19 April, 2021
When Arclight Cinemas and Pacific Theaters announced last week that they were shuttering 16 locations and more than 300 screens — including the venerable Cinerama Dome in Hollywood — you could nearly hear the city deflate like a punctured balloon.
The news was met with a collective gasp and sob that Los Angeles hasn’t felt since Kobe’s death, and filmmakers and fans alike took to social media to pay respects, swap memories and brainstorm ideas to rescue the 1963 treasure, the world’s first all-concrete geodesic dome.
The L.A. Times fretted the movie house’s fate. “Could some craven developer turn it into an upscale steakhouse?” the paper asked. Its answer: probably not. The Cinerama Dome’s designation as L.A. Historic-Cultural Monument No. 659 likely would make turning the theater into a strip mall a litigious mess.
But the Times missed the bigger story. Namely, that it’s a small miracle the Dome could stay in business as long as it did. Because for a quarter-century, the Cinerama Dome and 40,000 theaters across the country were peddling a product that garnered middling American interest at best.
An exhaustive analysis by the box office website the-numbers.com paints the haunting portrait. When adjusted for inflations, the movie industry has been swimming in stagnant waters.
Starting in 1995, the analysis found Americans bought 1.22 billion movie tickets. In 2019 — the last full Hollywood season before the pandemic — that number was 1.23 billion. The heyday came in 2002, when Americans bought 1.58 billion tickets, according to the site.
But the numbers never dramatically spiked or plummeted. Here are the five-year totals:
Meanwhile, the study found ticket prices climbed from $4.35 a ticket in 1995 to $9.16 in 2019. That’s still wildly affordable for out-of-the-home entertainment. And it propelled box office totals from $5.31 billion in 1995 to $11.25 billion in 2019, according to the data.
But inflation is not a business strategy. And the pandemic has left theater chains reeling. AMC, the nation's largest, asked shareholders this week to authorize another 500 million shares for issue, but promises it won’t take them up on those sales until next year at the earliest. Analysts say that’s promising news for the company, but hardly a cure-all.
AMC recently reopened in key markets Los Angeles and New York after local officials lifted public health restrictions, “but it still has a long way to go to make up for the losses it and other theater operators endured in the last year,” Barron’s said in an article last week.
So what’s the larger fix? A summer box-office resurgence notwithstanding, Hollywood may have to either increase prices for a ticket dramatically, make fewer films, or both.
Would a Broadway approach to business make movies a must-see event again? Of course, the pandemic has the stage in a standing eight-count as well: Fine and performing arts industries lost almost 1.4 million jobs and $42.5 billion in sales from just April 1 through July 31, according to NBC News.
Or do sporting events hold the key? Professional athletics have managed to stay afloat through COVID-19. But they rely heavily on television revenues, a taproot the movie business is loathe to mine.
Regardless, Tinseltown needs a hero like the ones it loves to splash on celluloid. Otherwise, there really may be no business like show business.