Ten or 15 years ago, the summertime was a prime season for movie theaters. Their promise of escapism – and air conditioning – was a refuge from the oppressive August heat. For younger audiences, it was a way to fill the long summer days.
Today, that landscape looks dramatically different.
The North American box office grossed nearly $7.4 billion in 2022, an improvement from the dismal receipts of the pandemic years but still vastly behind the $11.3 billion grossed in 2019.
Though some recent releases have experienced major numbers, as a whole, 2023 still lags behind pre-pandemic levels.
Spokane’s independent theaters have not escaped these challenges
Joe Sheehan, manager of the Magic Lantern Theatre, has worked at the business since it reopened in the winter of 2016. During his time, the theater implemented numerous changes that allowed it to operate seven days a week with two screens playing simultaneously.
“We kind of took off from there,” Sheehan said. “We had this three-year upward trajectory until the pandemic.”
As with theaters across the country, the pandemic drastically impacted the Magic Lantern’s business.
“We’re certainly not getting as many folks coming to movies, in general,” Sheehan said. “Not being able to get outside and do very much for a year, two years, more than that in some cases, folks are just not in the habit of seeing movies, and as a result, movies are not as central to the culture in the way they used to be 10, 15, 20 years ago.”
Jasmine Barnes, manager of the Garland Theater, has observed similar effects with changes in distribution policy.
“Before the pandemic, the theaters would have the movies and then there’d be this brief period of time where we would have the movies and then it’d be on DVD, so that was kind of our sweet spot, post-AMC, pre-at-home watching,” Barnes said. “Now, by the time we are able to get any of the new movies, they are already available at home, so it kind of really took away that niche category that we have.”
The reduced time of films playing exclusively at theaters also has hurt the Magic Lantern.
“Maybe the windows used to be 90 days, now it’s 45,” Sheehan said. “People are more frequently saying like we’ll just wait a few weeks, and see it either cheaper or more conveniently.”
Hayden Cinemas, formerly Hayden Discount Cinemas, faced an uncertain future with the onset of the pandemic. Unlike the Garland and the Magic Lantern, however, its growth has continued uninterrupted.
“My theater, we’ve been doing better,” said owner Mike Lehosit. “We’ve had some of our best years the last two years.”
While Washington barred the large groups found in movie theaters, Idaho law allowed such gatherings to continue. That was a boost for Hayden Cinemas.
Though already a trend, the onset of the pandemic made audiences more accustomed to watching movies at home on streaming platforms like Netflix and Prime Video.
“They got comfortable viewing movies at home, they’re like, well if I can just watch it here, why would I want to get in my car and drive somewhere, might as well just stream it, wear my pajamas, sit at home,” Barnes said.
The content now available for screenings is another issue.
Sheehan said in the years just prior to COVID, there were about 900 movies released annually. But more recently, only about half as many films have been released.
“There’s just not as much of it as there was three or four years ago,” Sheehan said.
As other changes impact the theatrical landscape, theaters have been forced to expand their offerings and evolve.
For Hayden Cinemas, this meant switching from a discount to first-run model.
“Before we were charging $3 and then we bumped them up to $6 to $8 to first-run,” Lehosit said.
Along with the Magic Lantern, the theater also found success with private screenings and community events.
For the Garland, meanwhile, many of its most successful releases have not been new films, but revisits of established classics – with added features.
“We did a May the Forth Party, we did ‘Star Wars,’ we just finished up our ‘Benny and Joon’ event, which was a huge hit,” Barnes said. “Our most successful ones are ones which actually have an event attached to the movie, not just a viewing experience.”
Barnes said it may be the production of new, original movies, like “Star Wars” and “Benny and Joon,” which could revitalize the industry.
Barnes pointed to the growth of independent studios like A24, which produced “Everything Everywhere All at Once” and “Moonlight,” booth of which won Academy Awards for Best Picture.
“They have the opportunity to really move up, start a new generation of good movies,” Barnes said. “I watch ‘Transformers,’ I watch ‘Fast X,’ but like, I want to see good, quality films.”
Barnes is not alone in this desire for refreshing and inventive options.
Last month, theaters across the country were buzzing with activity following the release of Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” and Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” a nearly monocultural double feature dubbed “Barbenheimer.” The combined success of the two films, both receiving critical acclaim, raked in more than $500 million in the global box office their first weekend.
July 21-23 became the fourth-highest grossing domestic weekend ever. Neither films are sequels, remakes or extensions of larger franchises, and both are shepherded by directors with uncommon visions and distinct styles.
In light of strikes by the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and Writers Guild of America , however, theaters will have another challenge to overcome.
As a part of the strike, actors and writers are prevented from participating in any studio-affiliated projects and are barred from promoting new film and television releases. If an agreement between parties isn’t reached, the 2024 release schedule will be effectively non-existent aside from delayed 2023 productions.
That means no new movies, and no audiences.
“I couldn’t help but see the writers’ strike and actors strike coming and thinking we can’t catch a break,” Sheehan said. “It’s another blow.”
In the long run, Lehosit believes the strike could draw audiences back to theaters at a national level.
“What I hope will happen is that the writers and actors will get their cut of streaming, forcing streaming to be less relevant,” he said. “I hope that they do more theatrical releases, or do longer theatrical releases, or charge more for streaming so people can come back to theaters.”
Threats to the livelihood of movie theaters have existed since their beginning.
Post-World War II, the advent of television offered a seemingly limitless array of entertainment from the comfort of Americans’ homes (sound familiar?).
A few decades later, the increased popularity of home video pulled movies further into the living room. Each of these technological advancements appeared to be the death knell for theaters, and yet, through each obstacle, they continued standing.
The strike, the pandemic and streaming may just be another footnote in that history.