Heidy Lee / Gavel Media

Movie Theaters Struggle to Regain Audiences

Movie theaters have long been an experience enjoyed all over the world, but as streaming services such Netflix, Hulu, and Disney Plus broaden their selection, more people find themselves reluctant to leave the comfort of their homes to watch movies. Despite the novelty and excitement of seeing a new movie on the big screen, recent challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have caused movie theater attendance to drop drastically. Is this the end of movie theaters?

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a severe decline in movie theater attendance, with the number of box office sales dropping from $11.3 billion to $2 billion from 2019 to 2020. As panic swept the nation, lockdowns and stay-at-home orders ensued in an attempt to keep people safe, resulting in the closing of many theaters and other recreational institutions. During this time, a majority of the population turned to online watch options to satisfy their desire for entertainment, and many became accustomed to the convenience.

Now that it has been over two years since the initial outbreak, movie theaters are once again open to provide the surround-sound watching experience that so many have missed. However, ticket sales are still barely over half of what they were in 2019 before the pandemic. Despite vaccination requirements in many states and a return to seemingly normal life, movie theaters are simply not gaining the traction needed to reassert their popularity. 

While larger multiplexes and big box theaters have been suffering the most from the increased use of online watch options and streaming services, local theaters around Boston College have also been struggling to gain back their audiences from before the pandemic. The Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline has long been a beloved institution by the community, but recent increases of at-home watch options have caused some persisting difficulties.

“Technology is always going to be a factor,” commented Billy Thegenus, outreach coordinator at The Coolidge. “Being stuck at home [during the pandemic] forced older audiences to learn streaming… and they’ve been the ones that we’re still trying to get back. They’re finding a sense of convenience at home, and they're also the most vulnerable to the pandemic.”

Despite this loss, there has also been great support from the community for the Coolidge Corner Theater. Established in Brookline in 1933, generations of neighborhood residents have chipped in donations to help keep the theater afloat during the hardships caused by the pandemic. Beth Gilligan, Deputy Director of The Coolidge, described how this sense of community support is something that multiplex theaters don’t have, and that it is the reason The Coolidge is unique and has continued to have such a good turnout in comparison. Over the thirteen years she’s worked at the Coolidge Corner Theater, she’s never seen so many young people supporting its operation.

“We see strong support from the community, and we do see a bright future,” Gilligan said. “You can’t take for granted that people are going to get out of the house, but you have to create an experience that makes it worthwhile.”

Despite the near 50% decrease in global box office sales since pre-pandemic times, the Coolidge Corner Theater has reached around 84% capacity of what it was in 2019. It appears that the theater is on its way to returning to normalcy due to its unique perspective on film. The theater offers a wide range of movies across all eras and genres, in addition to collaboration with community partners to create a unique experience for its audiences. Recently, there have been more people attending than the theater can hold, sometimes packing in over one hundred viewers for a showing. 

“This past summer, it’s really felt like movies are really, really back,” Thegenus emphasized. “Attendance may not be at 100% the way that it was, but it’s so much so compared to what it used to be, that I can’t even tell the difference all the time. I’m very optimistic about the way that films have been going.”

The Coolidge Corner Theater has proved to be a beacon of community life in Brookline despite the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic, continuing to offer a unique approach to film and culture. Its resilience has demonstrated the community’s desire for the continuation of movies, and it has proven that the era of movie theaters has not yet come to an end.

Coffee addict, aspiring world traveler, and lover of The Beatles.

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