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The Long Goodbye

Summer is in full swing and movie theatres are filled with summer blockbusters. Unfortunately, they are not also filled with moviegoers. To the great surprise of no one, Hollywood’s summer box office is down yet again – roughly 10% year-on-year. As is their wont, industry insiders wring their hands and (once again) blame the downturn on a bad crop of movies. Don’t believe it. The movie theatre business is in long-term secular decline for reasons much bigger than Johnny Depp.

1. Going To The Movies Is (Ridiculously) Inconvenient
TDG has written for years about the decline and fall of linear programming in the TV context. The fundamental reason for this is the shift to quantum viewing –- in which the viewer (not the content provider) determine when, where, and how they want to consume video content. Convenience (not content) is king.

What’s often forgotten in all the navel gazing about masterpieces like Transformers: The Last Knight is that, on this score, going to the movies is hopelessly anachronistic. Not only does the viewer have to show up at a certain time (which is a pain), but also at a particular place, with all of the additional cost and hassle that inevitably entails (traffic, parking, childcare for the little one(s), etc.). No amount of content is going to turn this around, which is why the studios have no choice but to (eventually) offer new releases at home for on-demand viewing.

2. We’re Living In The Age Of Screen Saturation
Media exists in a social context. Think, for example, of how the NFL has successfully taken over autumn Sunday afternoons across much of the US. Thursday night games, by contrast, have been much less successful because there are no embedded social patterns linking that day-and-time with watching football.

The success of (US) movie theatres in the 20th century was tied to much more fundamental building blocks of how people work and play. People worked all week on the farm, in the factory, or at a 9-5 job, and then rewarded themselves by going to a movie on the weekend. Sitting comfortably in front of a moving screen for a couple of hours with others in the community provided people with both a novel experience and a relaxing respite from their (hard) labors.

None of this holds true to the same extent in the US today. It is true of China, however, which helps explain the huge appeal of movie theatres to tens of millions of people who have moved to mega-cities and now spend long days working in factories or otherwise navigating a stressful urban environment.

As well, jobs and entertainment options have both changed dramatically. People are on multiple screens throughout their day, be it work or personal. Content that both informs and entertains swirls around us endlessly from morning to night. In today’s context, paying money to go sit in front of yet another screen for two hours is just not that novel of an experience.

3. Couples Don’t Go To The Movies Anymore
Many people used to go the movies in pairs. Social conventions between men and women turned ‘dinner and a movie’ into the default setting for both initiating and continuing a romantic relationship. In a world of Tinder and Netflix-and-chill, those conventions clearly no longer hold sway. I’ve written here previously about these changes in teen behavior, but suffice it to say here that a teen culture with no jobs, no cars, and no dating is not exactly an ideal market for the traditional suburban multiplex.

This is obviously true, but what may be somewhat more surprising is how social conventions have changed for established couples (i.e., married people). Once upon a time Mom and Dad would get a baby sitter for the kids and head out to the movies together. Today, not so much. Only 18 percent of today’s married couples report going out together even once a month. Setting aside what this says about today’s relationships, this trend presents major problems for movie theatres that great content can’t fix.


The declining summer box office has little or nothing to do with individual movies. Society has changed (and is continuing to change) and the consumption of media has changed with it. Like ‘reading a newspaper’ or ‘listening to records’ before it,  ‘going to the movies’ is starting to sound like one of those things people used to do.  Movie theatres are living on borrowed time.

Stick with TDG and stay ahead of the curve.

Joel Espelien is Senior Advisor for TDG and VP of Client Services for the Corum Group doing sell-side technology acquisitions. He lives near Seattle, WA.