Will anyone go to the movies 25 years from now? Will there even be movie theaters 25 years from now? These are not idle questions. New research from the Motion Picture Association of America shows how the moviegoing audience of those between the ages of 25 and 39 has contracted precipitously—dropping almost 25 percent over the past four years.
Moviegoing is like any habit: Break it, and you’re not likely to go back to it. The habit is being broken. The business relies on those who go to theaters at least once a month. Such people are responsible for more than half the tickets sold in any given year. They now make up a mere 11 percent of the overall audience, and they’re getting older. Ticket sales to Americans over 40 are rising. Ticket sales to Americans between the ages of 21 and 40 are falling.
If this trend is not reversed, and it’s hard to see how it will be, two things will happen. The importance of frequent moviegoers will rise for the cinema’s bottom line because the number of people who go rarely or don’t go at all will rise. But those frequent moviegoers will begin to recede in numbers over time because they will (alas) begin, literally, to die out.
Hollywood is not really interested in this long-term crisis because its decision-makers are focused on maximizing profits over the next five years—since they have stock prices to defend and their own jobs to protect. And so they resort to very expensive and superficially effective Band-Aids to stanch the bleeding. A few studios have already laid out incredibly precise production schedules for their big-ticket franchise pictures stretching into the next decade. Marvel’s timeline features no fewer than 19—yes, I said 19—movies. Five new Star Wars movies, one a year beginning this Christmas, are on the way. James Cameron is making three Avatar sequels for all those who couldn’t get enough of 10-foot-tall blue cartoon men connected to their flying dinosaurs with fiber optic cables that come out of their heads.
All this seems foolproof now, and many of these offerings will have colossal opening weekends when they arrive. But what if tastes change over the next few years? All genres eventually go cold, at least for a time; so it will be for superheroes and science fiction. What if the first Star Wars reboot is dreadful and fails to whet appetites for its successors? What if audiences grow weary of the Avengers? Most important, what if people who really do go to the movies just start getting too old to watch Robert Downey Jr. aiming one-liners at his pet robot?
Hollywood is doing almost nothing as an industry to produce fare that will turn interested youth into the frequent moviegoers of the future. It knows a successful animated children’s film is sheer gold (Pixar and Frozen)—but it does almost nothing for youngsters over the age of 10 but produce the occasional indifferent movie set in a school that looks nothing like theirs. One Hunger Games movie a year means one ticket sale a year to a teenage girl; it doesn’t turn her into a moviegoer. Even more notably, there’s very little that might appeal to parents and their children alike.
Forms of entertainment become obsolete over time, or are superseded by vastly more popular forms. The problem for those of us who love going to the movies is this: Movies are supported by an incredibly expensive infrastructure. Each major film is an artisanal product, handmade by hundreds of technically adept people. And while there’s been a revolution in filmmaking that allows people to make movies very cheaply, and a great many wonderful ones have come out of that revolution, those films lack the seductive gloss and hypnotic glitter that really captivates.
It’s not just the millions per picture that are needed to make the movies sparkly and fancy and fun. It costs more to advertise them because it’s harder to make people aware that they even exist in the cable/Internet universe. Also, theaters are built on real estate that grows more valuable over time, luring developers because of the size of their footprint. Money has to be spent on theater upkeep or the seats will grow uncomfortable and the bathrooms skeevy. And if they grow less valuable because fewer people use them, and they don’t generate the profits at the concession stands that really support them, those theaters will be sold or will close.
The future is bleak for movie-goers. But the thing is, once that future arrives, it won’t seem bleak because there won’t be enough of us left to mourn. Besides, we’ll all have canes.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.