Are we falling out of love with the cinema?

By Ian Westbrook
BBC Business reporter

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Despicable Me 3 was one of the few hits of the summer

If you felt like there was nothing on at the cinema over the summer, you were not alone.

Summer takings at the US box office were at their lowest level for more than two decades, with only films aimed at youngsters really making any impact.

What has been behind the slump?

Analysts forecasted a fall in attendance at the start of the summer - blaming a continuing trend for making sequels, along with the rise in popularity of streaming services.

And their hunches were right - especially in August, when box office takings were $625m (£482m), nearly 35% lower than the same month last year.

World War Two epic Dunkirk did draw in the crowds, as did family films Despicable Me 3 and the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean offering - but they were rare exceptions.

Patrick Corcoran, vice-president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, believes the slump was simply down to the quality of the films that were released.

"Audiences won't show up in bulk if you don't offer them anything to see," he told the BBC.

"There were no big, broadly appealing movies available to the public from the beginning of July through until now - certainly none to compare to, say, Suicide Squad, which brought in more than $500m (£383m) in 2016.

"The amount it took in in August accounts for about 60% of the difference between summer 2016 and 2017.

"I wouldn't presume to tell film-makers what to make, but we always call for more and varied options for our patrons at all times of the year. We need big blockbusters, intimate dramas, raucous comedy - you name it. It is worth noting here that a number of independent titles performed well this summer."

However, he warned not to read too much into this summer's performance.

"This blip in movie-going must be seen in a larger context, which is that box office has been more than $10bn annually since 2009, more than $11bn in the last two years and has set records in four of the last five years.

The threat from video streaming services should not be overplayed, according to Mr Corcoran.

"Netflix and other in-home offerings are just more of what theatres have faced in the home market for over 50 years. If people are inclined to go see a movie, the fact that Netflix exists doesn't affect that decision."

'Generational shift'

Film data researcher Stephen Follows is less optimistic.

He believes the industry's long-term future is uncertain because young people are not getting into the habit of visiting the cinema.

"It's not very convenient for them, especially when compared with other options like streaming when you can watch movies as many times as you want, it remembers your place if you pause it and you can watch on multiple devices," Mr Follows said.

"The idea of going to the cinema seems antiquated to them and it is possibly a generational shift.

"However, there has been a big increase in the number of people over 55 going, up by one third, and it might show us what happens at the other end of the scale with the whole demographic getting older.

"The traditional median age of going to the cinema was 24. If you lose at the youngest age and gain at the oldest, it's a net loss and you lose out on the most lucrative audience. Teenagers used to go in packs to see whatever new movie there was, however good it was."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The 1946 film Notorious was released in an era of record cinema attendance

Like the US, the UK cinema audience fell in August - down 16% compared with 2016.

The Tom Cruise film American Made, which topped the UK box office for the second week running, only grossed £968,000 - making it the first film to top the charts with a take of less than £1m since June 2012.

However, for the year the numbers are not so bad, with cinema attendance up 8% compared to last year.

'Screenings on demand'

UK cinema-going peaked during and immediately after World War Two, with a record 1.63 billion cinema admissions in 1946.

However, the numbers fell dramatically, with only 289 million admissions 20 years later and an all-time low of 54 million in 1984.

Going to the movies then started to become more popular again and in the past few years about 165 million tickets have been sold in UK cinemas each year.

"The smaller chains like Everyman and Curzon are having to do more unusual models where they are trying to look at showing live theatre or opera and screenings on demand, where if they sell enough tickets in a given timeframe they will show a certain film," said Mr Follows.

One of the biggest debates going on in the cinema industry is about the amount of time a film is available only in cinemas before it becomes available on DVD or download.

The theatrical "window" generally stands at 12 weeks in the US and 16 weeks elsewhere, although some distributors have been experimenting with making titles available for home viewing at a premium price on the same day they are released in cinemas.

Mr Follows adds: "The industry is working very hard to keep the window as large as it can. But if the studios had their way, you would walk out of a film and be able to buy the DVD for £20 in the foyer."