The theatre has always existed at the center of American culture. From the time of the American Revolution through the turn of the century, aristocratic women in their hobble skirts and pearls swarmed the playhouses along the Bowery and Broadway to view americanized renditions of Shakespeare. In the 1920s and ’30s, the novelty of films captured the eye of everyday Americans for the very first time. The concept of the film star and the institution of cinema started to take its formative stage, with the quintessential movie stars Joan Crawford and Mae West holding an inexorable grip on the American audience, leaving their signature lines and phrases lingering on the lips of their viewers for years to come. By the late ’40s through the early ’60s, the status of the movie star — and with it the cinema itself — was elevated to that of a demi-god, with millions of adoring fans groveling on their knees for the Hollywood starlets of the day. The revered triad of cinematic icons Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, and Audrey Hepburn captivated millions of starstruck Americans with their alluring mix of beauty and elusiveness. Until very recently, American culture’s claim to glory revolved around the magnetic pull of her Hollywood stars, eternally captured in the noir-toned screens and flickering neon lights of the mid-century theatre. So what changed?
The advent of the internet brought a chain of drastic changes altering the very fabric of civilization and nowhere are the ramifications of this shift more apparent than in the entertainment business. As Silicon Valley pumps out countless apps and streaming platforms in an attempt to fill the void for American youth that the cinema once occupied, the iconic cinemas of America’s metropolises, once bustling with throngs of viewers eagerly awaiting Hollywood’s finest new productions, are now becoming more desolate by the day. It seems that while the youth of this generation turn their backs on traditional mediums of entertainment in favor of modern streaming platforms such as Netflix and Hulu, the cinema is forced to take the toll.
Since the cinema industry’s peak year in 2002, theater ticket sales have been on a steep decline — something now only exacerbated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Last year, ticket sales had dropped to 1.2 billion in comparison with the 1.6 billion of 2002 — all of this in spite of a 15 percent increase in population over the past seventeen years.
It seems COVID-19 is to be the final nail in the coffin of this withering industry. Since the onset of the shelter-in-place order, box office sales have fallen to a record low of 840 million dollars. To make matters worse, social distancing has created a logistical nightmare for film companies. Essential components of traditional films are now either being foregone or modified extensively, such as scenes holding large gatherings or depicting kisses and other intimacy. This makes films not only more difficult to execute, but also a much harder sell for the regular theater-attending demographic who harbor a craving for familiarity and nostalgia in the films they view. Given these bleak statistics, one may question how long or even if cinema as we know it will be able to hold out before resigning its place entirely to contemporary entertainment platforms. Among the unfortunate realities of the pandemic, is the glaring threat that the cinema business, along with so many others, may reach its demise in the imminent future. But perhaps this is not all bad.
The selling point of the movie theater has always been, in part, to offer a medium of social gathering for people of all walks of life who might not otherwise convene; all united by the common goal of leaving behind the monotony of everyday life for something more intriguing. With the dawn of the social media era and given the rapid proliferation of apps such as Instagram and Snapchat, which pick up the slack in social interaction as the members of the digital generation become more and more withdrawn from each other, it is possible that social gathering of the sort the cinema used to provide may no longer be necessary. Perhaps the contemporary answer to the cinema will take the form of home viewing parties or services like Netflix Party, which allow viewers to watch films in unison from different locations. As the era of the movie theater and old Hollywood draws its final breath, its successor has already carved a place in our society.