Movie Theaters Riding Off Into The Sunset

I went to a 7:30 p.m. show in East Hampton to watch the movie War Horse directed by Steven Spielberg. This article is not a review about the movie War Horse, although I can tell you it is a very good movie and one that you should absolutely see. Instead it’s about the fact that within the theater for a Steven Spielberg movie, there were maybe 15 people sitting there watching.

I go to the movies a lot, and something I’ve noticed is that many times, when I get there, there are not a lot of people inside of the theater. This is true for even major blockbuster movies such as War Horse, where millions of dollars are at stake and expected to be returned to the studios for a profit. Steven Spielberg, who has a house near Georgica Beach in East Hampton and just donated over seven acres of land nearby to the Peconic Land Trust for eternal preservation, knows how to bring audiences into theaters. So one would wonder since, there are more people in the world than there were in the 70s, why are ticket sales for the movie business going down? [expand]

I began giving this a great deal of thought after reading an article in The New York Times reporting that for 2011, compared to 2010, movie ticket sales are down dramatically and it’s becoming a real problem.

One thing that surprised me is that people are actually choosing to not go out to the movies. After all, that’s part of the whole experience, at least for me, of a weekend. I don’t go to the movies because I really want to see a specific movie, I go to the movies because it’s something to do, it’s healthy compared to a night out at a bar and it’s something you can talk about afterwards. It’s always been, in my mind, a fun, inexpensive thing to do. Even as a kid working as a busboy at Candy Kitchen in Bridgehampton, I had more than enough money for myself for a night out at the movies and even pay for a girlfriend.

One thing though, that is clearly, at least to me, affecting why people aren’t going out to the movies as much is the cost of going. It’s just too much. I mean, people are always going to complain about the price of things, but now, a night at the theater for a family of four is legitimately $50 even if you skip the popcorn. Maybe that’s pennies to you Hamptonites, but for most American families, that’s real money.

The other thing that I think is really causing a problem for the industry is websites like Netflix that stream movies. To this day, I cannot believe that movie studios conducting a  full-scale war with the Netflix streaming service and doing everything to keep their films off of the site. It makes it way too easy to watch five or six movies in one night, and it devalues what it means to actually create and make a movie. I understand that it is here to stay, but I think that this business needs to evolve a bit so it is not such a free-for-all.

The other thing I think that is a problem for the movie ticket business is that the big films that keep getting made seem to be just remakes. Avatar was a huge movie because it was big budget, but it was also something that we have never seen before. Even War Horse, which is a great movie by the way, is really just another Steven Spielberg World War II film, even though War Horse is World War I. It still has that same old feel of Saving Private Ryan and “Band of Brothers” on HBO. Writers, directors and producers need to be leaders and stop approving scripts that are simple re-makes. Yes, the model works and will get people in the theaters, but at the same time, it’s sort of destroying itself.

Speaking of HBO, I think that is another big competitor for the movie business. One of my greatest pleasures in life right now is to meet my friends on a Sunday night and get together to watch the next episode of a television show we are following. We just finished up watching “Boardwalk Empire,” before that it was “Breaking Bad” and before that it was “Dexter.” I’ve never been so caught up with characters and so impressed with writing as I am when I watch shows like this. So instead of a Sunday night out at the movies, I’m staying in and watching my favorite show. It’s great to watch, and it’s a lot less expensive than a night out at the theater.

The problem is that theaters need to become a charming, affordable, easy place to go for the average American household. The movie business needs to catch up with the recession, just like so many other businesses have. The answer to get more meat in the seats isn’t to raise prices, but to lower them. I’d say to go as far as even a 30% drop in ticket prices. Test it out in parts of the country, advertise the lower ticket price, make a night at the movies for two people a $20 experience, popcorn included, instead of a $35 experience. I really believe that the amount of people that go into the theaters will dramatically increase if they do that and the increase in sales will off set the reduction in prices.

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