Mr. Movie

Is the U.S. in a recession? Movie attendance says so

I ran across this fascinating article on the financial section by Michael Brush.

He says while the current economic downturn, volatile stock market, the housing crisis, and out-of-sight gas prices have Americans doing major surgery on budgets, we continue to pony up money to go to movies.

Brush quotes figures from theater chains indicating attendance is up 4.5% in the first quarter of this year compared to last year. In contrast, consumer spending was only up 0.1% in February.

The key word in that sentence is “attendance.” Most reports on movie popularity tie in box-office dollars. Brush's facts, as you'll see later, do that. Box-office figures are usually up because the cost of ticket prices regularly rises. This year “up” means actual bodies in seats.

What boggles Brush's mind is that this year’s crop of movies is nothing special. I agree. Last year I liked more movies than I didn’t like. That is rare. This year, things are back to normal. That’s why the increase in movie attendance is fascinating and is what attracted me to his article in the first place.

Historically, in times of national financial distress like a depression or the “R” word (recession), Americans will go to more movies. It’s a place to escape reality for a few hours. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, movies did very, very well.

When I was a kid, I worked for a theater chain. The guy in charge of theater expansion and of building and maintaining the projection booths and sound systems learned his craft during the Great Depression. He used to bore me to tears with stories about silent films, the first sound systems, nitrate film that would burst into flame for no reason, and about packed theaters where Americans went to see a double feature to forget their misery for a few hours.

I spent a couple of years of my youth with the man and would give anything to share those stories again. He was right, and Brush is right. When the economy is bad, we go to movies. Here are some of his figures:

* In 1974 and 1975 growth slowed to 0.5% and 0.2%. The box office saw increases of 25% and 11% respectively.

* Economic growth slowed to 1.9% in 1982. Box-office income rose 16.4%.

* In 2001, attendance went up 4%. In 2002, it rose 11%.

His conclusion: in the last 40 years movie attendance has gone up in five of the seven recessions.

I have several questions:

1. Assuming the “R” word is happening will the rise in attendance at theaters continue?

2. Are you going to cut other things but leave more money for movies in your budget?

3. Do you think the much cheaper DVDs or movies you can rent on TV will cut into that?

4. Will you spend your movie money that way instead of at theaters?

5. Or will you be even more selective than you have been in the past when deciding on a night out at the movies?

6. Will you do more matinees? They are cheaper.

7. Will going to theaters depend more than ever on the movie?

8. Will films like the new Indiana Jones, Iron Man, Batman and others draw you?

And the last question is optional and more for laughs.

Since it is more expensive than ever to go to movies, will you finally shut off those cell phones?

Send me an email.