Going to the movies during the holidays has been a long-standing tradition for American households. However, theaters hit by the loss of audiences due to both the COVID-19 pandemic and the convenience of streaming services have left many to wonder: Will holiday movie-going become a thing of the past?
Alicia Kozma is director of Indiana University Cinema and sits on the board of directors for Art House Convergence. An educator, researcher and author, Kozma recently published her latest book, “The Cinema of Stephanie Rothman: Radical Acts in Filmmaking.” She offers her expertise on the current state of holiday movies and what the pastime could look like in the coming years.
Question: Going to the movies around the holidays has been an American tradition for decades. Has that trend changed in recent years?
Answer: Starting in 2021, about 85% of audiences have returned to seeing movies in theaters, but they have returned to a different theatrical landscape.
Hollywood studios are making fewer movies than in the past, and the films they are making tend to be large blockbuster films that bring in mass audiences in a short period of time. This is, in part, to recoup losses incurred over the height of the pandemic. There are numerically fewer movies in theaters, and the ones that are available offer less variety, so audiences are going to the theater less frequently.
The Thanksgiving holiday has traditionally been a busy time for movie theaters, and there were some successes this November, including “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.” It is on track to make over $400 million in its five-week theatrical run, $64 million of which was made over the three-day Thanksgiving weekend.
Hollywood has high hopes for this Christmas season with the release of James Cameron’s long-awaited “Avatar” sequel, “Avatar: The Way of Water,” which is projected to dominate the seasonal box office for weeks. So while holiday movie-going is certainly not over, unless Hollywood starts to bring more content to theaters, it is not going to rebound to where it was pre-pandemic. Audiences can only see the same type of movies in theaters so many times before they stop going.
Q: Streaming has exploded in popularity. Are holiday blockbusters like “Home Alone” and “The Grinch” a thing of the past?
A: Holiday blockbusters are still with us; they just look different than before. Streaming has been tremendously popular for the last five to seven years, but it’s one of many factors for the kinds of movies that are released in theaters.
Studios are investing in a different kind of holiday film. Movies like “Home Alone” and “The Grinch” are not just holiday movies; they are Christmas movies. Today, Hollywood blockbusters make more money in the international market than they do in the domestic market. (The domestic market is defined as the United States and Canada, and the international market is everywhere else.)
Christmas movies do not perform as well in the international market because Christmas is not a universal, international holiday. By focusing on big-name films that are simultaneously nondenominational and “must see” event films like the “Avatar” sequel and the Whitney Houston biopic “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” studios have a better chance to capitalize on box office returns in the international market.
The “Harry Potter” film franchise is a great example of this. We tend to think of them as holiday movies since they were all released around Christmas time. As nondenominational event films, they made significantly more money internationally than domestically. There have been new Christmas-related holiday films released this year, but they’ve been released primarily on streaming services for the domestic market, like “Spirited,” a retelling of “A Christmas Carol” starring Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds, released exclusively on AppleTV+.
Q: Many wonder if movie theaters will become a thing of the past altogether. What are your tips for how those who wish to keep them around can support movie theaters?
A: Movie theaters have faced similar attendance crises in years past. Theatrical attendance shrank significantly in the 1950s with the mass introduction of television; in the 1980s with the introduction of VCRs and VHS tapes; in the 1990s with the rise of video on demand; and of course, in the mid-late 2000s with the explosion of streaming options. But theaters have endured, in large part because none of these avenues can replicate the communal experience of viewing a film for the first time with an audience.
During the pandemic, when most new films were being released directly to streaming services, there was a lot of conversation that movie theaters would not be able to bounce back. But one of the first films to be released in theaters once they reopened in 2021 — “A Quiet Place Part II”— made 100 times its production budget in box office sales because people wanted to be together again in a theater watching movies.
Communal viewing is part of why we love movies, but theaters still have a long road ahead of them. The best way to support your favorite movie theater is to see a movie in them, and to buy concessions once you are there. The movie ticket tells Hollywood that theaters still matter in their community, and concession sales support theaters directly.
Anywhere between 75 and 90% of the money made from ticket sales goes to film distributors, not the theaters, but theaters keep 100% of concession profits. If you want to support your local theater, go see movies and be sure to get some popcorn while you are there.
Q: On the flipside of that last question, how can theaters attract more patrons?
A: Mainstream movie theaters are at the mercy of the content they can get from Hollywood studios, so in truth there is not a lot they can do that they aren’t already. However, if audiences are looking for theaters with a wide variety of content, that regularly change up their film line-up, and are not totally dependent on major Hollywood studios, they should seek out their local independent arthouse cinema.
Arthouse cinemas have the most varied slate of content around because they do much more than just show new Hollywood movies. They screen new domestic and international independent cinema, global blockbusters, repertory films, nostalgic favorites and so much more. Arthouse cinemas, overall, are more flexible than mainstream theaters in their programming, giving them the ability to truly show something for everyone, rather than just the same small group of movies mainstream theaters offer.
Arthouse cinemas are often much cheaper to attend than mainstream theaters, and many offer wrap-around programming with their films, like conversations with film professionals and other experts. A ticket to a movie at an arthouse movie can give an audience so much more than just a movie; it’s a true theatrical experience.
Q: This year we saw a sequel to “A Christmas Story,” and Tim Allen returned in a sequel to the popular “The Santa Clause” movies. Are sequels a “safe bet” for production companies, or is there another reason why they are common?
A: Sequels work well for studios because they traditionally are a safe financial bet. Production companies can predict exactly how much it will cost to make the film and how much they can make in ticket revenue since this is not the film’s first go-around. They are easier to market because there is already name recognition in the market.
Sequels also often drive at-home rental and purchase revenue for the original films ahead of the sequel’s release, generating additional revenue in what is called ancillary film markets. Additionally, nostalgia sells, especially for classic holiday films like “A Christmas Story,” where parents can introduce their children to their own beloved classics through the sequels.
Q: Do you have any holiday movie recommendations for families to enjoy together this year?
A: Honestly, any movie can be a holiday movie when a family is enjoying it together. Personally, I watch “The Godfather” movies at the holidays. The magic of holiday movies is found in the company you watch them in, and the rituals you attach to the viewing. It’s a perfect way to create a new holiday family tradition.