Back to the big screen

Rebounding from 2020, the worst year ever for ticket sales, the film screening business has started to find its footing again.

November 11, 2021
  • James Cook

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I thought it might feel weird going to the movie theater after a twenty-month pandemic hiatus. But the smell of popcorn, the big boxes of candy and the buckets of soda were all just as I remembered them when I returned to my multiplex and settled in for a screening of No Time to Die, the latest in a James Bond franchise that has lasted almost sixty years. The in-person movie business is driven by blockbusters, and those most often come in the form of franchise films.




Shang-Chi and the legend of full recovery

Rebounding from a 2020 that was the worst year ever for ticket sales, the film screening business has started to find its footing again. With two months left in the year, box office grosses are already nearly a billion dollars ahead of all of 2020. But despite the heroics of Shang-Chi, the latest in the Marvel franchise, James Bond, and Black Widow, the cinematic recovery is far from complete. U.S. theaters would have to almost quadruple their year-to-date grosses in the next two months in order to match 2019 revenues. 

Annual U.S. Box Office Gross (Billions)

Lost theater habits must be recovered

Moviegoing is a habit, and it’s one that may need to be kick-started to get the engine running again. Despite my love of the movie experience, my reason for going that day was practical. The theater was the only place No Time to Die was showing. It’s that exclusivity that remains one of the drivers of ticket sales.

In a recent Where We Buy podcast interview, Kevin Grayson of production company STXfilms explained how important the windows of exclusivity are to theater chains. In the recent past, theaters could rely on a 90-day window of exclusivity. During the pandemic that dropped to zero and fans streamed Wonder Woman 1984 at home on its release date. Now, windows have returned. The new Marvel film Eternals opened last week with a box-office-boosting 45-day window.

Less screens, better screens

How many screens do we need? In the last decade, the U.S. lost 226 theaters, but we may need to lose a few more to create a new equilibrium. Just as ecommerce reduced the need for a percentage of retail space, streaming services have reduced the need for a certain number of film screens.

U.S. Movie Theaters

But we expect most theaters to remain profitable. Niche boutique and art house theaters that offer special events and screenings will continue to draw cineastes. So too will the blockbuster palaces draw superfans, couples on a night out and families catching the latest Disney release. Most resilient will be those theaters outfitted with the biggest screens, latest technology, and most advanced 3D experiences. 

What to do with an empty multiplex?

As some theaters close, they will become a new challenge to their landlords. The configuration of a multiplex theater, with multiple screening rooms, sloped floors and high ceilings can make adaptive reuse difficult. But some uses have been found.

  • A nine-screen Harkins theater in Flagstaff, Arizona was transformed into government offices in 2016. 
  • In Pittsburgh, SouthSide Works Cinema was redeveloped as a part of a mixed-use project with retail, apartments and office space.  
  • U-Haul recently purchased a multiplex in Rome, Georgia that it will transform into 500 self-storage units, opening this spring.

Yet despite this creativity, redevelopment may often not make economic sense. Often the highest and best use is to demolish a theater and rebuild on the land.


Contact James Cook

Americas Director of Research, Retail