Theaters Struggling to Find Audience in Difficult Economy

By Adam Holmes

Amanda Wymer lives on a budget like most college students do. An education major at the University of Oregon, most of her spending money coming from the funds left over from her scholarship, meaning she has to be especially conscious of how she uses it. So when a new movie hits theaters, she prefers to wait several months for it to be released on DVD or for it to be shown at another theater for a cheaper price.

“When I rarely go to the movies, typically twice during each school break, I go to the $1.50 theater because I think it is more reasonable,” Wymer said.

She is just one out of many people around the country who have decided to forgo trips to the movie theater in exchange for seeing the same films in the comfort of their own home. Most of this is due to money, but it also due to advancing technology has made entertainment easier to get a hold of.

No longer is it like the days of the Great Depression when people went to the movies to escape from their troubles and problems. Although Americans are facing similar problems with a new recession, because of advances in technology, finding entertainment is a lot simpler than dedicating an evening to heading to the local theater and dishing out 50 cents to watch a double feature. Thanks to television and the Internet, people now have cheaper alternatives to watching films, leaving movie theaters struggling to find new ways of keeping attendance up.

It hasn’t helped that ticket prices have slowly risen in the past ten years. According to the National Association of Theater Owners, the average price for a ticket in 2002 was $5.38. In 2012, a single ticket costs approximately $6 at any Cinemark Theater and $8.50 at any Regal Entertainment Group Theater. If you want to see a movie in 3D, add about $3 to the previous amounts, and you’re already close to surpassing the $10 mark, and with popcorn and a drink, the average theatergoer is likely to spend almost $20 just on themselves.

“I went to a movie last month and paid $11 just for a drink and a small popcorn,” Daniel Rester, a film reviewer for Welivefilm.com, said.

Rester noted that even though people go to the movies because they can’t afford luxuries, the price of tickets and concession stand food has caused complaints. That combined with rising ticket prices leads him to believe theaters will eventually suffer to due massive expenses that audience members may not be able to handle.

Because of the price inflation, as well as more misses than hits at the box office over the past year, 2011 had the lowest attendance rate in movie theaters since 1996, according to hollywood.com reporter Paul Dergarabedian. With in-home movie services like Netflix and On-Demand, as well as illegal methods like bittorrent, people have more options when it comes to watching movies in the comfort of their own home, paying little or no money at all.

As a result, major theater companies are showing few signs of improvement. According to Cinemark revenue reports from the fourth quarter in 2011, revenues for the last three months of 2011 increased only 2.1% from the 2010 fourth quarter, with admissions decreasing 1.4%. Regal Cinemas posted that their total revenues decreased from $661 million to $613.9 million, with admissions decreasing from $163.7 million to 159.3 million.

“Generally, I think about the cost of a movie and how much more I could do or get with the same amount of money,” Wymer said. “I mean [for] the price of one movie ticket I can rent like five movies.”

It isn’t just the major companies that have faced problems recently. In addition Regal Cinemas and Cinemark, the two major theater chains located in Eugene, there are also several independent movie theaters operating in the city. One is the David Minor Theater, which primarily serves the 21-and-over demographic. The theater also serves its own dinner menu and drink selection for patrons, as well as a rotating art gallery that displays the work of local artists each month.

The other independent theater is the Bijou Arts Cinema, a theater operating since 1980 that primarily shows independent and foreign films. Edward Schiessl, owner and operator of the theater, bought the theater with his partners in July 2010 when it was on the verge of bankruptcy. Schiessl primarily handles Presentation, Programming, Projection and Floor Operations.

“The Bijou was in a downward spiral long before the economy collapsed,” Schiessl said.  “Between 2004 and 2009 ran over $100,000 into debt and was about to go out of business.  Attendance had steadily declined since the late 90s and hit an all-time low in 2009.”

Schiessl also noted that the student demographic had all but disappeared as well due in large part to the rise of “streaming, VOD, bittorrent and higher quality home video systems.” After buying the theater, he and his partners paid off all the theater’s previous debt and started remodeling and upgrading fixtures and the interior, which is still ongoing. In addition, they started reducing payroll and began playing movies that both targeted younger demographics and played for shorter runs. As a result of their hard work, the theater was able to turn a small profit during 2011. The last time that had happened was in 2004. They also saw their first increase in attendance.

The Bijou is notable not just for its local ownership, but for its selection of foreign and independent movies. They choose the films they show through a combination of monitoring box-office grosses, suggestions from customers, and deals with distributors. Schiessl noted that they like to show films that have important social and political messages.

“We see ourselves a part of the community and the movies we show reflect that. We strive to create a personal experience and relaxed atmosphere for our customers, as opposed to the often garish and insulting (not to mention expensive) environment at the mall theaters.”

Glen Ruderman, a Planning, Public Policy and Management major at the University of Oregon, goes to the Bijou every couple of weeks because he likes the art-house movies that they show. He believes that the bigger theaters charge too much money for tickets.

“I saw ‘Avatar’ in 3D when it came out, and I paid about $14 just for the movie,” Ruderman said. He thinks that the bigger theaters should show more smaller, independent films as opposed to just the big blockbusters.

Although they have had problems with attracting an audience, the Bijou has encountered other problems as well. Although most distributors are nice enough to work with them, occasionally they encounter problems with distributors who won’t deal with them because they don’t think the theater is big enough to turn a significant revenue. Fortunately, according to Schiessl, these groups are a minority, and the theater has had great fortune in dealing with their regular booking contacts.

Although there are still problems to be sorted out, Schiessl has hope for the future of the Bijou theater.

“We are continuing to upgrade our equipment and revitalize our image, and while the business is not out of the woods yet, it is in good health and growing stronger.”

Despite small successes here and there, 2012 remains a precarious year for the theater industry. Award season is over and blockbuster season is several months away, leaving the future unclear for the industry. In order to get more audiences to come, Rester believes the solution theaters need to implement shouldn’t just be about decreasing prices, but adding variety as well.

“Theaters could hold special events (such as Oscar Film Night or something) or do something like hand out signed posters for having a certain ticket number or something,” he said. “Allowing more 2-D showings of a film when it is released in both 2-D and 3-D would probably help too.”

Theater Sidebar-David Minor Theater

Like the Bijou Arts Cinema, the David Minor Theater is one of Eugene’s independent movie theaters. Opened in 2008, the theater is named after friend of the owner Josh Goldfarb. Minor was killed in a car accident in 2008, and Goldfarb decided not only to name the theater after him, but also established a memorial fund in cooperation with Minor’s family. According to the website, the fund was “established in his name to support the work of the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition.”

Similar to the Bijou, the theater shows a mix of independent films and mainstream comedies and dramas. Usually these are films that have already had their time at the bigger theaters.

The theater also distinguishes itself by serving dinner and drinks during movies. Because they primarily serve alcoholic beverages, the theater is only available for people 21 and over. A unique option they have is being able to “text-a-beer,” where you text someone at the theater who you are, what you want and where you are sitting. They will then charge your tab and deliver the drink to you.

Although they have seats similar to the ones at mainstream theaters, there are also couches and recliner chairs available, as well as tables to eat your dinner on. They also offer the option of renting theaters for private parties.

In addition to showing movies, the David Minor theater also has its own art gallery. Showcasing the work of local Eugene artists, the artwork rotates each month to show off the work of a different person.

Showtimes are late in the afternoon, usually starting at 5:20. Tickets are $5, except for Sundays and Tuesdays when they are $2. For more information, call 541-762-1700, or visit the theater’s website.

Theaters around Eugene: What to See and Where to See It

With numerous movies being released every month, not to mention every season, Eugene can count itself lucky with its variety of theaters. In addition to mainstream theaters, the Bijou Arts Cinema and David Minor Theater offer movies for those who prefer an alternative choice.

If you want to catch the latest blockbuster, the Regal Cinemas at Valley River Center and the Cinemark at Gateway Mall are your best bets. Currently in the middle of the spring season, many of these movies are in preparation for the blockbuster season set to hit in early May. Current movies shown at both theaters include “21 Jump Street,” “John Carter,” “The Lorax,” “Friends with Kids” and many others. Both theaters will also show the eagerly anticipated “The Hunger Games,” which will be released on March 23.The Gateway Mall also has a separate Cinemark theater that shows movies that have been at the main theaters for several months. With tickets costing around $2, it’s perfect for the student who’s on a budget looking for cheap entertainment.

For those not interested in mainstream fare, the Bijou provides alternative options, usually focusing on independent and softer films. This week’s movies include “Albert Nobbs,” “The Desendants,” “A Separation” and “Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie.” Tickets cost between $5-$7.They have also cooperated with the University of Oregon on several occasion. The most recent venture was working the Cinemas Studies department to show the 1950 classic “Sunset Boulevard,” which was free to UO students.

Finally, the David Minor theater also focuses on softer movies, although they are also well-known for serving dinner and drinks during the films, as well as serving only patrons 21 and over. Films being shown this week include “The Descendants,” “Midnight in Paris,” “50/50″ and many others. Tickets cost $5 except for Sundays and Tuesdays when they are $2.

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One Response to Theaters Struggling to Find Audience in Difficult Economy

  1. Nice article, Adam. I read a lot of industry articles and this i better than a lot of the shit on IndieWire and Hollywood Reporter, etc.

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