History of Movie Theater Attendance


Weekly movie attendance has been in decline since the end of the second world war. You might never guess this from the success of 2008's box office hits. Warner Brothers' "Dark Knight" generated $531 million, while the Paramount duo "Iron Man" and "Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull" each brought in $318 and $317 million, respectively. Overall movie attendance in 2008 amounts to a staggering $28.1 million worldwide, 65 percent of these ticket sales linked to the international box office. And, as the American Motion Picture Association notes, the number of digital screens worldwide has increased by 33 percent over the past five years, securing the appeal of "big screen" cinematic experience within a competitive market of alternative media. So why, then, the decline?

Early Cinema

  • Mainstream American cinema has favored realism since its early days. Unlike early French film ("A Trip to the Moon" (1902), for instance, by the magician and illusionist Georges Méliès), which emphasized form and mood over narrative content, American filmgoers craved the telling of a good story. This preference for content over formal technique can be seen in the silent "one reelers" of Edwin S. Porter in the early 20th century. As D. I. Grossvogel writes, "Porter mastered the problems of continuity, using crosscutting, superimpositions, fades, and dissolves, in order to create a twelve minute epic, "The Great Train Robbery" (1903), the first Western, with its hold-up, its posse, its chase, and its showdown."

The Benefits of Silence

  • The silent motion pictures in the United States readily appealed to mass market audiences for several reasons. For one, comedy, melodrama and suspense provided cheap, accessible entertainment for working class viewers who could not afford bourgeois theater. Secondly, immigrants who were not fully conversant with the language and the culture could easily engage with the intermittent comedic and cathartic elements enacted throughout the narrative.

Sound Effects

  • Throughout the 1920s, Hollywood genre-films began to dominate the market. And with the introduction of sound in the late 1920s, musicals and gangster flics began to flourish. Crowds were drawn to films which dramatized the folklore surrounding local crime bosses during the time of Prohibition. By 1930, 65 percent of the U.S. population attended the cinema weekly (see Resources).

Great Depression

  • While movie attendance dropped by nearly 40 percent during the heart of the 1930s, movies remained a popular outlet for cheap entertainment. Not surprisingly, "happy endings" were in vogue. But the 1930s also saw the rise of documentary films, which dealt with economic, farming, and environmental issues, among others. The period also benefited from the influence of German expressionists like Fritz Lang and George W. Pabst. By the mid 1940s, American movies reached their peak once more, drawing nearly 60 million viewers per week between 1942 and 1946.

The Age of Television

  • In 1955 roughly 30.7 million American households owned their own television set. This new technology was disastrous for the motion picture industry. Coupled with the steady suburbanization of the middle classes and anti-trust violations filed against Hollywood studio monopolies, movie theater attendance plunged nearly 75 percent between 1946 and 1960 (see Resources).

American New Wave

  • The decline of the studio system hardly marked the end for moviegoers, though. The late 1960s and 1970s, for instance, saw a flourishing of new talent. Directors such as Francis Ford Coppolla, Martin Scorcesse, Terrence Malick, Michael Cimino, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and many others forged a mini renaissance of sorts in director-driven film-making. The new style appealed to a more affluent, college-educated generation of viewers. According to John Belton, 76 percent of all moviegoers were under 30 by the 1970s and 64 percent had gone to college. Directors were given free reign to explore their artistic vision at will.

The Blockbuster

  • "Jaws" (1975) and "Star Wars" (1977), however, marked the end of this era. Their huge success ("Jaws" was the first film to reach $100 million in box office sales) ratified the blockbuster paradigm that keeps the industry going today. Even with some 40,000 screens in multiplex theaters across the United Sates, weekly attendance has dropped significantly since the 1930s. In 2007, only 22 percent of the population attended the cinema frequently, which is to say once a month.

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  • Theatrical Market Statistics
  • D.I. Grossvogel; Haneke: The Coercing of Vision; Film Quarterly, Summer 2007
  • John Belton; American Cinema/American Culture; 1993
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