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COLUMN: We still want to go to the movie theaters

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On opening weekend, I went to see the newly released “Five Nights at Freddy’s” movie at the local AMC CLASSIC Bloomington 12. Despite the very mixed reviews and having never played the game, I thought the film was entertaining, and I enjoyed the (surprisingly) emotionally compelling conflict. But above all, I was pleasantly surprised to see the movie theater parking lot full on a Saturday afternoon.  

Although the film was released on the streaming service Peacock the same weekend it was in theaters, the 4:20 p.m. showing was nearly sold out and the theater was packed with nostalgic fans anxious to watch. For years, movie theater attendance has been on the decline for several reasons: it is not necessarily an affordable experience, there are so many more at-home streaming options and the COVID-19 pandemic has had a lasting effect on the movie theater business.  

The Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Actors as well as the Writers Guild of America were also both on strike for much of 2023. The former just ended last Thursday after 118 days, and the latter on Sept. 27 after 148 days. Both strikes had their own effects on filming, premieres and even promotions for films released this year. 

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But in the year of “Barbie,” “Oppenheimer,” another “Hunger Games” movie, even “Super Mario Brothers” and “Spider-Man” – it seems like movie lovers are going back into theaters despite it all.  

As of Sept. 26, United States and Canadian movie theaters have sold 825.2 million tickets this year, compared to 812.79 million in 2022 and 492.34 million in 2021. While there has been a positive increase from recent past years, numbers still haven’t reached the pre-pandemic 1.23 billion tickets that were sold in 2019.  

“Unless movie theaters do something different in the next couple of years, I don't see them staying around for too much longer,” Evan Buschman, an IU sophomore studying media advertising and avid theatergoer, said.  “It is sad to say, because I love the movies, but I understand why people aren’t going anymore. I think one of the biggest issues is that their prices are just so high, I understand why people would want to stay home”. 

But for IU sophomore Brynn Jamora, movie theaters offer an experience that can’t be replicated with a streaming service.  

“I love the theater because it feels like you’re fully immersed in the story,” she said. “You don’t have any other distractions, it’s just you and the movie.” 

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Major films this year have offered an experience unlike those that theaters and movie-lovers have seen in recent memory. Social media mega-hits like “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” made movie viewing feel communal again, Jamora, another media advertising student, said.  

“I had forgotten about that experience because of COVID, and then, watching the ‘Barbie’ movie, the theater was full, everyone was excited and dressed up – it was cool to see everyone come together again,” Jamora said. “We are all just strangers who want to watch a story.” 

“The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” “Barbie” and now “The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds” were all inspired by games, books and toys which shaped Gen Z’s adolescence. Now, as young adults, we get to enjoy them and reminisce through a whole new medium.  

“A lot of these movies have nostalgia and hold a lot of feelings,” Jamora said. “People are returning to theaters and seeing movies that feel nostalgic and realizing that the stylistic experience is still there.”  

With so many other options in competition to theaters, they have had to find their advantage. Community might be what keeps them alive. 

“I don't think going to the movie theaters is ever going to die because of how traditional it is,” Ana Mercado, a senior studying cinema and media studies, said. “I think as a generation, we understand that it is such a tradition especially in Hollywood. After ‘Barbie’ especially, I think other marketing campaigns maybe need to take note. Even ‘Five Nights at Freddy’s’ – it was a bad movie, but it still brought people to theaters because of the fan base.” 

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Film, television and media are more accessible now than ever before. Platforms like Amazon’s Freevee, Tubi and even YouTube offer select content to stream for free. But after the pandemic, and such an overwhelming influx of constant at-home options, perhaps movie-lovers have learned to appreciate the experience of going out to the movie theaters when they can.  

Movies are what really shape our society. They tell a story in a way that no pen and paper ever could. It is an art form, down to lighting, wardrobe, angles, music. It is visual, audible, and watching them in theaters makes it feel as though you are a part of the story yourself.  

“I think movies are one of the most essential forms of art for human beings,” Buschman said. "I really hope that no matter what, movies find a way to continue to find really awesome platforms to be streamed. Whether that's in an actual movie theater or in people's homes, because regardless, the important thing is people are watching movies. And that's just that's the greatest thing. Keep watching movies.”  

There is still hope for movie theaters. After years of iPods, Spotify and Apple Music, we are still buying records and burning CDs. And after years of streaming at our fingertips, the film industry is still finding ways to get us into theaters. There are some forms of media consumption that may just never go out of style.

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