Ed Driscoll

Moviegoing Heads for the Exit

John Podhoretz, writing in the Weekly Standard, asks, “Will anyone go to the movies 25 years from now?”

Will there even be movie theaters 25 years from now? These are not idle questions. New research from the Motion Picture Association of America shows how the moviegoing audience of those between the ages of 25 and 39 has contracted precipitously—dropping almost 25 percent over the past four years.

Moviegoing is like any habit: Break it, and you’re not likely to go back to it. The habit is being broken. The business relies on those who go to theaters at least once a month. Such people are responsible for more than half the tickets sold in any given year. They now make up a mere 11 percent of the overall audience, and they’re getting older. Ticket sales to Americans over 40 are rising. Ticket sales to Americans between the ages of 21 and 40 are falling.

If this trend is not reversed, and it’s hard to see how it will be, two things will happen. The importance of frequent moviegoers will rise for the cinema’s bottom line because the number of people who go rarely or don’t go at all will rise. But those frequent moviegoers will begin to recede in numbers over time because they will (alas) begin, literally, to die out.

And then there’s the money it costs to build and maintain the infrastructure that delivers Hollywood’s product, Podhoretz adds:

It costs more to advertise them because it’s harder to make people aware that they even exist in the cable/Internet universe. Also, theaters are built on real estate that grows more valuable over time, luring developers because of the size of their footprint. Money has to be spent on theater upkeep or the seats will grow uncomfortable and the bathrooms skeevy. And if they grow less valuable because fewer people use them, and they don’t generate the profits at the concession stands that really support them, those theaters will be sold or will close.

In the 1970s, Nixon Derangement Syndrome drove many of the decisions made by the “New Hollywood” that replaced the studio system that created the industry’s golden era, which ran from the 1930s through the mid-1960s. (John Gregory Dunne’s book The Studio is an excellent profile of 20th Century Fox in 1967, just as the lights were about to go out on old Hollywood.) But at least the young Turks who replaced the grizzled old founders of Hollywood had fresh ideas, worked with smaller budgets, and had much more room to experiment, before Spielberg and Lucas showed the industry how to make money once again.

In the aftermath of 9/11, a near monolithically left Hollywood worked very hard at alienating the American middle class, and by and large succeeded. The preening-anti-war statements, all the way to siding with the terrorists in Guantanamo Bay. The rabid hatred of President Bush. The SJW sucker punches. The two-tiered dumbed-down industry reduced to cranking out two types of movies: zillion dollar CGI blockbusters in the form of mindless formulaic epic quests and cartoon/sci-fi blockbusters.  And equally mindless anti-Iraq movies.

But the biggest trend that greatly changed Hollywood was the loss of its stars. A certain amount of this was out of the industry’s control. Schwarzenegger decided to become governor. Tom Cruise and Mel Gibson had very public freakouts. Clint and Harrison Ford aged, the latter making increasingly bad film choices along the way. (Anybody remember Hollywood Homicide or Firewall from the mid-naughts?)

Stars were what made an industry where “nobody knows anything” about a film’s chances, as screenwriter William Goldman famously said, somewhat predictable. In the old days, you could know nothing about a movie other than above its title was a name like John Wayne, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, or Humphrey Bogart, and know that you were going to have a pretty good two hours ahead of you. As late as the 1990s, Hollywood in the summertime delivered up a steady stream of Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Clint, Cruise, Gibson and Harrison, and you knew that you could watch two hours of a cool guy blowing stuff up. Casablanca it wasn’t, but it was still dependable.

Today, unless you’re a teenager who wants to see comic book stars and spaceships, Hollywood no longer wants you at the box office. As Podhoretz wrote in an earlier column, American Sniper “turned out an audience of people who haven’t been to a movie theater in years.” But as with the surprise massive success of Gibson’s The Passion, Hollywood has signaled loud and clear that we’re not a crowd that they wish to cater to at the box office.

To borrow from Tony Hendra’s classic doubletalk in Spinal Tap, the industry worked very hard to make its audience more “selective.” They shouldn’t be surprised to watch it thin out even further.