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Will movie fans eventually flock back to big screens?

A woman views an event in an otherwise empty theater with her popcorn and drinks by her side.

Sixty-one percent of Americans have not seen a movie in a theater during the past year, according to a new Gallup report. MixMedia/Getty Images

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During the last month of 2021, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” debuted on the big screen, becoming the highest-grossing movie of the year with more than $1 billion at the worldwide box office. 

As ticket sales slowed down, the film’s success fueled optimism for the upcoming year. 

A Gallup poll released Friday found that Americans watched an average of 1.4 movies in a theater over the previous 12 months, compared to an average of 4.8 movies annually between 2001 and 2007. And 61% of Americans did not visit a movie theater at all in the past year, which is a historical high.

There’s also a split based on demographics: Adults under 30 saw an average of 3.2 movies in a theater over the previous year, those 30 to 49 saw an average of 1.4 and people 65 and older watched just 0.5. 

Gallup said the overall decrease is likely due to, as one would expect, the COVID-19 pandemic, which led film sets and movie theaters across the country to shut down. 

Even with theaters reopening and vaccines available, Gallup said, attendance still seems sluggish — a trend that indicates people are concerned about getting COVID-19. But the report noted it’s unclear how much theater attendance was already on the decline prior to the pandemic.

Looking back at 2021 

Heading into 2021, the goal for movie theaters was, essentially, to stay alive, said John Poelking, a senior analyst with Mintel. 

He pointed out that many theaters were able to secure assistance from the government. The COVID-19 relief bill passed in late 2020 included $15 billion in grants for movie theaters and live venues. 

While theaters may have been somewhat disappointed in how movies performed, Poelking said, “the fact that they’re still kicking is something to be marveled at.”

Phil Contrino, director of media and research at the National Association of Theatre Owners, said some recent releases have performed well, including “Shang-Chi,” “Venom” and “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which indicates people are excited to come back to theaters.

“There have been enough bright spots to show that there’s not necessarily a decrease in enthusiasm — it’s just people are generally cautious right now,” Contrino said. 

Omicron’s effect 

Poelking noted that January and February are already generally some of the worst-performing months for films.

“The seasonal sort of slump that comes with this time of year, combined with omicron, is really making movie theaters a tougher proposition for consumers,” Poelking said. 

The coronavirus variant, which is highly transmissible, has surged in recent weeks, leading to the cancellation of major events like Sundance Film Festival screenings.  

One issue theaters will face in the upcoming months is a shift in their release schedules, which is happening with a lot of movies slated to premiere in January and February, according to Contrino. The release of the Sony movie “Morbius,” for example, has moved from January to April. 

“That is obviously hugely, hugely problematic for theaters, who need a steady stream of new content,” Contrino said. 

But Contrino said pandemic delays have created a “bottleneck of movies,” which he hopes will be resolved around the summer, when movies that were set to premiere earlier will finally be released. 

If the virus gets under control, Contrino said the theater industry could make its big comeback this summer.

Poelking said that although streaming services such as HBO Max and Disney+ initially debuted movies on their services and in theaters the same day — known as a day-and-date release — they’ve taken a step back from this strategy. Warner Bros. films, for example, will have a 45-day theatrical window before premiering on HBO Max. 

However, Disney is bypassing theatrical release entirely for some films, like the upcoming Pixar movie “Turning Red.” 

Which movies will thrive? 

While blockbusters like “No Way Home” have done well, Contrino said the industry should encourage moviegoers to see midbudget and smaller releases, which have been more affected by the pandemic.  

He pointed out that those films are aimed at older people, who are often reluctant to go back to theaters. 

“There has to be a concentrated push to really promote those and get people back in the habit of going to see those movies again, because that’s incredibly crucial to the overall health of the industry,” Contrino said.

Some midbudget movies and adult dramas floundered at the box office in recent months, like “Nightmare Alley,”  “The Last Duel” and “West Side Story,” which took in $10.5 million — an amount considered disappointing given that it cost at least $100 million to make.  

“I think what that is indicative of is that people want an event, and they want to be part of any sort of conversation that is happening around the movie,” Poelking said. 

Poelking said in the lead-up to the release of “No Way Home,” plot details were kept under wraps. “But there was also the conversation, ‘Are Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield going to be in it? Are there any other villains that we’re maybe going to see? How are they going to tie this all together?’ So the movie was already part of the public discourse months before the movie actually came out.” 

And, of course, “No Way Home” is part of an established, successful franchise. However, with “West Side Story,” Poelking said, a film version already came out six decades ago, and there wasn’t a sense of urgency to go out and see it, although he thinks the movie was “done exceptionally well.” 

When it comes to midbudget movies and adult dramas in general, Poelking said they’ve become “a much tougher sell” since these types of stories are so prevalent on streaming services. 

Richard Abramowitz, CEO of the independent distribution and marketing company Abramorama, said “studios are making fewer, but bigger films,” which he thinks will continue to be a trend. 

The future of moviegoing

Abramowitz said he’s optimistic about the future of “event cinema,” which encompasses films and performances that have a more focused audience. 

“People will continue to go to the opera. People will continue to go to music films, they’ll continue to go to social impact films, because there are very specific, targeted audiences that are motivated to go see them,” he said. “They want to be with like-minded people, have the conversations afterwards, engage in Q&As with filmmakers and with advocates of social issues.” 

However, he added that not all cinemas may survive. 

“I think that there are still parts of the industry that will thrive on the other side of this, but there’s bound to be some attrition. We’ll lose companies, we’ll lose theaters,” Abramowitz predicted. 

Poelking said there has been a lot of talk about whether streaming services such as Netflix will be the death of movie theaters, but he said going to theaters is to movies what going to concerts is to music. 

“Yeah, you can get something from just sitting at home and letting it wash over you,” he said. “But there’s something special about giving something your undivided attention in a time when we’re constantly distracted by everything.”

While we may see some movie theaters go away and 20-screen multiplexes turn into 10-screen multiplexes, Poelking added, the in-person experience is still important to many people. 

“And they’re going to find a way to see movies in theaters,” he said.

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