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Is 2022 the Year We All Go Back to the Movie Theater?

See what a new study says about grownups and pandemic movie habits, plus expert predictions for theatergoing in the coming year

spinner image Moviegoers wearing face masks sitting in their seats watching a movie in the theater
MixMedia/E+/Getty Images

​Has the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out our love of going to the movies at the theater forever? Sadly, maybe so — especially when it comes to grownup moviegoers. A recent study by The Quorum, a film research firm, found that nearly half of people who bought theater tickets before COVID have since kicked the moviegoing habit. About 8 percent of former moviegoers say they’re not planning on coming back.​​

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Grownups seem even more reluctant. “The over-50 crowd — which I just joined this year — feels much less safe in a movie theater than the general public,” says study author David Herrin. “About 44 percent of the over-50 crowd say they feel safe. For the general public, it was closer to 62 percent.” Though he cautions that the over-50 contingent in his poll respondents was a small subset, the numbers look plausible.​​

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What will it take to bring moviegoers back into theaters?​​

About one-third of moviegoers of all ages said they were hopeful about going back, if only theater owners would clean up their act. “People said, ‘I would go more often if the price of popcorn and soda were cheaper, if there were vegan options, craft cocktails, or if theaters featured local foods,’ ” says Herrin. “When I go to a baseball game in Philadelphia, I can get a cheesesteak, right? Why don’t movie theaters offer the same kind of local cuisine that sports venues do?”​​

Those polled cited several improvements theaters might make to win fans back, like policing cellphone abusers and lowering ticket prices. “Other drivers of interest would be newer seats, more space between the seats, the ability to order food from your seat, and fewer commercials in the trailers,” says Herrin. “None of these motivations scored as well with the over-50 crowd, except for two: they wanted newer seats, and more space between seats.”​​

Herrin and other industry experts told AARP to expect several trends in the movie future, once the pandemic begins to subside.​ ​

Many grownups will resume moviegoing — cautiously

​​“They will be slower to return — but return they will,” says Jeffrey Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future. Comscore’s Paul Dergarabedian adds, “Mature audiences are more discerning and selective about what they want to watch, but also concerned about their personal health.”​​

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Seeing movies in theaters will actually be worth it in the future​​

“We will see a real focus on improving the moviegoing experience,” says Doug Darrow, senior vice president at Dolby Laboratories. “Exhibitors have invested in better seating and premium experiences — IMAX, Dolby Cinema, etc.” Better food and booze have increased concession sales by as much as 60 percent in some theaters, so they should be motivated to improve their traditionally dreadful menus.

Movie tickets won’t all be the same price​​

Expect lower prices on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and before 4 p.m. on Thursday. Also, we may see popularity-based pricing. “It’s OK to spend $100 on Wagyu beef, but I won’t spend more than $20 for rib eye,” says Vince Guzzo, who owns a chain of theaters in Quebec. Why should a flop cost the same as a hit flick? But studios will resist variable pricing. “No studio wishes to signal that its movie is worth less than another,” says Patrick Corcoran, vice president of the National Association of Theatre Owners.

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Expect to see more films at your local theater​​

Blockbusters such as Bond films used to play in cinemas for three months before going to home video. “Now you only have to wait maybe 18 days, 30 days, 45 days,” says Herrin. “Shorter windows free up theater space, and owners will look at new films and smaller films,” Cole points out. Says Guzzo, “I’ll be more likely to show art house, grownup movies.” Adds Cole, “Theaters are going to be dominated by superheroes and blockbusters on one end and small, art-house films on the other.”​​

Your favorite movie house may still be your own house

​​“The truth is, movies for grownups over 50 are migrating to online platforms as fewer mid-budget dramas and comedies get made,” says Indiewire editor-at-large Anne Thompson. “TV has gotten smarter,” says Elizabeth McGovern, 60, whose movie Downton Abbey: A New Era was delayed (from Christmas 2021 to March 2022), no doubt partly because older viewers might feel safer in theaters then. McGovern thinks grownup fare will increasingly be seen at home — but that grownup moviegoing will still be a thing. “TV is now the place to look for great writing and, by extension, interesting acting. But a movie like King Richard flies in the face of that! It’s so great. You gotta see it.”

​​Grownups will have the best home theaters​​

Herrin says that one reason grownups are avoiding multiplexes is that the alternative keeps getting better. “People 50 and over tend to be more affluent, which means they can afford high-end sound and AV equipment at home. So they can better duplicate the filmgoing experience at home than younger audiences can.”

​​It’s all about the virus​​

“The only thing that will get over-50 viewers back sooner,” says Cole, “is the end of COVID.” ​

Tim Appelo covers entertainment and is the film and TV critic for AARP. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at Amazon, video critic at Entertainment Weekly, and a critic and writer for The Hollywood Reporter, People, MTV, The Village Voice and LA Weekly.

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