Closing of small theaters endangers local communities

The Anthony Wayne theater in Wayne, PA, is one example of a small, local theater that struggles with falling attendance rates and risks being shut down after catering to movie-goers for 90 years./ Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Remember the old days, when you couldn’t order artisan doughnuts and groceries to be delivered to your doorstep? When two-day shipping didn’t exist? Remember when, in order to see a movie, you trekked to either your nearest video store or the closest cinema? I often find myself reminiscing about these times. I remember how excited I was as a child to walk to the video rental store near my house. My parents would let me and my sister each pick out a movie and we would hurry home, anxious for movie night to commence.

On special nights, my parents would treat us to a movie at our local independent theater. My sister and I would skip with excitement to the ticket office, guarding our small popcorn buckets fiercely.

As time went on, my family, like many other families, went out to movies less and less. In the midst of a recession, movie-going was no longer economically viable. The concurrent emergence of on-demand entertainment services and deterioration of movie rental stores made it easier, and more financially reasonable, for families like mine to stay at home for movie night.

As of 2012, 61 percent of Americans completely forgo the movie-theater experience, and these numbers are steadily dropping (Business Insider, “61% of Americans Don’t Go to the Movies Anymore,” 02.16.2012). Nowadays, depending on where in the country you are, you could pay as much as $12 or even $16 for movie tickets. For many people, this is a large investment, and many families, like mine, would rather pay $10.99 per month for unlimited movie access on Netflix than the same amount for one night of movie-watching.

Though the well-being of powerful movie theater corporations such as Cineplex and AMC may not matter to you, it is important to note that independently owned movie theaters are being hit the hardest by this drop in movie-go- ing. Independent theaters have had to drive their prices up the highest, reducing the number of movies being shown just to stay afloat.

Like countless others, I too have witnessed the closing of several of my favorite independent theaters. One of these particularly traumatic experiences occurred a few years ago. Our favorite theater did not have a website and relied on its large signs to communicate movies and showtimes to passersby.

The theater held a great many memories for me. Crowded with squishy recliners, ottomans and fluffy sofas instead of typical movie-theater seats, this theater is where I saw my first “Harry Potter” movie, had my first middle school date and tried my first Milk Dud.

My friends and I all had our favorite spots. We knew that the cola became flat after 7 p.m. and were friendly with the concessions stand workers and ticket sellers, but that night, when we came upon our favorite movie theater, we saw that it had closed for good. Now, it’s an evangelical church.

Unfortunately, stories of the final closings of favorite small businesses are ubiquitous. In a world that values efficiency and money more than small business owners and consumer experience, corporations are only getting stronger, leaving small businesses struggling to stay open. However, supporting small, local businesses is essential to the survival of local communities.

Independent theaters give less well-known filmmakers opportunities to expose their art to a wider audience. Films that would otherwise not be taken up by large, corporate theaters have a place in independent theaters, allowing filmmakers to address issues that are important to them without exposing themselves to as much financial risk. Thus, filmmakers are not required to market to the mainstream. They are given the freedom to create art that appeals to them and others like them.

Although it is indeed much easier to have a few friends over, put some cookie dough in the oven and stream a movie, it is just not the same as getting all dolled up and spending a night on the town. Many independent theaters exhibit unique, architectural beauty in addition to classic or indie films.

Most of these theaters predate our generation, serving as monuments to a more exciting period of cinematic history. Independent theaters are heterotopias wherein one can get lost and later emerge with new perspectives, opinions and ideas.

However, movie theater owners are not the only people who have noticed the decline in movie-going. This trend has also caught the attention of those in the business of streaming entertainment.

Co-founder of Netflix Mitch Lowe aims to shift the focus of movie entertainment from the home back to theaters (Time, “Netflix Co-Founder Mitch Lowe’s Crazy Plan,” 08.16.2017). To do this, he created MoviePass, a service that has partnered with movie theaters across the country to make the movie theater experience more accessible. A monthly subscription grants moviegoers the ability to see a movie every day for around $10 per month, a price comparable to that of Netflix. MoviePass is accepted at near- ly any theater that accepts debit cards, allowing the service to partner with the biggest movie theater corporations in the nation in addition to a multitude of small theaters.

There is still some debate surrounding the service. The company sold a large stake to a public data trading firm, Matheson Analytics, which has amassed criticism from consumers who do not want their movie tastes to be exploited for marketing.

Furthermore, some believe that the revenue generated by small theaters is negligible following the partnership, although MoviePass says it pays theaters full price for each ticket sold (The Verge, “Theater chains are terrified of Movie- Pass because of subscribers like me,” 12.15.2017). AMC maintains that MoviePass is gaining a consumer base in order to rebel against movie theaters in the future. The corporation fears that MoviePass will devalue movie tickets entirely, which is the reason why AMC theaters have boycotted the service entirely.

So far, however, there is no indication that this will happen. While MoviePass supports small theaters struggling to survive, it simultaneously devalues movie tickets and the movie experience. At some point, the omnipresent availability of movie tickets might degrade the uniqueness and significance of the movie theater experience entirely. The multifaceted challenges facing the movie theater industry make it hard for consumers to decide what to do. Though I know many people who have purchased and enjoy MoviePass, I can- not help but acknowledge the possible ulterior motives inherent in the business plan, whether they were intentionally created by MoviePass founders or are byproducts of the power Movie- Pass has amassed. Despite my doubts, however, MoviePass would allow the masses to frequent independent theaters and bolster support for small business. Instead of paying for a ticket every time you wanted to see a movie, you would only have to pay once a month. In turn, you would support the local theaters that so dearly need the help.

Though this decision is both financial and personal, I believe that it is integral to art, society and community that consumers spend their money funding local businesses instead of corporations.

The movie theater experience is one that transcends decades and oceans, one we can share with our parents and grandparents and many across the seas. So many of us know how it feels to walk into that dark room painted on one side with the glint of a large screen, the tension of expectancy mixed with the buttery scent of popcorn filling the air. Strangers are brought together by their common experience of this art, by its ideas and beauty, or by its pain.

There is something unique about this experience that cannot be simulated by any movie streaming service: and by acting as conscious consumers, movie-goers can support not only growing artists but their local communities as well.

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