With apologies to Mark Twain (and Laura above), reports of the death of the movie theater are greatly exaggerated.
Actually, here’s exactly what the great humorist wrote: “I can understand perfectly how the report of my illness got about, I have even heard on good authority that I was dead … The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
It’s perfectly understandable, given the imperatives of social distancing and the impact of internet streaming, that the movie theater business is in terrible shape. Here at Millionacres, we’ve certainly covered that from a real estate investor angle, including the travails of such iconic chains as AMC and Regal Cinemas.
But I’m not so sure movie theaters will disappear entirely, and I think there’s some reasons they could actually recover along with the rest of the economy after the pandemic becomes a bitter memory.
Asking the young folk…
I’m basing my argument in part on extensive social science research. OK, I asked my family what they thought. I’m a boomer and my wife is on the cusp -- as they say in astrology -- of boomer and Gen X. My daughter is a millennial and my stepson is Gen Z. My grandson is all of two, and I don’t know that we’ve named that group yet.
Anyway, my kids are digital natives, the 21-year-old even more than the 31-year-old. He says he’ll go back to the theaters when it’s safe, just because it’s something fun to do with dates and other friends She says she will, too, but only to take her own son in a couple years. "It’s a great way to kill a couple hours when they’re finally old enough," she said.
My wife and I, meanwhile, grew up at a time when smaller theaters dominated, including in her Oklahoma plains town where the movie house sounded like something from the set of "The Last Picture Show." As for me, I’m from a small town in Ohio where I remember the first time walking downtown to see a movie with my kid brother on our own. It was "Yellow Submarine."
It cost 75 cents each to get in, and that movie theater, still called The Quaker, is still there. It’s not just nostalgia that will save this business, though. The desire to go out and about is still there, too, and when it’s safe, people will do more of it. Heck, a lot are now, anyway, deadly contagion be damned.
People like going to movies, and there’s a long history of theaters opening and closing and opening again. I believe they will again, but who will be footing the bill remains to be seen. Theaters can be relatively economical to revive and re-open, I’m guessing, and it seems likely that Hollywood money and Wall Street money will find a way to make that happen.
And the smallest among them shall lead...
Now, those multi-screen giants and small, cozy movie houses are very different animals, and the economics for each is different, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it’s the small movie houses that lead the way.
For one thing, they seem to draw the attention of preservationists and civic boosters alike. Plus, many are in areas that are ripe for redevelopment through incentives like opportunity zone tax breaks and the like, and movie theaters are a nice way to start reviving interest in a once- moribund downtown. That happened here in Columbia, South Carolina, with a not-for-profit called The Nickelodeon.
The Millionacres bottom line: Don’t count them out yet
Meanwhile, the movie business is doing its best to hang in there, with creative measures such as pop-up drive-in theaters in big parking lots, like Walmart’s, and creative little endeavors like a small indie theater in Birmingham, Alabama, that rents its room to folks who have their own DVDs they want to show to a group of their own invite.
That’s not enough to rescue a whole industry, of course, but all this together, plus the hard-wired urge to get out and enjoy and do something, will go a long way toward reviving that great American tradition of overpaying for sodas, popcorn, and candy.
So, don’t worry, Laura, when the kids make you go back into that icky movie house when the coast is pandemically clear. You can always buy a new "scarf-like sleeveless duster." Whatever that is.