Decreasing moviegoing not exactly a bad thing
Two of my favorite Los Angeles movie theaters are in danger of closing.
I have a hunch that someone will rescue them, that the ArcLight Hollywood (which isn’t even 20 years old) and the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood won’t be closed for long. As for the rest of the nearly 300 screens in the Pacific Theaters chain, some will probably be lost — but not these two landmarks.
I could be wrong. One of the things we feared when the movie theaters started closing down for the pandemic was that a lot of them would never start back up.
That shouldn’t be surprising; we’ve been losing movie theaters as long as I’ve been going to the movies. There used to be a movie house in every town of any size. (Those towns used to have baseball teams too, and before Prohibition, breweries.)
In the 1930s, more than half of Americans (about 62% of the population in 1933) went to the movies on average every week. After World War II, a couple of things happened. First of all, a lot of people came home from the war, got GI loans and moved away from urban centers where the movie palaces were located. Between 1947 and 1953, the number of Americans living in suburbs grew by 43%.
And television, the commercial prospects of which had been stunted by the war as our best and brightest technical minds turned their attention to military applications, started to become reasonable alternate entertainment in the evening. After a long day at work, no one wanted to take a trip back into town to watch a movie; at least they didn’t want to do it as often as they used to.
And by 1948, there were four major TV networks broadcasting full prime-time schedules seven nights a week. There were ballgames, game shows, news, “Playhouse 90,” “Your Show of Shows.” This worried Hollywood studios, and as a hedge against the threat, they began buying interests in TV stations. By the end of 1948, Hollywood was deeply invested in TV production.
The idea was to vertically integrate — if the studios could control the production, distribution and exhibition of movies (remember that in those days every major studio also owned a chain of theaters) as well as a major stake in television, they would essentially have the entertainment market cornered.
But in 1948, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc. that the whole vertical integration racket violated U.S. antitrust law, and they had to pick a lane and stick to it. Studios began breaking up into smaller entities, each designed to handle one aspect of the business. Theater chains were sold off, no longer under studio control.
While the studios’ burgeoning interest in television wasn’t specifically addressed in the Paramount decision, the Federal Communications Commission started denying broadcast licenses to anyone convicted of engaging in monopolistic practices. The studios were forced to divest themselves of their interest in TV. So any hypothetical plan to smother the TV industry while it was still in its infancy had to be abandoned.
A lot of people like to point out that the movie industry has always faced and survived challenges — the movies were supposedly dead when TV emerged in the ’50s, when home video emerged in the ’80s, and now as streaming
challenges them in the 2020s. They’ve always survived the threat and come out the other side as an important component of the American cultural landscape. But that’s a little like saying that Uncle Fred has been through a lot and he’s still standing. Everybody, every industry, is alive until it’s dead.
No matter what Schwarzenegger and Nietzsche say, whatever doesn’t kill you probably does not make you stronger. The emergence of television in the ’50s didn’t make the studio’s movies or bottom line better. On the contrary it probably killed off the Golden Age of Hollywood.
In 1939, people who didn’t see 50 or more movies in a theater every year were the exception. In 2016, the Motion Picture Association of America was very proud to announce in its annual report that “more young people and diverse populations went to the movies. Audiences between the ages of 18 and 24 attended an average of 6.5 movies over the course of the year, more than any other age group.”
The MPAA was happy about this because it represented an increase of .06 from the same demographic in 2015.
We all know what happened in 2020: Box office receipts fell off by about 80% from 2019. (I would have thought it had declined more than that.) And in 2019, box office was down 4.2% in North America.
It’s not as cut-and-dry as all that. It certainly looks like box office receipts will recover to some degree in 2021, even with most theaters still operating at less than full capacity. It looks like a lot of people went to see “Godzilla vs. Kong” in a theater, in a ritual setting where they sat in the dark with strangers, even though the movie was available to stream through HBO Max. There’s probably a lot of pent-up desire — people want to get out and see something, anything.
And before 2019, the trend for movie theaters wasn’t entirely a downer. Box offices receipts were up 7.2% in 2018. They were up 2.6% in 2017, up 2.7% in 2016. With the exception of catastrophic 2020, over the past couple of decades the movie business has been up some years, down others.
I’m not concerned about the imminent end of the theatrical experience — we’ll have movie houses around in some form or fashion for as long as we consume screen-based entertainment.
Moviegoing will get more special, and less routine. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
But it will be a different thing.