Movie Theatres and History Repeating Itself

31 12 2015

Recently, I published some thoughts on why box office revenues have seen a recent surge (and why it won’t like continue on that trajectory. What we appear to be seeing is history doing what it does: repeating itself.

What Came Before Movies?

Before people spent money and time in movie theatres, they used to spend their time and money in music halls and other theatres, usually watching some form of variety show. Typically known as “vaudeville”, for a few pennies you could see various acts. A show included singing and dancing, comedy routines, animal performances and magic acts (among many, many others).

Vaudeville shows were around from the 1880’s up until the early 1930’s. They were aimed largely and lower- and middle-income groups, and many meant to provide a pleasant evening’s or afternoon’s entertainment for the family. Well known acts or performers would be a big draw for a show.

At its peak, there were thousands of vaudeville (and similar) theatres across the US, Canada and parts of western Europe. Organizations like Orpheum and Pantages controlled dozens, even hundreds, of theatres, either through direct ownership or through performance contracts.

What Killed It?

Vaudeville began to see a decline starting around 1910, as motion pictures became more prevalent and ticket prices for movies dropped. Movies had several advantages over vaudeville. First, the cost to make a movie was a fixed item, and the incremental cost to show the movie was quite small. Vaudeville’s costs per show were far higher, since you needed all the performers, musicians and crew for each and every show.

A motion picture could be viewed in multiple theatres simultaneously. Everyone could see Charlie Chaplin at more or less the same time. But if you wanted to see Eddie Cantor perform on stage, he had to be performing at a theatre you could get to. And movies were screened multiple times per day, every day. No nights going dark.

With a movie, you got the same performance, and you always got to see the same actors. No having to watch an understudy because the lead was sick or on vacation. No dropped or muffed lines, no costume or set mishaps. The first showing and the 1000th showing of a movie was the same.

When movies added sound, and eventually colour, there was never a chance that vaudeville would see the same level of interest. While some may also credit radio for having an impact, I suspect it was smaller, given that it was an audio-only performance. It wasn’t that radio had no impact, but I suspect it was fairly minimal.

The Movie Theatre vs. The Home Theatre

Over the past few years, movie attendance has been in decline. This has been offset by some degree with increased ticket prices, allowing for some modest revenue growth at the box office. But more and more people are staying away from movie theatres. Those that used to go once or twice per week (and view movies multiple times) have reduced it to single viewings of movies on a monthly, or even annual, basis. A growing number of people don’t bother seeing a movie in the theatre at all. The duration of a movie’s run in theatres has also been shortened. Where some movies would be in theatres for months, or even a year or more, now movies in theatres for a couple of months, sometimes only a few weeks.

This happened because of three things: the DVD, cheap high-quality in-home sound, and flat-screen TV’s. The advent of Blu-ray, digital downloads and now 4K TV’s and content have simple increased the quality of viewing movies at home, raising the bar and making a movie in a theatre less compelling.

Home viewing has a number of advantages over the theatre. The cost is lower. For a single, flat fee, I can own a copy of the movie. I can watch it multiple times. I can view it with family and friends. All for a single, fixed fee. Or for a modest monthly fee, I can stream the movie, and the cost is the same per month irrespective of the number of viewers or the number of times I watch it. A movie ticket can cost $13-15/show. A family of 4 can pay anywhere from $40-60 to see a movie (not including food). I can buy the Blu-ray or DVD on release day for around $20.

Unlike the theatre, I can pause the movie to use the washroom or get a snack. If I missed something, I can back up and see the part I missed again. I can stop the movie and start watching it another day.

I have better seating at home. I don’t have to put up with people talking, rooting about their bag of popcorn, or forgetting to put their phone on silent. I can set the volume as I like it. I’m in control of the viewing environment at home.

What About Television?

What didn’t really impact movie theatres, or movie revenues, was television. There was a fear in the 1950’s that the rise of television would have an impact, and reduce attendance. Certainly, the movie experience changed. The newsreel was the first to go, since news via radio and television was more current. The short films were gone by the end of the 1960’s, and by the early 1970’s, the short cartoon before the movie was history. Pixar has revived that tradition with their movies, but those are the exception and not the rule.

Broadcast TV never got to the point where it was going to threaten motion pictures, and early cable movie channels never really made a difference. Even the VCR had little impact, and actually gave movie studios a new source of revenue: rentals and home sales. It wasn’t until the advent of high-resolution images and better sound that the TV set started to have an impact on the movie theatre. But it wasn’t the television networks and TV shows that did it.


I expect the movie-going experience will evolve. Rather than being a “thing to do on a Saturday”, it will become more of an “event”. Theatres have begun re-screening older movies. Some are upgrading their venues, with better seating, assigned seating, and more and better options for food and other entertainment.

It could be argued that some of the audiences for vaudeville simple migrated to other live theatre and Broadway-style performances. Instead of being a “once a week” thing, those audiences would attend performances once per month (or less). They same will likely happen to movies. Instead of every movie hitting theatres, I expect more and more will go straight to disc/download/streaming, and only a select few will be released in theatres. Ticket prices will go up, but going to a movie in the theatre will become more of a special occasion, rather than something routine.

This won’t happen overnight. It may another decade or so before we see this kind of change. But it is likely to happen. The movie experience today is different than it was a few decades ago. It will be different again in the future.




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