5 Reasons Movie Theaters Survived the Digital Revolution

You set down the morning paper and pick up your TV remote. It’s 9 pm and almost time for Ross to flirt poorly with Rachel. Ah, isn’t 1997 wonderful?

But this isn’t 1997 anymore. Today, newspaper readers are rarer than Donald Trump apologies, and viewers are turning away from TV to this thing called the Internet. The digital revolution has disrupted most media industries to their core. But one form of media has actually gained attendance in the last 20 years: movie theaters. In fact, the number of tickets sold increased by more than 100 million from 1995 to 2015.

But how? How have movie theaters done it? Psychology can offer clues. Here are 5 reasons movie theaters have prospered:

  1. Junk food norm → These days, healthy eating is all the rage. Patrons in restaurants must surely feel a bit of pressure to order healthy. There are few places where junk food is still the norm. Movie theaters are one of them. Users will go where the sugar and salt is.
  2. Social bonding → Unlike TV or newspapers, movie theaters are an experience typically enjoyed with others. Our culture tells stories of holding hands with a first date and sharing popcorn with a close friend. There’s something intimate about the darkness of a movie theater which is hard to recreate elsewhere. A movie theater is a place which needs to be experienced in-person to get the full effect, making it harder to instantly replace with the Internet.
  3. Nostalgia → Because of the norm around social bonding, people develop fun, shared experiences in movie theaters which leads to a sense of nostalgia. This experience is heightened during a good movie, where the emotional rises and falls help encode the experience forever in our memories. I’ll always remember watching Toy Story 3 at the theater, not that I cried or anything.
  4. Comparative Advantage → Customers want to find activities to take them out of the house. No one wants the guilt associated with a Netflix marathon. Movies offer a low-cost and predictable option. Let’s compare this with sports games, which certainly offer heightened experiences but also cost more and present challenges associated with large crowds.
  5. Hype/FOMO→ Studio marketers do a great job of turning blockbusters into events. They have to, as each movie is essentially a new product they need to sell to the masses. Their marketing campaigns create a sense of FOMO — or loss aversion, as psychologists term it. Look at the new Star Wars movies as examples. The hype is so astounding that many people feel they simply HAVE to see it on the opening weekend. People don’t want to risk being the one person in their friend group who had not seen it yet.

Every few years, analysts start predicting the end of the blockbuster and movie theater chain. When people can get niche and personalized content, why would they want to see the next big thing? But psychology shows that movie theaters have a good chance to hang around for a while. And speaking of that, I’ve got to wrap this up now — the new Star Wars comes out in a few months!