With Hulu and Netflix, Will Millennials Ever Go Out to the Movie Theater Anymore?

BySteven Paquin

On Dec. 9, the release of The Sitter and New Year’s Eve marked the worst U.S. box office opening since Sept. 5, 2008. The previous weekend, which did not premiere any films, outperformed Dec. 9 by 4%.

Why are young Americans forgoing the movies like this, en masse? Ticket sales and revenues have continually declined since 2009. Last year’s annual ticket sales of $1.25 billion are the lowest since 1995’s $1.22 billion. Roger Ebert sums up the causes of the attendance problem excellently, but it’s important to understand that this is not a new problem, and it’s not just about kids today and their illegal downloads. Actually, if you lived in the ‘50s, it would be déjà vu.

Though television was introduced in 1939, it didn’t become popular in America until after World War II. David A. Cook’s A History of Narrative Film says theatre attendance after the war “decline[d] in direct proportion to the number of television sets in use.” According to Cook, 90 million people attended the cinema in 1948, while 1949 only saw 70 million.

If black-and-white television kept 20 million people from the movies in 1949, today add DVDs, video games, Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, and why not throw in The Pirate Bay. Specifically, Netflix accounts for 30% of Internet traffic at peak times. Whereas film once held visual superiority over TV, Cook notes that with HDTV “virtually every advantage that film once possessed over video [is] lost.”

This chart, based on information from Box Office Mojo, shows the average ticket prices between 1989 and 2011. It took nine years (from 1990 to 1999) for the price of a ticket to increase $1. Since then, it takes about half that time for ticket prices to increase. Inflation has become a big obstacle to movie ticket purchasing. If you’re 25, without a job, you’re not going to spend $25 on a movie date.

The next chart combines information from Box Office Mojo and InflationData.com to compare U.S. and movie ticket inflation between 1990 and 2010. Early ‘90s ticket prices remained well below U.S. inflation but, by the 2000s, the opposite became true.

According to Cook, Hollywood misunderstood that its audience changed from a “middle-aged, modestly educated, middle- to lower-class group to a younger, better educated, more affluent, and predominantly middle-class group.” With this, comes an obvious change in values and, more importantly, tastes.

There is a cultural shift occurring now in America. Older generations were primary spenders, and now this generation is coming into a little disposable income. The most marked result of this is millennials are more visually aware than any previous generation. Television, film, video games, Internet, and mobile devices expose millennials to images continuously. Furthermore, Video-on-Demand, Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, etc. mean Millennials have a cinematic sense spanning different times and cultures.

The strategies that purport to have an answer to the movieplex dilemma always answer this question: What can cinemas do that  ___________ can’t do? In 1950, the blank was televisions. In 2010, the blank is computers, Internet, video games, etc.

Bwana Devil (1952) was the first American color 3-D feature and was “roundly thrashed by reviewers,” as Cook put it. Regardless, it became a box office sensation. Studios rushed into 3-D production, and between 1953 and 1954, 69 3-D features were produced. Sound familiar? This chart depicts the growth of American 3-D films since 2007. (Remember, James Cameron’s massively popular Avatar premiered in 2009.) From there, 3-D production doubled and continues to rise. Cameron himself sees the obvious connection.

However, movie attendance continues falling as 3-D production rises, and the costs grow exponentially. But, obviously, contrary to the opinion of the studios, fancy, 3-D blockbusters that break the bank aren’t successful in the long-run. Out of the 44 most expensive films of all time, 30 were made between 2007 and 2011. Check out the list and make your own judgments as to whether more money equals more acclaim or just more CGI.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and The Wild Bunch (1969) marked a change of pace from the ‘50s.  They were drastically different from the unimaginative, big budget fluff productions of the previous decade, with balletic violence and overtones of rebellion.

To envision the films initiating cinematic courage, observe current independents. The ‘50s’ saving grace were independents like The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Paths of Glory (1957). Of Ebert’s 2011 top 20 films, 17 are indies. They are quiet, yet challenging, limited-CGI stories that play-with and pay-homage-to our cinematic expectations.

Millennials will return to theatres for the thoughtful-not-sanitized, tributes-not-rehashes, and authentic visuals-not-candied effects. Only then can the industry truly hope for a rebound.

A version of this piece originally appeared on The Next Great Generation (TNGG).

Photo Credit: grainger