Mar. 26th, 2014

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Worrying news out of Cinemacon, the The National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) convention, this week. The MPAA has released movie attendance statistics for 2013, revealing that the number of frequent moviegoers (who go to the theaters once a month on average) in the 18-24 year-old age group has fallen 21%, and 12-17 year-olds are down 15%. Most other age groups are also down, though kids and older viewers saw boosts in their numbers. However, the younger demographics are the important ones to Hollywood, who the vast majority of movies are made and marketed for. The drastic reduction in their attendance is a very bad sign.

Though these are dramatic numbers, this doesn't come as much of a surprise to most industry watchers. Theaters have been seeing declining numbers for years due to a variety of factors: rising ticket prices, new technology, the shrinking amount of time a new movie plays in theaters exclusively, piracy, lackluster theater experiences, and competition from other entertainment options like Netflix. Some point to the content being an issue, and indeed 2013 was a pretty lackluster year in terms of the big commercial blockbusters aimed at youngsters, though it was a great year for prestige films that tend to skew toward older viewers. And some point to the recession, which has heavily impacted younger moviegoers, who now have less disposable income to spend on tickets.

You can see priorities starting to shift a bit in response. Animated family films have been the most consistent moneymakers, and NATO chief John Fithian has long been calling for more of them, year round, to appeal to that growing audience of kids. Minorities tend to go to the movies in greater numbers, with African-American and Latino audiences seeing gains last year. In the wake of surprise hits like "Instructions Not Included," "Ride Along," and "Best Man Holiday," there's been a good amount of chatter about more movies made to appeal to them. And this has been the first time in recent memory that I've seen anyone address the rising cost of tickets, with the proposal of more regular discount days, a tactic that has apparently been very successful in other countries.

As one of those viewers who is probably going to go from a frequent moviegoer to quitting theaters almost entirely this year, it feels like too little too late. While there are still plenty of movies being produced that I want to see, it has become far too convenient to watch new movies by alternate means with only minimal delays, and the hassles associated with a theater trip seem to grow with every visit. The average movie ticket now costs over $8, and it's far more in many places. Meanwhile, Redbox prices are still under $2, and comparable online rentals are under $5. Watching the "Veronica Mars" movie on VOD at home through Amazon Instant was a buck less than the cheapest matinee in my area. And this isn't even taking into account the ability to avoid endless ads, parking madness, and overpriced concessions.

Still, I did go and see a lot of movies over the last Oscar season, including smaller titles like "Nebraska" and "Philomena." I still love the theater experience and think it's worth it to experience really great movies like "The Master," "The Artist," and "The Tree of Life" on the big screen with a full sound system and an audience of likeminded cinephiles in attendance. The latest "Thor" movie? Not so much. I wouldn't mind if we saw fewer of the big, sprawling multiplexes, but I'd really miss my run-down old art house theater. Sadly, I expect that if we start seeing theater numbers shrink, the arthouses are probably going to be the first to go.

It'll be a while before that happens, though. Movie theater revenues actually hit record highs in 2013 thanks to all those surcharges on 3D films and advertising sales, but it's been coming from fewer and fewer paying customers. The most sobering statistic in the MPAA report is that nearly a third of the U.S. population didn't see any movies in theaters at all last year. The movie business as a whole is still going strong thanks to rapidly expanding overseas markets, and 2015 is expected to be a record year with all the tentpoles coming up.

But when the movie-loving boomers age out of the customer base, and if the current crop younger viewers don't take the next generation of kids to see movies in theaters, what then? If day-and-date simultaneous multi-platform releases become more commonplace, and VOD really starts eating into ticket sales, where does this leave the movie theaters? Is there going to come a time when seeing a Malick or P.T. Anderson film on the big screen won't even be an option? If so, it'll be an awful shame.
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