The Liberty Theatre in Carnegie, Oklahoma, shut down in early 2020 after more than a hundred years of continuous operation. It recently reopened, to great celebration in Carnegie, but according to Bloomberg, “about 630 movie theaters remain closed across North America. And many may never reopen.” Yet even where they have, people aren’t returning at pre-pandemic levels, and since well before Covid-19, movie houses have been competing more and more with streaming services and other kinds of digital entertainment. The cinema doesn’t go back much before the turn of the 20th century, but down through the generations since, it became a vital part of common life—of people’s formative experiences and memories and sense of the world—in the United States and globally. What’s happening to the movies?

David Herrin is the founder and CEO of the film-research company The Quorum and the former head of research for United Talent Agency. “One of the hardest-hit sectors in the economy” during the pandemic, Herrin says, theaters are now contending with a convergence of trends—lingering worries about Covid safety, unsureness about Omicron, and a new appreciation of all the inconveniences that might have come with going to the movies before the virus: It’s expensive. The seats can be uncomfortable. Other people in the audience can be loud or otherwise distracting with their phones. Meanwhile, streaming services were already disrupting the movie industry, particularly among younger audiences. For Herrin, it may not be clear what these converging factors will ultimately do to the culture of filmgoing, but there are signs that it’s evolving rather than dying out altogether.

Graham Vyse: It’s the holiday season, traditionally a busy movie season in America. Are people going back to the theaters?

David Herrin: Some are. Movie theaters have made an admirable recovery, but it’s a very specific group that’s going back—primarily men between the ages of 25 and 45. The Quorum did a study with two other companies, Fanthropology and Cultique, polling 2,500 people in the U.S. who went to the movies before the pandemic, asking them if they’re returning now. Roughly half of them—49 percent—said they’re not.

We divided those former filmgoers into three different groups: The first is the “reluctants," which includes me. These are people who started going back to movie theaters in May, June, and July, when vaccines started to take hold and there was no Delta variant. Once the variant came along and we saw spiking Covid cases over the summer, the reluctants stopped going. The second group is the “hopefuls.” They’ve yet to go back to the movie theater, but they aspire to; they want to go back. Then there’s a third group, the “likely lost.” These are people who went to the movies before the pandemic, haven’t been back since, and don’t see themselves returning in the future.

Vyse: What more do you know about the reluctants?

Herrin: They were the most avid of filmgoers before the pandemic. These are people who go to the movies at least once a week. Then you have frequent filmgoers, who go once a month, and infrequent filmgoers, who go two or three times a year. The people who aren’t going at all tend to be female, across the entire age range. Older audiences, both male and female, aren’t returning. Lower-income respondents aren’t either.

There are two main issues that have been pain points for the movie business, and these predate the pandemic. One is price sensitivity. It’s expensive to go to the movies. Really, this is less in ticket prices than in the popcorn and other concessions, which are very expensive for some people. Then there’s the idea that going to movie theaters has a low experiential value. There are a ton of commercials. People are on their phones. The seats aren’t comfortable. These issues have been there for a long time. The pandemic meant new health-safety concerns, but these amplified the preexisting issues.

Vyse: Can you elaborate on the trends you were seeing before the pandemic?

Herrin: The biggest trend before the pandemic was that theaters were losing younger audiences. We saw this with the under-25 age group. They were raised on social media and YouTube and used to short-form content instead of long-form content. During the pandemic, out of necessity, many studios released movies to watch at home on streaming services. Theaters were closed for the most part. As a result, a lot of people got used to the idea of watching movies at home.

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