During one of my compulsive Instagram scrolls the other day, I found a fantastic quote from a literary account I follow, LitBowl (check them out; their stuff will make you think, cry, feel–the essentials).
It came from Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing of Feathers and it goes a little something like this:
“I remember my first date, aged fifteen, with a girl called Hilary Gidding. A coin fell down the back of the cinema seats and we both slipped our hands into the tight fuzzy gap of the chairs past popcorn kernels and sticky ticket stubs and our hands met, stroking the carpet feeling for the coin, and it was electric. The wrist being clamped by upholstery, the darkness, the accident, the lovely dirt of public spaces.”
Wow. Great writing, right? I think John Robinson (friend/teacher/life coach) would agree that it shows, not tells. But what I love about this excerpt besides its style is its ability to capture the movie theater experience.
Going to the movies is a ritual that people of the Western world know all-too-well.
Cushy chairs. Sticky carpeting. Pitch-black rooms. Butter. Sugar. A bank account out of $50+ (Ah, yes, take my money and time, Hollywood–gladly).
But what Porter does here beyond describing a familiar scene is paint a moment in a theater: an intimacy derived from something so simple as searching for a lost coin in between grungy, velvet seats.
When I first read this, I almost audibly blurted-out: “This would have never happened if ‘Netflix and chill’ existed when he was a teen. He would have never had this moment with Hilary.”
But wait. How valid is that claim?
If you pay any attention to pop culture or own a Twitter account, chances are you’ve seen how the titans of the film industry have rushed to defend the cinema experience in the new age of entertainment streaming services. Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan–THE big boys in Hollywood–are all worried about how the Netflixs, Amazon Primes, and Disney+s are encroaching on the act of being sucked into a narrative while surrounded by silence and strangers.
Since Netflix introduced streaming in 2007, more than 60 percent of Americans have subscribed to one or more streaming services. Simultaneously, 2019 saw a 27.7 percent drop in attendance compared to the same time frame from the previous year.
This means it’s time to choose sides then, right? Either vow to never leave your house to be entertained or cancel your Netflix subscription to save cinema forever, yes?
As it turns out, you can keep your buttered-popcorn days and stream them, too.
A study by the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) in 2018 indicated that streaming isn’t a threat to cinemas at all. According to a NATO spokesperson, it’s actually the STREAMERS who are going out to the theaters more than anyone else.
So why are the Spielbergs of our world worried? What else could be causing this dip in attendance? Why is it that there are less digging-for-loose-change-for-a-chance-to-touch-a-hand moments?
It’s under Martin Scorsese’s impression that it’s not a matter of who and who’s not going to the theaters, it’s what people are choosing is worth a theater experience and what’s not.
Looking at the timeline of when the data for that 27.7 percent decrease in ticket sales was collected, it was during a quarter where there were little to no superhero/franchise films in theaters. Think about that.
When it comes to breaking the box office lists, it’s the super-hero-fantasy-sagas of our day that have the largest payoffs for theaters and studios, not the indies or star-studded rom-coms. Franchises like Star Wars and Marvel Avengers have the ability to create cult audiences and dazzle the senses through special effects and sound design–the very things theaters enhance–convincing audiences to see films in theaters instead of waiting for a later release.
They’re able to influence the movie market in a way that their quality can determine how theaters do as a whole. If the stories are good, then everyone’s happy, but if they can’t meet the mark, attendance sinks and people get mad that they wasted their time and money.
So, now what? How do we make sure we can get more cute moments like the one shared between Mark and Hilary to exist in the next decade without relying on the success of Marvel movies alone?
We focus on stories.
And that comes from all angles–from the stories of the films themselves to the stories of how we communicate them to audiences.
We need to market films differently and creatively. If we want to give any film the potential to fill theaters, we need to engage with audiences why they need to see them in theaters–going beyond trailers and successful award seasons–and focus on experiences.
Whether it be through the films themselves like the way 1917 has turned film editing on its head with an immersive, single-shot approach or through promotions and advancements in the theater experience itself, Hollywood and cinemas have to work together to broaden what entices audiences to feel like they can’t wait until later to see good movies.
We kind of have to take chances, it seems. And I know that’s a path many movie executives and studios can’t afford. The risk of letting go of blockbusters to invest in other forms of storytelling seems idiotic if you have evidence for what works. I get it.
To clear up any misconceptions here, I want to strongly emphasize that I love franchises. I was raised on Star Wars. I also waited until Marriage Story was released on Netflix because I didn’t want to pay for a ticket. I am guilty.
But if we continue to rely on one model, we risk losing the quiet joys of going to the movies: sharing moments with the people we love and people we don’t know the first name of to learn, laugh, and cry with.
We just might not know what we’re missing if we don’t invest in new approaches that facilitate consistent and long-lasting theater attendance in the new digital space. If I’m not going to be working on that approach in the near future, I hope somebody is.