'Let's see a movie' - an idea that's still going strong
Can movie theaters survive the challenges of the '80s - cable TV, home video, and changing audience habits? So far, the movies are holding up fine, and even growing:Skip to next paragraph
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* Last year, ticket sales reached a 21-year high of almost 1.2 billion - a rise of more than 10 percent over 1981, despite a 5.9 percent increase in admission prices. Another rise of 4 or 5 percent is expected in 1983 paid admissions.
* Box office grosses have increased more than 30 percent over the past five years; 1983 may exceed last year's total of nearly $3.5 billion, as calculated by the US Theatrical Economic Review.
* For the ninth year in a row, the number of indoor theater screens rose in 1982, to about 15,000. As many as 500 may be added to the total this year, and 1984 could see twice as much expansion.
To flesh out these figures, I called Joel Resnick, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners and execu tive vice-president of American Multi-Cinema, a leading film-exhibition company. His message was plain: The movies are booming.
In fact, says Mr. Resnick, ''The bigger cable becomes, the more upsurge we have.'' Why? He sees four reasons.
First, movies are relatively easy on the pocketbook. The viewer pays only for one film at a time, unlike most cable-TV arrangements. (Ticket costs are also modest compared with legitimate theater and live music.)
Second, many pictures work best when seen with a large audience. Comedies may seem funnier and thrillers more spooky outside the coziness of your own living room, with a crowd sharing the experience.
Third, the wide screen still has a mystique - and an impact - all its own. TV is hard pressed to compete in this area, even with expensive video-projection systems. ''How big can a TV screen get?'' Mr. Resnick asks. ''Even if you could afford the equipment, there are very few homes with 50-foot walls.''
Fourth, many viewers still enjoy leaving home for their entertainment. ''Going out is part of the movie experience,'' says Resnick, ''whether it's a quick trip down the block or a night on the town.''
He thinks cable TV may even help the movie business. ''It's a huge source of additional revenue to filmmakers, so it encourages more production,'' he points out. ''It makes people more conscious of movies, and curious about what a particular star or story would look like on the wide screen. It's a good place for us to advertise our product.''
In recent years, the average age of ticket-buyers has dropped markedly, leading more producers to aim their films directly at young audiences. Resnick feels the tide has turned again, however.
''The United States is growing older, and so is our audience,'' he says. ''More films are being made for the over-30s: 'Gandhi' and 'Sophie's Choice' are typical. In a place like Florida, where a lot of older folks live, senior citizens are coming out in droves.
But why is the change happening now?
''There are more older people around, and theaters are learning to accommodate them better. Convenient matinees and special ticket prices are being emphasized. And with the shift toward multiscreen theaters in the suburbs, the movies are reaching out to the people.''
The movement of theaters from downtown areas to suburban shopping malls has been one of the most visible developments in movie-house management. Instead of finding 10 or 12 separate theaters on major downtown streets, today's moviegoers often find ''multiplex'' theaters holding several screens apiece, frequently in shopping complexes near residential areas.
Significantly, such ''plexes'' may include auditoriums of various sizes and sophistication. Some are equipped with massive screens and fancy sound systems geared to the latest adventure epics; others are smaller, better suited to intimate pictures that don't require top-line technology or attract huge crowds.