Are fewer young people watching movies in cinemas?

Last Wednesday, I gave a talk to 90 teenagers as a part of the Into Film festival.  This annual festival is a free, UK-wide “celebration of film & education for 5-19-year-olds” which holds screenings, workshops and lectures in cinema screens.  I will cover Into Film in more detail in a future post so today I wanted to look at a topic that came up in my conversations with the teenagers and festival organisers.

I was dismayed to learn that some of the teenagers at Into Film events had never been inside a cinema before.  This isn’t statistically unlikely, it just differs so much from my memories of being a teenager that I wasn’t expecting it.  I spent as much time in cinemas as possible, with the highlight of the year being National Cinema Day when all movies were £1 and I would watch five movies in a day.  The idea that teenagers only know about filmed content from watching it on television or, worse still, their phones, was disappointing.

In past articles, I have discussed the changing demographics of film audiences but last week’s talk has spurred me on to look specifically at how cinema-going is changing for younger people.

Young people in American and Canadian cinemas

Our first port of call is to look at the data the MPAA collects on the demographics of people buying cinema tickets in the US and Canada. Using their data means we are defining “young people” as those aged between 12 and 24 years old.

As shown below, there has been a decline between 2009 (when young people bought 34% of cinema tickets) and 2016 (when they bought 29%).

Young people in UK cinemas

To get a sense of the UK picture, we can turn to data from the Cinema Advertising Association’s Film Monitor.  Due to different data collection methods and differing definitions of young people, the data between Film Monitor and the MPAA are not directly comparable.  Nonetheless, they each show the same trend; that of declining younger cinema audiences.

The timing is slightly different in the UK, with the share of ‘young people’ (defined here as 15 to 24-year-olds) in cinemas increasing in 2010 and 2011.  But after that, we see a steady decline from 35% in 2011 to 29% in 2016.

This shift scares cinema owners

Earlier this year, Europa Cinemas published a report entitled New Approaches to Audience Building: A survey of innovation in the Europa Cinemas Network.  The study is the largest of its kind and looked at the views of independent cinemas across 26 European countries.  Describing challenges for the exhibition sector, the authors wrote:

The clear biggest area of concern is… the failure to connect to younger audiences, which 80% of venues say is a strong concern or the most serious challenge.

This means that European cinema owners are twice as concerned about the dwindling numbers of young cinema-goers than they are about piracy.

What’s causing the decline?

The cause of the declining young audience is not totally clear.  Most people cite streaming and piracy as a major cause, along with a clash between rising cinema ticket prices and ballooning student debt.

However, it should be noted that the recent decline in the UK; seems slightly less alarming if we take a longer view.  Young people accounted for 29% of cinemas audiences in 2016, which may seem low compared to recent years, but it’s on a par with representation in the early 2000s.

The lowest years for young people’s cinema attendance were 2004 and 2005, at 26% each.

What can cinema owners do to stem the tide?

Advice for cinema owners looking to attract a young audience includes telling them to “use online sources to build urgency to see the movie at a theater” (Nielson), that they should use gifs (but not emojis) in their communication (ICO) or permit texting in some screenings.  That last suggestion came from Adam Aros, the boss of AMC cinemas in the US.  He said:

We need to reshape our product in some concrete ways so that millennials go to movie theaters with the same degree of intensity as baby boomers went to movie theaters throughout their lives. …When you tell a 22-year-old to turn off the phone, don’t ruin the movie, they hear please cut off your left arm above the elbow. You can’t tell a 22-year-old to turn off their cellphone. That’s not how they live their life.

However, the backlash to this policy change was quick and vociferous, leading to AMC announcing that they were rescinding the change within days.

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I enjoyed the experience of giving a talk to a cinema full of teenagers and I certainly left feeling hopeful about their generation’s interest in film watching and filmmaking. They asked intelligent questions and seemed excited about what was possible for them.

They were most interested in the areas of the film industry that sought out their thoughts and were engaging with them.  One of the causes of piracy is a feeling of disconnection from the film industry and therefore antipathy towards the damage piracy can do to jobs, companies or the films.  I floated the idea that a £7 cinema ticket wasn’t just a tax on entertainment but a vote for the kind of content they wanted to see more of, which was well received.

Projects like Into film are essential if we are to keep the idea of cinema-going alive for subsequent generations.  It is vital to our future that we listen to young people and perform outreach on their terms.  It was also rather good fun!