Far, Far Away: How to Get People Going to Movies Again


What’s broken in moviegoing? And how can it be fixed?

Why do I ask? 

Surprise: It’s not because of the box office performance of “Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga” and “The Garfield Movie” over the 2024 Memorial Day weekend. 

Sure, it was the worst such weekend for the industry in decades. Neither did poorly, in any real meaning of the word, but earned less than “box-office projections,” which have been wrong so often in both directions that they are starting to seem as innately defective as political polls. As of this writing, “Garfield” has made about $100 million in five days, and “Furiosa” $65 million in that same period. There is every reason to think that both films will eventually recoup their production budgets as well as their marketing and advertising budgets through pay-per-view, TV and streaming licenses, repertory screenings, physical media releases, airlines, and other revenue streams, just as “Mad Max Fury Road” (another big-budget so-called “underperformer“) did in the nine years after its release.

But it was also a weird opening weekend—weird in the way that every weekend since March 2020, the start of the pandemic, has been weird. Theaters gradually reopened and recovered their momentum just in time for multiple, months-long guild strikes—which, it should be said here, were entirely the fault of studios and streamers, which tried to starve and bankrupt union members rather than come to the table, and thereby throttled their own production pipelines to a trickle. 

And yet, there were still smash hits. During the post-pandemic period, “Top Gun: Maverick,” “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” were billion-dollar-plus earners in theaters alone. “Dune, Part 2” and “Wonka” did $600-$700 million each. Other successes made the legions of self-proclaimed “industry analysts” shrug and grin sheepishly and hope nobody called them out for not predicting what happened. The rom-com “Anything But You,” starring two actors who were not considered box-office gold (and probably still aren’t), made $219 million in theaters, ten times its budget. Pixar’s “Elemental” was declared a flop by these same supposed experts based on a less-than-expected opening weekend, and ended up earning almost $500 million (versus a $200 million budget)

The latter two films had what used to be called “legs,” and benefited from a thing called “word-of-mouth.” Legs and word-of-mouth can still make hits of theatrical releases beyond opening weekend, provided they’re allowed to remain in theaters. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

No, I don’t think you can draw any conclusions about the state of the industry from the opening weekends of “Furiosa” and “Garfield” alone. 

But I also think the state of theatrical moviegoing is shaky, and nobody can see the way forward. A big part of the problem is executives’ attitude at the top of big entertainment corporations. Increasingly, they’re empty-headed MBA types who seem to have no genuine love of, or appreciation for, movies, television, music, or any of the other popular art forms they’re supposedly selling. For them, it’s all about boosting shareholder value from one quarter to the next and getting the fat executive performance bonuses built into their contracts, even if it means “writing down,” i.e. deleting, finished but unreleased movies for tax credit

Companies like Netflix, Disney, and Warner Bros Discovery don’t even try to hide that they really want to pour their energies and money into streaming, despite streaming increasingly looking like a financial sinkhole for everyone but Netflix, and despite overwhelming evidence that new feature film properties, from no-budget Indies to $400 million blockbusters, automatically become more valuable if they have a theatrical release of any kind, even if they don’t all become smash hits from box office admissions alone, because they amount to extended publicity campaigns for the movie’s afterlife at home. (Amazon and Apple seem to understand this fact of the business, however, which is why they each committed to “theatrical strategies” two years ago.) 

The reliably sober-minded industry blog The Ankler wrote, “Theatrical releases do much, much, much better than films that go straight-to-streaming and, as a result, drive more value for streamers (and make more money in the traditional sense for studios). I knew this to be true, but when you lay out all the available data, the difference is so stark, so brutal, it’s not even a debate.” 

These same companies are also continuing to try to strip-mine increasingly stale “Intellectual Property” within their existing portfolios rather than create new phenomena. (There’s an argument to be made that “The Fall Guy,” based on a TV show that nobody under 50 watched during its original run, might’ve done better if it had been called something else, and if it had cost less to produce; and yet that same film, likewise declared a “flop” opening weekend and prematurely sent to home video by its studio just two weeks later, is still making money in theaters worldwide. But I digress, again.)

Here are a few things that I think would make a positive difference for moviegoing, and theaters generally:

1. Reduce the cost of tickets. Yes, it’s true. A lot of this is not in individual theaters’ hands. They have to charge a certain amount to be profitable, in terms of ticket prices and concessions, because they’re getting jacked on rent and everything else, and certain studios (cough, cough; Disney) practice extortion when it comes to negotiating deals with theater owners.  

Still, what with price-gouging by everyone from real estate companies to grocers brutalizing regular folks’ budgets for entertainment, cutting movie ticket prices by a quarter to half would, I believe, result in such an uptick in business that both the entertainment companies and the theater chains (and Indies) would very quickly make up the difference. For proof, look at the success of AMC Theaters’ discount Tuesdays program via its membership program, The A-List. I can testify that any time I go to an AMC theater on a Tuesday, the place is packed. Comfy reclining seats and 4DX that have to be paid for by higher ticket prices are not the answer, I don’t think. Making moviegoing a democratic pastime again is the answer, and that can only happen if ticket prices are cut.

2. Open more theaters, with fewer screens and seats in each one. 

I know, this is a fantasy that’s probably not going to happen, or if it ever could happen, it won’t happen any time soon. But proximity/availability of theaters is almost as much of a factor in deciding whether to attend a theatrical screening as a ticket or concession price. A $15 ticket to a weekend evening screening in a big city might happen as an impulse buy if the theater is within walking distance or even if you can get there by spending 15 minutes on a bus or in a car.

IndieWire recently wrote about the phenomenon of “moviegoing deserts,” wherein you have to travel for an hour or more to find a theater at all.  “Much of the press around theater closings focuses on New York and Los Angeles, but far more poisonous to exhibition is the drip, drip, drip of closures of cinema complexes nationwide. When they’re gone, many people have nowhere to watch current movies other than their homes.”

New theaters are still being built, and repertory and art house cinemas that have created makeshift communities of film buffs around their physical locations are doing better than anyone could have imagined in 2020. But there’s no getting around the fact that the US has lost five percent of its available movie screens in the past two years (even as overseas markets have seen a five percent increase in screen construction)

I experience this problem in my home city of Dallas, one of the biggest metropolitan areas in the United States. I am lucky to have one very good repertory theater near my house, but to see most current releases, we have to drive anywhere from fifteen to 45 minutes each way, depending on the title. Even twenty years ago, this was not the case; there were 2 to 6-screen theaters closer to every neighborhood, whereas now you generally have to make an expedition to a 22-screen behemoth in a mall that might or might not be dying itself. 

You shouldn’t have to commit four to five hours of your life to a two-hour movie if you live in a big city. Or even a small one. Small towns used to have theaters as well. Incredible but true.

3. Keep all movies in theaters longer. Training audiences to expect almost every movie to become available at home within one to six weeks has been a disaster for the entertainment industry. Audiences will not relinquish this mindset unless they’re re-trained by returning to an older distribution model. Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is a real thing. Making it clear that if you don’t go to movie theaters you’ll have to wait a while (three months seems like a good number) would motivate people to get off of their couches.  In addition, as The Hollywood Reporter noted in the above-linked piece about movie theater closures, “longer theatrical release windows help delay piracy spikes that occur when a film debuts at home.”

4. Bring back marquees. Theaters have all but written off “walk-up” purchases of movie tickets by people who happened to be walking or driving past a theater near where they live and noticed that a movie they’re interested in happens to be playing there. Some theaters still have visible marquees that get changed out regularly, but increasingly (especially at chain theaters) there’s nothing to advertise what’s happening at that venue physically; they make you go online for titles and showtimes. This is, as the kids used to say, Dumb AF. 

5. Improve projection and sound as well as in-theater etiquette. Another pipe dream, yes. But I think everyone can agree that theaters (especially major chain theaters) cutting “projectionist” from their list of available jobs, reducing staff overall, and passively failing to enforce basic theater etiquette (like loud and incessant talking, putting smelly bare feet up on seats, or using bright-screened phones during showings just to fart around online—or worse, generate “influencer” content) has made a lot of theaters into inhospitable places for those who are interested in, you know, watching movies. This is as self-destructive a strategy as newspapers and magazines trying to tailor their content and design to people not interested in reading. 

Theaters cannot survive, much less thrive if they’re treated as warehouses for human cattle where those patrons who care about the experience are forced to track down a manager and miss part of the movie when there’s a technical or interpersonal problem in an auditorium. 

In conclusion: More theaters, more screens, better viewing experiences, cheaper tickets, and longer “windows” before home video. And voila: movies are back, baby.

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