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News / Business

Seattle movie theaters aren’t dying — they’re changing

By Margo Vansynghel, The Seattle Times
Published: February 18, 2024, 6:00am

Saturday morning, 8:27 a.m. The streets of downtown Seattle are quiet and deserted, but not the sidewalk around SIFF Cinema Downtown (née Cinerama). Dozens of people — some wearing green capes, fake beards and plastic elf ears — form a snaking line around the building.

A waft of molten chocolate escapes as the doors open at 8:30 sharp. The crowd, here to sit in the dark and watch three consecutive “Lord of the Rings” movies with hundreds of other fans, throngs inside and descends upon the concession counter. The six staffers shoveling chocolate popcorn can barely keep up — the sold-out event is already shaping up to be one of SIFF’s most-attended nonfestival days ever.

If you’ve been to the movies recently, you may have noticed it too: Despite sweeping declarations about the death of the silver screen in the pandemic streaming era, cinemas are starting to fill up again.

In fact, 2023 was a banner year for movie theaters, the best since 2020, and local theaters say foot traffic is rebounding, with special events, cheaper tickets and souped-up concessions drawing folks back.

“The good news is: People are coming back to the movies,” said Beth Barrett, artistic director of Seattle International Film Festival, which owns SIFF Cinema Downtown. “We are starting to see the same kinds of audiences [as before the pandemic] … We’re starting to see screenings sell out.”

More reasons for optimism: Movie execs are reversing course on the pandemic-era trend of straight-to-streaming film releases. And, driven in part by social media platforms like TikTok and the cinephilecentric Letterboxd, some indies say young people are flocking to their theaters to see classics on the big screen.

But: Plot twist — there’s bad news, too. AMC, the world’s largest movie theater chain, is struggling financially as the debt-burdened company faces liquidity challenges. This year’s box office is off to a painfully slow start, and analysts expect 2024’s ticket sales to land below 2023’s. Various local theaters say their audience levels are still trailing 20% to 25% below 2019 levels, and data suggests Seattleites may be among the slowest in the nation to come back. Experts say we’ll have to wait until 2025 or even 2026 to see growth again.

To blame are changes in people’s habits and preferences, partly driven by streaming and inflation (and perhaps a tad of superhero fatigue). But the most pointed-to culprit is what insiders call a movie “drought.” Because execs shelved or paused a substantial number of projects during the pandemic, and two major labor strikes last year pushed even more releases down the pike, there are simply not enough new movies coming out to lure people back.

And so, if this were a movie, we’d be at the turning point: The moment when the handsome lead races through the rain to confess his love, or the plucky heroine rushes to the other end of the city to save the day before the clock runs out. In other words, we’re not there yet, but could a happy(ish) ending be in sight?

The “Barbie” effect

Unless you lived under a rock this past year, you know that “Barbie” was a cultural phenomenon. It was also a lifeline for theaters: Thanks to its $1 billion-plus success, the national box office rose to $9.1 billion last year — that’s about $2 billion below its pre-pandemic peak, but the highest it’s been since 2020.

For Ballard’s Majestic Bay Theatre, “Barbie” was the highest-grossing movie in its 23-year history. “It did more business than ‘Lord of the Rings,’ more business than ‘Harry Potter,’ more business than any ‘Star Wars,’” said Aaron Alhadeff, president. “And what that showed me is: If there’s a great movie … people will come.”

Critically, the candy-colored comedy brought the people most reluctant to return — women, especially those over 35 — back to the theater, said David Herrin of film research company The Quorum.

And that’s a big deal. “There’s this theory that going to the theater is like muscle memory, right?” Herrin said. “If you can just get this audience to go once, they’ll remember why they love that so much. And then they want to keep going back.”

The question now, Herrin added: Will there be enough movies that cater to women to keep them coming back? Or even enough movies at all? “This is exactly the moment in time when we want to start giving theatergoers movies because they’re back and they’re excited. And then there’s nothing. And we don’t want them to revert to previous behaviors.”

Bang for your buck

Inflation isn’t helping. The soaring cost of living — which is especially high in Seattle — is making audiences pickier. Film is considered one of the cheapest forms of out-of-home entertainment, but a night at the cineplex can still set you back more than $25 if you factor in concessions and transportation — and that’s just for one person. That’s certainly true in Seattle, where a standard ticket costs around $14 on average, roughly $2 more than the national average, according to box office analytics firm EntTelligence. Indeed, the cost of going to the theater is the main reason why people don’t go more often, Herrin said. For many, streaming a movie at home makes more financial sense.

One of the most straightforward ways theaters are trying to boost foot traffic is by simply lowering ticket prices — and betting on concessions for a bump in revenue. Nationally, theaters screening the octogenarian Super Bowl comedy “80 for Brady” extended matinee pricing to many other showtimes in a bid to attract older moviegoers. And since SIFF introduced $6 Movie Mondays across three of its Seattle theaters (but not its downtown location) last September, attendance is up by 384%. At the Majestic Bay, all movies are $6 on Tuesdays — another typically slow day in the business — versus $13-$16 on other days. “We sell out every single Tuesday [evening], every single auditorium,” Alhadeff said.

But on all the other days, theaters still face the issue of former theatergoers who simply don’t feel like a trip to the movies brings enough bang for their buck, as a 2023 study showed.

“The last major investment that [theaters] made was reclining seats,” Herrin said. “But people want more than that.” Among those things are clean bathrooms and shorter lines for popcorn, he noted, as well as better food and beverage options — and enough with the deluge of trailers and commercials already.

But that’s on cinemas to address, Herrin said. “If they can really make the theatergoing experience feel like it has an enhanced value, then there’s opportunity for growth.”

Leveling up

Theaters are starting to catch up, investing in upgrades to their screens, seats and menus. It’s a bid to attract the out-of-the-habit moviegoers and an appeal to a subset of dedicated theatergoers who will gladly pay more for a premium experience.

Many theaters are investing in so-called “premium large-format screens,” aka your extra-wide IMAX formats, 3D screens, panoramic “tri-screens” and other upgrades from the typical 2D experience.

According to data from research firm Omdia, the number of premium screens in the U.S. increased by nearly 11% from 2019 to 2022. (Data for 2023 was not yet available.) Nearly 40% of exhibitors plan to add more premium, large-format screens in the next three years, and more than half plan on upgrading sound systems and/or projectors, according to a March 2023 report from the National Association of Theatre Owners, a trade organization.

It’s a smart move: There’s a lot of demand for these premium screenings — so much so that they often drive increased box office returns. Texas-based theater chain Cinemark, which operates theaters in Bellevue, Federal Way and Tacoma, has seen interest in XD, its premium, large-format auditorium with immersive surround sound, skyrocket since the pandemic.

“Our XD auditoriums represent about 5% of our screens, but on average have been delivering 10-15% of our box office. So they’re overperforming,” said Caitlin Piper, Cinemark’s director of public relations. “I think what it’s really showing us is that after so many people were stuck in their homes for so long, not only do they want to get out of their house, but they want to make the most of that experience.”

Another way theaters are luring customers is by beefing up the food options and adding alcohol to the mix. (Additional upside: Margins on concessions are higher than on tickets, from which studios take a cut.) According to theater owner association’s March survey, more than a third of theaters plan to add alcohol service in the next three years.

Local indie chain Far Away Entertainment has already added beer and wine options to a few of its theaters, including the Historic Admiral Theater in West Seattle and the Historic Lynwood Theatre on Bainbridge, and is looking at its Anacortes theater as possibly next. “It’s an attraction, a draw, if you will, for older audience segments,” said managing partner Jeff Brein. “That’s worked out very well for us.”

Other national and local theaters have also invested in food, from sushi and charcuterie boats to craft cocktails and truffle popcorn. When the Big Picture reopened its Belltown theater in Issaquah in 2022, co-founders Mark and Katie Stern opted for a smaller theater and larger menu. The couple also introduced a signature dish, a smash burger — and it’s worked wonders, the Sterns said in a recent interview. “We’re proud of our theater,” Mark Stern said. “But we’re also proud of our burgers.”

Drag queens and Taylor Swift

The Huskies were on a winning streak. The air smelled of hope and pulled pork. Fans in purple-and-gold jerseys yelled and cheered in the auditorium of the Historic Lynwood Theatre, but that day, no one shushed. “We might as well have been sitting in the stands at Husky Stadium,” said Brein of Far Away Entertainment, which screened the national college football championship game on the big screen earlier this year. The Huskies lost that night, but the theater was half full, which is a win these days.

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After this success, Brein is planning to screen more sports events. He’s also bullish on other nonmovie events after screenings of Grateful Dead, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift concerts had people lining up (and dancing in the aisles). “We want to take the heretofore somewhat passive experience of going into a theater, and we want to expand that and give people a chance to do other things and have fun,” Brein said.

It’s proven successful in other theaters too, as consumers indicate they will head to the theater to see “more than just movies,” as the theater owner association survey indicated.

Locally, the Northwest Film Forum, a nonprofit art house theater on Capitol Hill, is also jazzing up its calendar. For its anti-Valentine’s event, it’s planning to have visitors follow up a screening of “Eyes Wide Shut” with “sad-ballads-only” karaoke in the lobby afterward. Another success story is its “Mourning Sickness” series, which pairs cult and camp classics like “Showgirls” and “Mommie Dearest” with a preshow drag performance.

“So it’s just things like that, where you can pair a film with some other stuff really as a way to incentivize people,” said executive director Derek Edamura.

Similarly, SIFF says “experiences” — think mead for the “Lord of the Rings” marathon, complimentary pink-frosted doughnuts and a cocktail party for “Mean Girls,” sparkly photo booths for “Barbie” — as well as post-screening social events, have become a main attendance driver since the pandemic.

“I think that it gives people a hook and a reason, to make it a little bit bigger of a deal. Because it’s not just going to the movies — you’re going to the movies and you’re drinking mead while looking at elves,” SIFF’s Barrett said. “I think that there’s something to buying into those experiences because it can mean so much more.”