Movie Theater Attendance Has Hit A 24-Year-Low, And 2018 May Be Worse


2017 was a rough year for movies. If you weren’t a massive surprise hit, you were probably out and gone in two weeks with nobody noticing. According to the National Association of Theater Owners, it led to a year where admissions were down to levels not seen since the ’90s. And depending on your view of the film industry, 2018 may be a whole lot worse.

Attendance is important because theaters need butts in seats, not to watch movies. For all they care, you can bring air horns to the Paddington 2 screening. Increasingly, theaters need you to show up and buy snacks and beer, or they’re in serious trouble.

Everybody has their own theory, of course, as to why audiences are showing up to the movies less. Ticket prices rose to an average of nearly nine dollars, and, depending on who you ask, the quality of movie just wasn’t there. Variety, for example, seems to think it was a summer of lackluster titles:

NATO pointed to a summer shortfall without naming titles as the key reason for the declines. The summer saw several high-profile titles such as The Mummy, Baywatch, Transformers: the Last Knight, and The Dark Tower perform well under expectations.

The Wrap, meanwhile, pulled out bits that seem to find NATO arguing there simply aren’t enough movies, period:

“2017 highlighted once again the importance of a balanced, 52 week movie calendar. An unusually empty August accounted for half of summer 2017’s shortfall.”

And, in truth, there’s probably some validity to both arguments. People don’t go to the movies if there aren’t movies to see, of course, and bad word of mouth has dinged movies at the box office since there have been movies. But there are a few glaring problems with these theories, starting with blaming the quality of the movies themselves.

To start with, relatively few in the US showed up to see the likes of The Mummy or yet another Pirates of The Caribbean movie, but foreign audiences turned out in droves. That’s been the model for Hollywood for quite a while with blockbuster franchises like The Fast And The Furious and Transformers, where the foreign audiences matter most. The problem is that it cuts the other way. Low budget hits like Get Out can rake in as much at the US box office as movies with dozens of times their budget, but do comparatively nothing overseas. And, in the case of a movie like Warcraft or The Great Wall, the studio isn’t even paying most of the production costs.

In other words, the market for the giant blockbusters that drove the multiplexes of the ’80s and ’90s has grown to the point where US audiences are just one piece of a huge financial machine. They’re a large piece, make no mistake, but not large enough to matter if the rest of the world is willing to show up for a movie.

A second problem is the cost of a ticket. Sure, movie tickets kissing an average of $9 sounds bad enough, but that’s just the average. An informal poll of the Uproxx writers’ room found that the only tickets even close to the average were second-run movie houses and matinees deep in the suburbs. $10 was on the low end for a ticket and for a family of four, you’re talking $50 before you even get in the door and buy snacks, for a standard screening. And if you were wondering, movie ticket prices have shot up compared to inflation. Back in 1994, which is when box office admissions were this low, a ticket was an average of $6.88 in 2017 dollars according to the Consumer Price Index. And yes, if you were wondering, the prices of those snacks have outpaced inflation, too.

This brings another factor into play: home video. If you’re going to drop $15 on a movie anyway, why drop it on a screening when it’ll cost the same to just own it and watch it at home? Back in 1987, Top Gun made waves by selling its VHS for $43 in today’s dollars, and that was with a price drop only possible thanks to sticking an ad in front of the movie. You can stream Cruise’s latest movie for $15, right now, ad-free off Amazon, but if you wait a few months, you can probably get it for $10, or even $5. Or wait even longer, and it’ll turn up on Netflix. And your wait is dropping: The “window” between theatrical release and home video release is shrinking rapidly, with studios pushing to make it weeks instead of months.

What does this mean for 2018? Already, there’s that aforementioned scarcity of movies: June 1st, the former home of Deadpool 2, is now effectively empty on the release schedule. There are eleven weekends on the 2018 schedule with just one movie in wide release, although that could change. And there are 48 movies that fall under the banner of “Sequel, Remake, or Reboot.” In fact, the year kicked off with the fourth Insidious movie. In other words, it looks quite a bit like 2017. The main question now is just how much taste audiences will have for this particular sequel.