Last week I saw someone had started a GoFundMe to raise money to buy tickets so underprivileged kids could go see Avengers: Infinity War when it opens a month from now. That’s just the latest such effort, with other recent examples including campaign to take kids from poor neighborhoods to see Black Panther and A Wrinkle In Time. The Avengers initiative seems to be based solely around the idea that it’s a big, fun super hero movie, which is slightly different from the motivations around the other movies.
In both those cases there was the angle that the stories represented, in some way, an underserved audience. Specifically, both movies included black or mixed-race leads and casts that looked different than what Hollywood usually offers. So people wanted to make sure the communities that casting represented could actually see the movies themselves. Along those same lines, Wrinkle director Ava DuVernay held a special screening of her film in Compton but had to use another facility because the neighborhood lacked a theater of its own.
These are all great programs that are doing good work by, in one way or another, bringing these audiences movies that are culturally important to them. I have no doubt the motives of those behind the campaigns are pure.
The problem is that they’re necessary.
More accurately, the problem is that moviegoing at this point an elite luxury activity that “allowing kids to see a comic book or fantasy adventure” is approached as a philanthropic endeavor.
Theater owners seem to be fighting a losing battle against innovation in the film industry. Ticket sales keep falling while the chains steadily raise prices and add more and more premium features for IMAX, Dolby, 3D and other special screening formats. MoviePass, for all its legitimate issues, is resisted by chains because they feel it “cheapens” the moviegoing experience. The entire distribution industry keeps trying to relegate Netflix to second-class citizen status, including the recent announcement the company and its original productions would not be welcome back at the Cannes Film Festival. And Premium VOD – where high-profile movies are available at home (at a higher price point) just weeks after they’re in theaters – has been stifled at every turn.
All of those efforts have created a theatrical system that’s out of reach – financially, geographically or both – of vast swaths of the population. That’s a real problem, one it seems the current distributor network has no interest in fixing.
That problem, to be blunt, is that it’s doing little to nothing to engender a feeling of loyalty in the younger portions of the audience.
That’s bad news when combined with overall demographic trends. While MIllennials – those between 22 and 37 as of 2018 – are widely derided for killing all kinds of industries left and right the reality is that generation more saddled with debt, particularly of the student loan variety than any before it. That means they’re making different choices with their discretionary spending, opting for experiences and group activities over home ownership and other traditional signs of adulting.
They’re also spending less on entertainment as a percentage of their income than previous generations. There’s some speculation that’s in part due to still using their parents’ accounts but it’s also because 1) free, ad-supported media offers more options than ever before, 2) paid subscription services offer virtually limitless content at no incremental cost and 3) they’re torrenting and bypassing the whole economy.
Let’s focus on the second point. If you round the cost of a full year of Netflix up to $12/month, that comes to $144. At the “average” 2017 theatrical ticket price of about $8.97 you could see 16 movies for that price, a little over one a month. Or you could see 30 movies a month for $8 at the newly-reduced MoviePass account level. Or you could see as many as you want through Netflix. And let’s be honest, that $8.70 average ticket price isn’t going to be found anywhere in the urban areas young people are choosing to live, nor is that going to be the price that’s in place at the time when everyone in the group is available to go out. So that’s a theoretical price at best.
Adding to the problem is that second-run theaters are both less common and more expensive than they used to be. Back in the 80s and 90s these were still frequently called the “dollar theater” because that’s about what they cost. But the massive expansion of first-run chains in the late 90s and early 2000s when times were good along with DVD-fueled push into home video ownership severely reduced the second-run industry. That means there are fewer and fewer cost-conscious options available for someone who still wants to go to the movies. And those that remain are seen as annoyances by the distribution powerhouses.
So we have a situation where theatrical moviegoing is increasingly only available to the well-off. Theaters in poorer neighborhoods were closed because they weren’t seen as being economically viable given the digital upgrades that chains felt were necessary to survive and those that remained were just too expensive.
That means a generation of middle- and lower-class people are growing up with little to no connection with movie theaters. They’re out of reach, something you only do as a special treat a few times a year. When a truly special moment like Black Panther comes along the only way kids in those theater deserts can see it is if Chris Evans retweets a GoFundMe that was established by a junior high science teacher.
If theater chains believe they’re having problems now, just wait. Student debt will only become more and more burdensome unless some kind of reforms are put in place, which seems unlikely in the current political climate. Similarly, if wages remain as stagnant as they have for decades while expenses like healthcare and shelter increase there will be less and less disposable income for entertainment, making free or low-cost options even more attractive.
Those fundraisers may create moments that give us all the feels when we see videos posted to Twitter of the moment when the students find out they’re going on an awesome field trip. We should examine, though, the economic and demographic realities that make such moments necessary for the very groups who are finally being represented in a meaningful way on-screen. To be clear, those moments are the result of a largely self-created situation that no longer makes “let’s go to the movies” a logistically viable choice, thereby failing to build any entrenched behavior in the audience.
You can blame Netflix if you want. Or you can blame MoviePass. All they did was put a reasonably priced alternative in front of consumers. That’s what capitalism is supposed to do. If you’ve ignored market and demographic trends to this point, it’s not likely you’re doing any soul-searching now.
For analysts or executives at either a studio or theater chain, those feel good moments should be filling me with dread about very, very discouraging future.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.