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What do moviegoers want from the movies now?

The survival of theaters depends on the people in the seats.

A person sits in a red cinema, virtually alone.
Movie theaters are struggling to survive in the new era. What do moviegoers really want?
Frank Rumpenhorst/picture alliance via Getty Images

Spider-Man: No Way Home, the third installment in the Tom Holland Spidey era, made bank on its opening weekend. The movie beat out Avengers: Infinity War for the second-best domestic box office opening of all time, raking in a whopping $260 million — and that’s in a pandemic.

There’s a lot to parse in that figure, which indicates a market in which huge-budget franchise films with built-in audiences, produced by giant corporations, are squeezing out space once occupied by mid-budget original fare. But Spidey’s success suggests that the death of movie theaters, writ large, isn’t quite the fait accompli some doomsayers suggest.

Yet there’s no doubt it’s tough times — especially for independent theaters struggling to stay afloat, and even more so for the ones that steer away, by economic necessity or choice, from superhero fare.

Finding a way to hang on means giving customers, who have more options than ever, a compelling reason to go to the movie theater. That’s tricky at the best of times, but much more difficult in the midst of an ongoing pandemic with waxing and waning levels of risk, even if the risks are somewhat lower compared to some other activities.

Theatrical windows are also shrinking, but they still exist, keeping theaters alive.

How do you tell what moviegoers love — and hate — about the experience? Ask them. Over the past two years, we’ve had the rare experience of many people leaving theaters for a time en masse, then returning with caution and new awareness. To put it another way, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Now we know, and for many who’ve returned, it has served as a reminder not to take movies for granted.

But going back also reveals some of the rough points and great opportunities in the experience. On Twitter, I asked returning moviegoers around the world to tell me what they’ve experienced as they go back, and their responses revealed some interesting patterns. (Of course, this was far from a scientific method. The respondents were people who were willing and able to take the risk involved, and who were also interested enough in a movie to pay for a ticket.)

What they told me was revealing. While you might expect to hear about loving the huge screens and state-of-the-art sound, most people discussed their love of seeing movies with strangers as well as their gratitude for an experience that forced them to pay attention to the film at hand. As we move into a brave new era of moviegoing, theaters might also want to pay attention.

Strangers are part of the charm (except when they’re not)

Via Twitter, Mike Popham noted to me that “there is no substitute for laughter rippling through an audience or a collective gasp happening at a big moment in the story. It’s a social experience, and if anything, I didn’t appreciate it enough pre-pandemic.”

Spencer Turney observed that after many months watching films at home, “it was a weirdly bonding experience sitting in an often less than half-filled room and doing something so ‘normal.’”

Similarly, Lisa Shininger told me she missed the communal aspect of seeing something in a crowd. “It almost always enhances the experience in a way I can’t replicate when it’s just me and maybe a companion.”

For Emma Bausch, that experience was especially poignant when she saw a movie with a big twist by herself, and it became an opportunity to bond with a woman she didn’t even know. “She came alone and wanted to talk to someone about it,” she wrote. “Even though we were both masked, we were delighted to share the ‘what just happened?!?!’ moment with each other. Sure, I could do it on Twitter. But it’s just not the same as seeing the joy in another person’s face six feet away.”

After long months barely even interacting with strangers, that’s an exhilarating experience. Even for those who are nervous around large crowds — something many respondents cited as part of their decision-making process now — being in the vicinity of others while watching a movie adds to the enjoyment. Experiences vary widely across the world, since different localities have different rules; in New York City, for instance, you can’t even enter a movie theater without showing proof of vaccination, while in other places it’s rare to see someone wearing a mask in a theater. But with the advent of preselected seating, it’s easier to figure out which screenings will be emptier (often matinees or weekday screenings) and plan accordingly.

And, as Shininger noted: “Having the theater to myself has made a handful of movies even better, especially scary ones.”

To borrow badly from Jean-Paul Sartre, sometimes hell is other people — and that’s true in the movie theater, too. It was true pre-pandemic, but it might have gotten worse.

Nguyên Lê, who was happy to be able to return to the theater, noted that “many folks seem to have somehow equated the auditorium to their living room after the pandemic.” At two showings in Texas, he said there were “out-loud arguments and checking-the-gram sessions,” patrons being disruptive in ways you’d never encounter at home. “Matinees used to be a ‘safe time’ for me,” he wrote, “but that seems to be changing.”

Nate Rethorn also noted a similar problem, but thinks his “tolerance for other moviegoers’ misbehavior is even lower” after the time away. “For smaller films that we go to see at our localish indie theater, it’s always been a good experience. But I’m less interested in dealing with people who disrupt the theater and [I] would rather stream a film at home with all of those tradeoffs.”

Disruptive behavior was already something theaters were battling pre-pandemic. Some places, like Alamo Drafthouse, explicitly warn theatergoers to refrain from looking at their phones and talking, and make it possible for other patrons to alert theater staff if people around them aren’t complying. But it’s an ongoing issue, especially for people who regularly see quieter or less spectacle-driven films, and something that theaters need to address. Even those of us who like seeing movies in the company of strangers don’t want to know what’s on their TikTok feed.

We got used to some not so theater-friendly behaviors

When I returned to theaters, I realized that something I did all the time at home wasn’t available to me — and I missed it. If I was watching a screener at home, and I was starting to get bored, I would pause the film briefly and see how much was left, just so I could re-tune my expectations. But in a theater, if I don’t know how long the movie’s runtime is, I find myself reflexively reaching for the nonexistent pause button.

I know this isn’t particularly good — a great deal of the joy of a movie theater is immersing yourself in the experience, giving yourself over to the art, and letting yourself be bored, excited, and surprised. But habits formed over a year die hard.

I’m not the only one. Joe Nooft explained that “at home, I’d gotten used to being able to quickly move on from a movie I was not enjoying. But in the theater I felt more trapped than I remembered feeling in the past.” Similarly, as Chris Chafin noted, after a year of at-home pandemic viewing, “it’s made me a little less patient with films … a feeling of ‘I can’t believe I’m spending my time doing this!’ is a lot easier to access.”

Harley Gillis agreed. “Before I could sit through a bad movie, or one outside my tastes,” she wrote. “Now I really struggle to stay if I’m not sold in the first 45 minutes. Plus, I’m now super restless. I have to sit at the back so I can stand for a few seconds every half hour or so.” Her conclusion sounded familiar: “Watching at home definitely destroyed my ability to focus for two hours.”

A lot of people also became accustomed to using captions for movies with hard-to-hear dialogue, something that can still be difficult to come by in movie theaters. It’s an accessibility issue that long predates the pandemic, but may not have occurred to people without hearing issues before. As Bailey Seitter put it, “I didn’t realize how much I grew to rely on closed captioning when watching at home. If anything, it’s made me even more excited to catch foreign language movies in theaters, because I know they’ll have subtitles.”

The subtitle question is an important one for theaters to consider. That’s especially true since dialogue is getting more difficult to understand, and because those who regularly use the closed captioning display devices available at many theaters can find them unwieldy to obtain and use.

With so many people opting to use captions and discovering they like them, theaters may be wise to consider how to lower that barrier to entry. That should go along with a raft of improvements to accommodate would-be theatergoers with other disabilities — something the movie industry has been woefully behind on for decades.

We go for blockbusters — but not just blockbusters

Perhaps the most surprising and counterintuitive finding is just what people want to see when they go to a theater. Conventional wisdom is that moviegoers mainly want to go through the hassle of leaving the house, buying a ticket, and sitting (perhaps masked) in a theater when they’re seeing “big” movies; spectacles and blockbusters like Dune or Spider-Man: No Way Home. The big screen and surround-sound experience, not to mention excited audience members, drive people to the theater when they might otherwise just choose to stay home.

And certainly, that’s one big draw for moviegoers. Yet watching a movie at home, on a big screen, can be strikingly close to the theatrical experience, and without any of the headache of being around other people. So theaters face a hurdle: Making the theatrical experience fun enough that people are coaxed to engage in it when the movie comes out, rather than simply delaying till it’s cheaper and can be watched at home.

But quite a few people noticed upon returning to the theater that they’d be more likely to see movies at the opposite end of the spectrum — films that are smaller, quieter, and more suited to “art house” audiences. That “trapped” feeling that several people mentioned, the inability to turn off a film when you start to get bored, can translate to sticking around and being surprised. And the way you pay attention in a theater (provided you’re a good neighbor and not on your phone) can translate to delight.

Chafin said, “I would have fallen asleep watching The Power of the Dog at home, and maybe would never have finished it? But in the theater, I loved it.” Jonathan Diaz concurred, noting that “I can actually disconnect and focus on what I’m watching at the movies, which is so much harder at home with a million distractions and a nearby smartphone or laptop … When there’s a smaller, more intimate movie I really want to see, I make sure to see it in a theater so I can give it my full attention.”

Others said that no matter how good your home setup is, the compression that goes into delivering films digitally often messes with the image or the sound in ways that make it inherently subpar to what you might see in a theater. (Provided your theater properly projects films and tunes its systems, which is not always a given.) Josh Calvetti said, “I recognize the value in home premieres, but as long as companies insist on compressing the picture to death, I’ll continue to go to the theater.” Andrew Shine realized “how distracting city noises and household noises are; they can easily take you out of the movie-watching experience.”

I found myself thinking about this when some dust was briefly kicked up around the release of Memoria, an incredibly slow, quiet, and pretty inscrutable film directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It’s also one of the best movies I saw this year, and I saw it in a theater. Weerasethakul’s films never make much money or play on many screens; they’re best suited to patient audiences who value the kind of “leaning in” that such a movie requires.

Neon, the company distributing Memoria, announced that in lieu of what now constitutes the traditional release plan — a few weeks in limited theaters, mostly in major cities, followed by a digital platform release a few weeks after that — they’d take the film on the road. Starting December 26, when the film opens at New York City’s IFC Center, Memoria will play on only one screen at a time, for a week, in cities around the country, with no plan for a digital release at all. Catch it while it’s in your local theater, or miss it forever. (It seems impossible, of course, that the film won’t eventually get at least a Blu-ray release some day, but Neon hasn’t announced any plans for that.)

People were, perhaps understandably, a little mad about this. But having seen Memoria, I knew how smart it was, at least from Weerasethakul’s perspective. Besides generating interest around the film, the release strategy guarantees people will actually watch it, something that, in truth, I can barely imagine doing at home. I struggled to stay awake watching it in a theater — I can’t even imagine how I’d have felt on my couch.

So I fully agree with Shine when he wrote, “Now that I’m back, I have a greater appreciation for the ways theatrical moviegoing forces you to focus and be present in the moment.” And it seems others do, too.

We need to think of theaters as places to encounter art, not just consume content

These responses underline the reality of moviegoing today. We’re there for the movie itself, but given the competing ways you can watch a film, it’s not just the movie that draws a crowd in. To think it is risks thinking of movies as just “content,” easily chopped up and sent down tubes to willing customers.

Instead, if we really think of movies as an art form — from the biggest blockbusters to the quietest, most intimate films — then we need to pay as much attention to the experience of watching as the thing itself. Art is not just about the “what.” It’s about the “how,” and the “where,” and the “who.” And the whole reason to go to theaters — dedicated spaces for experiencing an art form — help us remember that in a content-mad world.

A space that can hold quiet contemplation as well as raucous enjoyment with strangers is rare. The survival of the movie business depends on understanding what it is that people in the seats really want. And the people in the seats are figuring that out, too.

Understanding is critical

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