The movie business is in denial

Hollywood has been facing stagnating ticket sales, intense competition from streaming services, and an IP-focused studio tentpole monoculture for years. None paint a particularly rosy picture for the future, so perhaps it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that one sentiment stood out above all others at this past week’s CinemaCon: denial.

CinemaCon is the annual trade show put on by the National Association of Theatre Owners, where movie studios, exhibitors, and related vendors come together to chart the course for the coming year in cinematic exhibition. It’s the kind of event where Universal Studios offers a surprise screening of The Fate of the Furious one night to get theater owners excited, and the next day attendees can hit the trade show floor to see the latest innovations in seating, signage, and Jack Daniels-infused Icees. Given the players involved, an abundance of enthusiasm about the business is to be expected, but over CinemaCon’s four days it would be easy to think that the film industry was in the greatest place it’s ever been.

I think the movie industry just figured out how to get people back in theaters. #cinemacon

A post shared by Bryan Bishop (@bcbishop) on Mar 28, 2017 at 2:19pm PDT

Studio after studio touted their box office achievements. Executives couldn’t stop dropping superlatives, describing how the business was “thriving.” NATO chairman John D. Loeks went so far as to call reports about various threats to the industry “fake news.” But the truth is the industry is facing challenges, something that only Disney’s executive vice president of theatrical distribution, Dave Hollis, really had the courage to acknowledge directly.

“Even though we’ve had these gains in overall box office, we can also see that attendance has been more or less flat,” Hollis said during a Tuesday state of the union presentation. He stressed that while ticket prices have largely masked the problem, attendance simply isn’t growing, with the exponential uptick in internet usage and other activities serving as likely culprits. “This is disruption personified,” he said, to a near-silent industry crowd.

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