Movie Theaters, Dying?

In recent decades, the importance of movie theaters in popular culture has shifted.


At many theaters, it is common for movies to run in a nearly empty theater (public domain leisure CC0 image).

With movie streaming platforms such as Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Max providing convenient in-home entertainment, movie theaters’ place in popular culture is shifting. 

Over 100 years after the first movie, their place in society has certainly changed. In previous decades, movie theaters not only provided entertainment but also news. They were central to American culture. However, in recent decades, this has shifted.

Movies used to be the main American art form… Now, there are more things competing for people’s attention,” said Andrew Sherburne, Executive Director and Co-Founder of Film Scene, a local movie theater. Indeed, movie theaters used to only compete with scheduled TV. Now, countless social media platforms in addition to movie streaming services fight for consumers’ attention. According to BBC News, Americans spend an average of 4.8 hours a day on their phones, in other words, “a third of their waking time.” In addition, according to US News, Americans also watch TV for about three hours a day.

Movies used to be the main American art form… Now, there are more things competing for people’s attention.

— Andrew Sherburne

“I think a lot of people, especially young people, would rather just watch movies at home than come to a theater with expensive popcorn and tickets,” said Nathan Oswald, biology teacher. 

However, Oswald does not think this has always been the case. “Going to the movies is not as important to kids as it was when I was young.” 

Online streaming has made it possible for most Americans to turn their homes into movie theaters with much less expensive “tickets” and snacks. Many are hesitant to spend a lot of money at a movie theater. This effect was somewhat exacerbated for families when some platforms, like Disney+, started releasing movies on the platform at the same time they were released in theaters. Though the movies still required payment on Disney+, this price was often cheaper than movie theater tickets. 

In addition, some argue that social media has taken away from the draw of movie stars, thereby decreasing movie theaters’ popularity. These platforms have allowed the public to interact with movie stars in a more personal way than they were ever able to previously. This, along with other factors, has led the awe surrounding movie stars to shrink in some aspects. Where movie stars themselves used to sell out movies, now franchises and characters sell tickets. 

Despite this, Sherburne is confident about the future of movie theaters. “Movie theaters still provide a very different, elevated experience than watching movies from home… I believe more people go to movie theaters each year than to all sports events.”

However, Ashleigh Woodhouse-Senn, a senior and an employee at Marcus Theaters in Coralville is not nearly as optimistic. 

“‘Minions’ and ‘Top Gun’ are the only reason movie theaters are doing okay right now… There are empty theaters [at Marcus Theaters] all the time,” says Woodhouse-Senn.

The new Minions movie “Minions: The Rise of Gru” and “Top Gun: Maverick” brought a lot of people to theaters. The Minions movie even started trends on platforms like TikTok which resulted in a lot of youth going to see the film. However, many believe this trend will not last and is not enough to “save theaters.” 

Woodhouse-Senn and Oswald recommend the theaters to lower prices on tickets and snacks to attract more moviegoers. “I think lower prices as well as more themed movie days [at theaters] would get more people to come in.”

Whether movie theaters are dying or not, their place in popular culture is certainly changing.

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