Americans go to movies way less than they used to. Domestic ticket sales have sunk from 1.58 billion sold in 2002 to 1.26 billion in 2014, and a lot of people like to blame that on the high cost of tickets. But this probably isn't the reason.
In a recently published PricewaterhouseCoopers survey, half of frequent moviegoers identified the cost of movie tickets as the main reason behind their flagging attendance. The only problem with this? Tickets haven't actually gotten that much more expensive over time.
The Data Dude compiled ticket price data over the past few decades. Back in 1980, an average movie ticket cost less than $3.00. But when you adjust for inflation, that's not all that different from today's prices:
Remember, these are only national averages (your visit to a 3D Imax extravaganza in Manhattan probably cost more than $8). But the most important thing is that, over time, inflation-adjusted prices haven't changed that much — in real terms, prices have even fallen a bit since 2010 and a half dollar since 1985.
It's true that lower prices would motivate moviegoers to see more movies, and perks like last-minute cheap seats would probably boost attendance (about half of survey respondents said they'd love spontaneous discounts). However, the chart makes it clear that high prices probably aren't the reason why US movie attendance has declined.
A better reason movie attendance is declining? The movies aren't very good.
So what is the reason? Other parts of the PriceWaterhouseCoopers survey offer some clues. About one-third of frequent moviegoers said the movies simply looked worse than in previous years, and almost half of occasional moviegoers identified that as a motivating factor. That suggests that it's quality, not price, that will keep them buying tickets.
Of course, there are other motivations, too. 3% of all moviegoers had an intriguing reason for seeing fewer movies: they complained there actually weren't enough sequels, and 8% of frequent moviegoers were looking for more big-name franchises. Marvel, get to work.
There are some clear ways movie theaters could be better
If movie quality is a key driver of attendance and prices are already relatively reasonable, how can movie theater owners boost attendance?
The survey suggests a few concrete ways movies could be better. More than 10 percent of frequent moviegoers complained about too many phones and tablets in the theater and said that they had trouble identifying movie release dates. While those fixes might not be significant, they'd be easier than having to adjust prices (or, less plausibly, play better movies).
That's not to say that there aren't existential threats to the movie business. 21 percent of frequent moviegoers said they didn't like racing to get to a movie, and there's not much theater owners can do about the existence of time. More troublingly, similar numbers of frequent moviegoers said that online entertainment and on demand TV were just as good as whatever was playing at the local cineplex.
The data is murky on whether movies can make a comeback, and optimists may consider Summer 2014 just an off year without a mega-tentpole like The Avengers. But one thing is clear: price probably isn't the problem with movie attendance. It's everything else.