History of movie theater attendance

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Weekly movie attendance has been in decline since the end of the second world war. You might never guess this from the success of 2008's box office hits. Warner Brothers' "Dark Knight" generated £345 million, while the Paramount duo "Iron Man" and "Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull" each brought in £206 and £206 million, respectively. Overall movie attendance in 2008 amounts to a staggering £18.3 million worldwide, 65 per cent of these ticket sales linked to the international box office. And, as the American Motion Picture Association notes, the number of digital screens worldwide has increased by 33 per cent over the past five years, securing the appeal of "big screen" cinematic experience within a competitive market of alternative media. So why, then, the decline?

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Early Cinema

Mainstream American cinema has favoured realism since its early days. Unlike early French film ("A Trip to the Moon" (1902), for instance, by the magician and illusionist Georges Méliès), which emphasised form and mood over narrative content, American filmgoers craved the telling of a good story. This preference for content over formal technique can be seen in the silent "one reelers" of Edwin S. Porter in the early 20th century. As D. I. Grossvogel writes, "Porter mastered the problems of continuity, using crosscutting, superimpositions, fades, and dissolves, in order to create a twelve minute epic, "The Great Train Robbery" (1903), the first Western, with its holdup, its posse, its chase, and its showdown."

The Benefits of Silence

The silent motion pictures in the United States readily appealed to mass market audiences for several reasons. For one, comedy, melodrama and suspense provided cheap, accessible entertainment for working class viewers who could not afford bourgeois theatre. Secondly, immigrants who were not fully conversant with the language and the culture could easily engage with the intermittent comedic and cathartic elements enacted throughout the narrative.

Sound Effects

Throughout the 1920s, Hollywood genre-films began to dominate the market. And with the introduction of sound in the late 1920s, musicals and gangster flics began to flourish. Crowds were drawn to films which dramatised the folklore surrounding local crime bosses during the time of Prohibition. By 1930, 65 per cent of the U.S. population attended the cinema weekly (see Resources).

Great Depression

While movie attendance dropped by nearly 40 per cent during the heart of the 1930s, movies remained a popular outlet for cheap entertainment. Not surprisingly, "happy endings" were in vogue. But the 1930s also saw the rise of documentary films, which dealt with economic, farming, and environmental issues, among others. The period also benefited from the influence of German expressionists like Fritz Lang and George W. Pabst. By the mid 1940s, American movies reached their peak once more, drawing nearly 60 million viewers per week between 1942 and 1946.

The Age of Television

In 1955 roughly 30.7 million American households owned their own television set. This new technology was disastrous for the motion picture industry. Coupled with the steady suburbanisation of the middle classes and antitrust violations filed against Hollywood studio monopolies, cinema attendance plunged nearly 75 per cent between 1946 and 1960 (see Resources).

American New Wave

The decline of the studio system hardly marked the end for moviegoers, though. The late 1960s and 1970s, for instance, saw a flourishing of new talent. Directors such as Francis Ford Coppolla, Martin Scorcesse, Terrence Malick, Michael Cimino, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and many others forged a mini renaissance of sorts in director-driven film-making. The new style appealed to a more affluent, college-educated generation of viewers. According to John Belton, 76 per cent of all moviegoers were under 30 by the 1970s and 64 per cent had gone to college. Directors were given free reign to explore their artistic vision at will.

The Blockbuster

"Jaws" (1975) and "Star Wars" (1977), however, marked the end of this era. Their huge success ("Jaws" was the first film to reach £65 million in box office sales) ratified the blockbuster paradigm that keeps the industry going today. Even with some 40,000 screens in multiplex theatres across the United Sates, weekly attendance has dropped significantly since the 1930s. In 2007, only 22 per cent of the population attended the cinema frequently, which is to say once a month.

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