Cost of Living9:01What last year’s box office tells us about the future for cinemas
The box office may still be recovering in Canada, but Lisha Hassanali says there’s still nothing like going to the theatre.
“There is a really wonderful shared dynamic that occurs in a cinema,” the big screen enthusiast told CBC’s Cost of Living.
“I think life’s a movie. I love movies. I feel like they shaped who I am and what I look forward to sometimes and a constant reference point for things that happen in my life.”
Hassanali was one of many movie-goers who made their return in 2022 for some big blockbusters such as Top Gun: Maverick, Jurassic World: Dominion and Minions. It was a bounce-back year for theatres, but the returns still aren’t at pre-pandemic levels.
Robert Mitchell, director of theatrical insights at Gower Analytics in London, says the North American box office brought in $7.5 billion US in 2022; up about 65 per cent from 2021.
But on average, between 2017 and 2019, the box office was making $11.5 billion US a year, he says.
Canada’s biggest theatre chain, Cineplex, lost millions during the pandemic. It saw an operating profit (EBITDA) of $106 million in the summer of 2019, before the pandemic. But in the summer of 2022, that same number was $63 million.
Hassanali admits she was slow getting back to the theatre. Her first time back, she was nervous about being in a crowded theatre because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But she’s been back regularly since the spring of 2022.
“I didn’t actually, even at that point, care which movies I was seeing. I was just like, let’s go back to the cinema. And the crowd sort of built up,” said Hassanali.
Not enough movies
Hassanali goes to a movie once a month, but says there just weren’t enough movies to choose from over the past year.
Bill Walker, CEO of Landmark Cinemas, agrees that a lack of content contributed to a less than stellar 2022.
“The highs were higher than I ever would have expected, and the lows were a bit lower,” said Walker.
“There just wasn’t a lot of supporting cast, I’d say, in other genres of content to sort of round out the box office and offer something for all consumers.”
Walker said not all the content he had expected in 2022 actually made it to theatres. Many big movies were delayed, such as the next instalment in the Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible series. There were also some flops, such as Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore and Lightyear.
That made for low ticket sales from August through October, according to Walker.
“We were running a kids movie for six or eight weeks at a time before something new would come on the screen to attract some more customers,” he said.
But there are some films coming in 2023 that give Walker hope.
“It really does start to improve and we see the content, still not back to kind of pre-pandemic numbers of releases overall, but the tent poles, those big releases look very, very similar on paper to what we would have seen pre-pandemic,” said Walker.
This year will see the release of expected blockbusters such as Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, Creed III, The Super Mario Bros. Movie and Fast X.
Despite the boost, it remains to be seen if cinema ticket sales will ever return to those pre-pandemic numbers. But Walker says he believes.
He says that despite all the other options available through streaming, there is still the case to be made for the theatre, and the undivided attention it demands when you slip into a seat.
“It is absolutely one of the only places, short of sleeping, where I won’t touch my phone for three hours and I will fully immerse in whatever is on that screen,” said Walker.
“I challenge anyone to say that they’ve watched a two-and-a-half hour movie at home with that same level of commitment that we give to movies in cinema.”
And then there are just some movies such as Avatar: The Way of Water, that Walker said are just made to be watched on the big screen.
But he says, to survive, theatres may need to adjust. He says businesses like his will need to choose their cinema locations wisely. He also says there should be a focus on amplifying the viewing of those big movies like Avatar.
But he says, even so, not all cinemas will make it.
“You are going to see lots of theatres go away in the U.S., and you may see some theatres go away in Canada. But ultimately, that doesn’t speak to how the business won’t survive,” said Walker.
“I think that’s how the business may adapt to an overall smaller market for theatrical movies.”
Hassanali says she hopes theatres stick around, but understands things shift and evolve. It may not mean as many theatres in each city, but she hopes they continue to exist.
“I think we’d be missing something if we didn’t have that grand theatrical experience still in bringing people together. I don’t think movies will ever truly go away,” she said.
“But, you know, sometimes people are kind of noisy and annoying and talking. So if they want to stay out of the cinema, so be it. Stay at home and watch your movies there.”