIES
AARP reports that since 2001, the average cost of seeing a movie at the theater has nearly doubled, add in any of the special effects technologies that have come along since, like IMAX or 3-D, and you can tack on as much as 33% more cash to that ticket price. Still, this is not the most economically daunting aspect of the movie-going experience. It’s the addition of the snack bar prices that truly punches the consumer in the wallet. A trip to the snack bar with our kids before a movie has always become a tough negotiation, as we try and fail to give our too-young-to-understand children a quick lesson in our household economics. We always end up $40 to $50 in the hole and still disappointed.
To boost morale and foster closeness with our kids during the pandemic, we started Friday night movie nights. Each Friday, we stream a movie and all five of us choose the movie snack we want most, with popcorn being a wildcard staple. Everyone partakes in everyone else’s choices so that we can all have up to 6 different movie snacks and still the cost of this gluttonous graze-fest is far under what we spend at the theater only to be disappointed. The best part of this is that the sky is the limit in choices. I have put together an entire fruit & vegetable tray out of everyone’s choices, several times. We frequently alternate healthy choices some weeks and self-indulgent choices other weeks. Last week, my oldest chose strawberry shortcake, so we all got strawberry shortcake if we wanted it (sponge cake, smashed fresh strawberries, and whipped cream – the whole 9 yards), in addition to what everyone else chose. Last week was admittedly quite self-indulgent and the cost was still under $30.
HOME ENTERTAINMENT TECHNOLOGY IS CATCHING UP TO THEATER TECHNOLOGY
The quickening advancements in home entertainment technology mean that people are investing more than ever in this aspect of the at-home experience. As home television sets get bigger, picture quality gets clearer and brighter, and the price tag gets more and more affordable for families, theaters are only going to have a harder and harder time drawing these families into their businesses. Take a look at this digital trends article if you want a glimpse at what the future of this competition is going to look like for theaters.
It’s hard for me to say how much the theater, even with their vinyl reclining chairs, can compete with my own family room, given its 65” flat screen LED TV, surround sound speaker system with vibrating bass tones, and custom-oversized sectional with numerous reclining positions. Even if I don’t include the fireplace beneath the TV and my own comfy slippers and blankets, it’s not a very tough call.
This is also where we talk about the impetus for this entire article: streaming services. Streaming services have put full control in the hands of consumers. This is an unprecedented time in home entertainment history. Not only can we choose what to watch but we can choose when we want to watch it and how many times we want to pause it. Therefore, no longer do my husband and I have to take turns missing part of the movie experience with our kids that we paid nearly $100 to have if one of our kids needs to use the bathroom yet again; we just hit pause… yet again.
MY HOME ENTERTAINMENT SEATING IS MORE HYGIENIC THAN THE PUBLIC THEATER SEATS
Several years ago, when my youngest two were just toddlers and we didn’t get out much, I took my kids to the theater for a movie over Summer break. The next evening, like clockwork, all three of my kids were throwing up. That bought of stomach bug was awful and left both me and my husband shaken and scarred. That was also when I learned that the only way to contract the norovirus is to ingest vomit or fecal particles from an infected person. Think about how comfortable we get in those theater seats; we eat in them, we get cozy, most of us take at least one restroom break. I’m just going to say outright that I’ve seen enough people leave a public restroom without having washed their hands to know what I’m sitting in.
At home, I don’t have to be hyper-concerned about the fact that we’re eating popcorn or any other movie snacks with our hands. And I know that this particular point is namely in regards to those moviegoers with kids who touch everything by nature but the top four grossing movies of 2018 and 2019 are all family movies loved by those handsy little moviegoers.
IN FURTHER DISCUSSION
I’m not totally doggin’ on theaters, I do enjoy the theater from time to time and as my kids get older I’m not opposed to dropping them off for an afternoon movie with friends because I know how much fun I had doing the same thing at their age. However, I was their age in the early 90s, so the cost of it didn’t hit my meager pocketful of money that I was able to beg from parents as much as it would theirs today. I also didn’t have the movie-watching options then that they do now. Who’s to say they won’t opt every time to instead have friends over to stream that new release and just raid the pantry for movie snacks to save some of that pocket money?!
None of these trends are new, the writing has been on the wall. Theater owners became nervous about declines in theater attendance long before the pandemic hit, as AARP pointed out in December 2019, “as the price of admission rises, attendance falls, making theater owners nervous about 2019 box office returns.” The article also states that as far back as February 2018, 35% of those surveyed by Morning Consult cited high ticket prices as their reason for patronizing theaters less frequently than just five years earlier.
In addition, this article on Business Insider points out that the trend of further cutting theaters out of the mix had been ramping up prior to the pandemic with heavy hitting new releases by the streaming giant Netflix and the shortening of the theater windowing policy from a minimum of 75 days down to as little as 17 days. The option of streaming new releases in-home was well on its way but it’s hard to say how long the culture lag would have lasted before the mainstream viewers made a decided switch were it not for the pandemic.
It may be that the movie theater experience is headed for the category of high culture where it will forever be touted for its aesthetic value. Statista shows that already in 2019, only 12% of those moviegoers that frequented the movies once a month or more made less than $50,000 annually, while 21% of those that did so had an annual income of $100,000 or more. Conversely, 52% of those that visited the movie theater once a year or less were those whose annual income was under $50,000, while only 32% of movie patrons in that once-a-year-or-less category earned $100,000 a year or greater. The aesthetic experiences of high culture are appreciated by people at all income levels, it’s just that those in the lower income categories have less disposable income for such things.
Whatever direction the theater industry is headed, and how it will continue to compare with the streaming experience, only the future will tell.
Thanks for reading!
Remember to always make a conscientious effort.