Under Social Media, Movie Theaters Must Adapt
In a post-pandemic world, the experiences that movie theaters offer often trump the films they show, especially as these experiences begin to trend across social media.
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The dress code is black tie but the event is not the opera nor the ballet—rather, it is Christopher Nolan’s summer 2023 hit movie, Oppenheimer. While the idea of dressing up to go to the movies isn’t new, having originated with the release of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), the age of social media and online challenges seems to have brought it to a whole new level. The first recent example occurred last summer with Minions: The Rise of Gru (2022), but this trend took full form this year with the epic Barbenheimer event.
At the time of their inception around the turn of the century, movie theaters were the only place to watch films. This changed with the introduction of primitive home entertainment systems like Betamax and VHS, invented in 1975 and 1976, respectively. These early systems could not rival the immersive experience created in cinemas, but as technology advanced, viewing from home became increasingly attractive to film lovers. This reached a critical point in 2002, when movie theater ticket sales peaked. Ever since, movie theater attendance has been in a slow but steady decline as audiences enjoy their entertainment from home, a shift that has been accelerated by the rise of streaming over the last 10 years.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed that these two systems could coexist, with movie theaters in decline but still offering an immersive viewing experience for big budget films well before they became available elsewhere. When the pandemic hit, however, the world stopped going to the movies, and suddenly, for the first time since the first theaters opened their doors, the future of movie theaters truly came into question.
To compete with the rise of streaming services, the movie theater industry has attempted to make their experience about more than just the films themselves. Even before the age of streaming, theaters introduced a range of new and exclusive gimmicks, from 3D and 4D movies to theaters with full restaurant service. Despite these innovations, movie ticket sales remained in decline. After the fivefold drop in ticket sales brought on by the pandemic, recovery has been slow, with sales only reaching half of pre-pandemic levels. The result of this drop in movie theater attendance is an audience that is unaccustomed to going to the movies, at least when compared to the previous generation. This, along with the price of movie tickets, which has increased over 18 percent since 1995 according to the National Association of Theater Owners, has turned going to the theater into a special occasion rather than a regular activity.
While movie theater attendance has declined, the popularity of social media has skyrocketed, allowing trends to come and go in daily occurrence. These trends have extended into the way viewers consume films, allowing theater-goers to get excited not just by the movie’s plot, but also by the trending experience of watching it in the theater, which can involve some sort of outfit or gimmick. This shift in the relationship between the audience and the theater first became apparent as people shared videos of themselves in formal attire, walking into the theater to see Minions: The Rise of Gru (2022). To the generation that grew up with the Despicable Me franchise, seeing the film dressed in suits was humorous, an overly formal homage to a franchise adored by children. This content resonated with many on TikTok, becoming a sensation and quickly spawning tens of thousands of similar videos.
The social media buzz organically gave this movie a hook that attracted a larger online audience, helping it become an enormous box office success that grossed over $900 million. While the latest Minions movie hinted at social media’s power over the movie industry, the July 21 release date of both Barbie (2023) and Oppenheimer revealed its true impact. Long before their release date, a flood of memes making jokes about the juxtaposition of a solemn war drama and a feminist doll movie generated enormous anticipation. As the release date approached, the idea of seeing the two films as a double feature, christened “Barbenheimer,” began circulating the internet. While this started as an online joke, it became a real driver of ticket sales, especially for the solemn and explicit Oppenheimer, which has since become the second highest grossing R-rated film of all time. This exemplifies how social media has popularized going to the movie theater, not out of a desire to see the movie but rather to participate in a shared, largely online experience.
The spread of videos documenting the outfits and makeup looks being worn to Barbie was one of the most important contributors to its box office performance, helping it become the highest domestically grossing female-directed film ever and bringing in $1.4 billion internationally. These videos, combined with the film's enormous marketing budget and endless collaborations with brands, created a wave of hype that brought millions to the theater, not because of Barbie itself but because of the experience advertised across social media. Seeing Barbie meant not only watching the film, but also the opportunity to participate in the trend of throwing a Barbie-themed party, dressing up in bold pink outfits, executing full glam makeup looks, and participating in all the other experiences associated with the film. While these outfits and looks were often silly and fun, many of them were connected to Barbie’s powerful feminist messages, which brought fans together as they dressed to show their values and embrace the qualities of the film that resonated with them most.
While social media’s ability to unite people around almost anything is undeniable, its effects on the future of cinema are less certain. It is likely, however, that because film studios have access to the same social media services used by their audiences, they are able to create films tailored to their audiences’ desires. This means that studios can now create films designed to trend across social media and foster the experiences that have brought audiences to theaters in droves this summer. But this approach can also hurt film as an art form, as studios may limit the creative freedom of directors and writers, obliging them to create exactly what will earn them the most money. Whatever it may be, these recent cinematic events have just been another example of the unlimited power of social media.