Before the pandemic, 18 percent of millennials reported going to the movies weekly, and 27 percent reported going monthly, the highest numbers in any age group. Since the pandemic, those numbers have dipped: only 8 percent of millennials have gone weekly over the last year, and only 17 percent report attending movies monthly. Gen Z (ages 18 to 24) actually polls slightly ahead on the monthly question, at 19 percent.
Numbers are down across the board, however, and the older the age group, the worse they get. The figures for baby boomers are particularly striking: whereas 26 percent of those age 57 and older said they “never” went to movies before the pandemic, that number spikes to 71 percent over the last year.
One could suggest a number of variables influencing these figures. Perhaps there is some confusion as to what’s playing where; a previous Harris Poll showed that only 34 percent of people knew the blockbuster “Dune” was out on HBO Max and in theaters simultaneously. But it’s hard to look at theater hesitancy among older cohorts as anything other than a reflection of concerns about covid-19.
Older audiences are, understandably, more concerned about activities that take place in indoor public settings given that covid-19 becomes more dangerous the older you get. Of the approximately 750,000 American deaths attributed to the coronavirus by the Centers for Disease Control, almost 700,000 were people 50 and up. So even though movie theaters are among the safest indoor places you can go, some trepidation is understandable.
And theaters haven’t exactly catered to older audiences over the last decade or two. The biggest hits aren’t adult dramas or awards-season fare. Rather, multiplexes are inundated with comic book movies and franchise titles such as “The Fast and Furious” or “Jurassic Worlds” series, as well as family-friendly animated options. Look at the domestic box office for 2021; the top three films — “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” and “Black Widow” — are all Marvel or Marvel-adjacent.
The fourth is “F9: The Fast Saga.”
Millennials and Gen Z-ers have fewer health worries. As Axios noted, the per-100,000 weekly death rate for vaccinated adults between the ages of 30 and 49 from July 11 to Sept. 4 was just 0.11 — meaning that roughly 1 in 1,000,000 vaccinated people died of covid-19 per week over that stretch. At this point, safety shouldn’t be a concern.
What is a concern is that irrespective of genre, audiences are more likely to want to watch movies at home than in theaters after experiencing the option during the pandemic. Audiences say they’d rather watch a comedy at home 72 to 28 percent, which is at least a little unexpected, given the joy of communal laughter — but it makes some sense if you think that big screens equal spectacle. But even spectacle polls better at home: Respondents prefer to watch sci-fi movies from the couch 65 to 35, and adventure movies 60 to 40. That said, there’s a hopeful surprise on this last question: Answers showed little difference by age group.
In other words, there’s not much evidence that younger cohorts have grown particularly disdainful of the theatrical experience in their time away, as one might anticipate from a generation raised on streaming and cell phones that has now tasted similar cinematic convenience. There’s no reason to think they can’t be convinced to come back in pre-pandemic levels. Whether that means a better food and beverage experience, a la the Alamo Drafthouse or Angelika Film Center chains, or simply releases windowed in a way that requires the most excited guests to see films in theaters so they don’t feel behind, is harder to say.
But if there is hope for theaters, it must lie in the millennials and their successors. And theater owners should keep that in mind as they scour box office results.