Box Office Blues

Total movie admissions in the U.S. fell 4.6% in 2019, to 1.24 billion, making last year the second worst through the turnstiles since 1995, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners.

The worst year was 2017, when only 1.23 billion tickets were sold.

The decline comes as theaters face growing competition from streaming services, not only for consumers’ time and entertainment dollars, but for their first-in-line position in the movie distribution system.

Two of 2019’s most high-profile releases, for instance, Netflix’s “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story,” which together helped the streaming service rack up an industry-leading 24 Oscar nominations, received very limited exclusive theatrical runs.

One reason for those limited runs, of course, was the reluctance by many theater owners themselves to book the films at all because they did not like Netflix’s proposed terms — a policy that increasingly looks self-defeating.

A recent survey by The Hollywood Reporter and Morning Consult found that a plurality of U.S. adults — 48% — prefer to watch new release movies via streaming service, compared to only 37% who would prefer to see them on the big screen.

Preventing movies from being more widely available on the big screen seems likely only to fuel consumers’ preference for in-home viewing.

It is a policy that also seems likely to grow increasingly untenable. As the major studios aggressively pursue their own direct-to-consumer initiatives, launching streaming services of their own and adopting increasingly proprietary distribution strategies for their content, pressure on the exclusive theatrical window will only increase.

If theater operators cannot find a way to accommodate themselves to the new strategic landscape, missing out on a few Oscar nominees will be the least of their problems.