"Everyone’s gone to the movies, now we’re alone at last.”
Is it possible that Steely Dan lyric from 1975’s “Katy Lied” may soon seem as outdated as “Weird” Al Yankovic’s ode to “UHF”? A Reuters poll released before the Academy Awards broadcast last Sunday found that two-thirds of Americans had yet to see any of the movies nominated for Best Picture. Yet “Gravity,” “Captain Phillips,” “American Hustle,” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” managed to rack up at least $100 million at the box office (and “Gravity” more than twice that).
And Hollywood did enjoy an unprecedented year at the domestic box office surpassing $11 billion. The previous record, set in 2012, was $10.8 billion. So; happy ending, right? Not so fast. That record box office is more a result of ticket prices than attendance. The average cost of a movie ticket last year reached an all-time high, while ticket sales, reports The Los Angeles Times, have been sliding since 2002.
When asked how often they go to a theatre to see a movie, the highest percentage (43 percent) of Affluent respondents surveyed by Spectrem’s Millionaire Corner said they only go a few times a year. Just 17 percent said they go once a month, while 22 percent said, “Rarely, if ever.”
One-fourth of respondents consider a night out at the movies to be too expensive, but a near-equal percentage (22 percent) said they don’t like the theatre experience. Eighteen percent said they prefer to wait until a film was released to ancillary markets such as home video.
The youngest and oldest respondents were the least likely to consider going to the movies to be too expensive. Young people have more discretionary income to spend (and the bulk of Hollywood’s output is geared toward them), while seniors can take advantage of discounts on tickets.
But I can relate to gripes against the theatre experience. The late Roger Ebert was right when he succinctly observed that the theatres have lost their charm. Not to date myself (something I did often in high school), but in my formative moviegoing years, an evening at the movies was still an indelible and special experience. My local movie theatre was the Alcyon in Highland Park, Illinois. On this, I will defer to Academy Award-winning screenwriter and fellow former Highland Parker William Goldman, who wrote in his seminal book, Adventures in the Screen Trade”:
"Because of my Hollywood work, I have seen films on three continents and in at least twice that many foreign countries. But for me, still, always, it is the Alcyon.... Certainly not a great movie theatre. Probably not even a very good one. But the Alcyon stands alone in memory because it stood alone on Central Avenue, even then an aging monopoly; if you wanted to go to the movies in Highland Park, Illinois, in the 1930's, it was the Alcyon-or it was no movie at all. And the thought of no movie at all was just too painful. Even when I was six and seven and eight, I was hooked. I suppose I still am, but the stuff I see today often vanishes, while the Alcyon remains."
I take issue with “not a great movie theatre.” It was, to me, a palace; perhaps a bit faded in the 1960s when I was growing up, but a glorious single-screen palace nonetheless. And at the Alcyon, or the neighboring Glencoe Theatre or the Deerpath in Lake Forest, both of which are now long gone, moviegoers got the full monty: A cartoon or comedy short subject, perhaps a newsreel, and coming atractions (“Coming to this theatre! For 7 big days!”). There were kid-friendly Saturday matinees distinct from the evening program (“McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force”)
I fear I’m trending toward fogie-ville in pointing out the blatant contrast in today’s multiplex moviegoing experience. Norma Desmond, in “Sunset Bouelvard” was prescient: Today, it literally is the pictures, or screens, that got small. And moviegoers must endure marathons of commercials and coming attractions (and I love a good trailer; I just don’t like 15 in a row), not to mention the texters, talkers and smartphone Internet browsers
Whither the movie theatre? Certainly the drive-in movie theatre is on the endangered species list, thanks to the prohibitively expensive prospect of having to convert to digital projection. More than four-in-ten Affluent respondents surveyed by Millionaire Corner said they prefer to watch movies on cable TV. Twenty-one percent said they preferred their own home theatre, while 17 percent opt for streaming and downloads. Here, age is absolutely a factor. Half of respondents under 40 said they prefer the convenience of streaming and downloads.
But even under the least optimal conditions, there is still an indelible mystique about going to a movie theatre that watching at home (or on your smartphone) can’t hope to replicate. “What’s a bigger mystery box than a movie theatre?” asked director J.J. Abrams. “You go to the theatre, you’re just so excited to see anything—the moment the lights go down is often the best part.”