A Century in Exhibition—The 2010s: The Great Disruption

2020 marked the 100th anniversary of the founding of Boxoffice Pro. Though the publication you hold in your hands has had different owners, headquarters, and even names—it was founded in Kansas City by 18-year-old Ben Shlyen as The Reel Journal, then called Boxoffice in 1933, and more recently Boxoffice Pro—it has always remained committed to theatrical exhibition.

From the 1920s to the 2020s, Boxoffice Pro has had one goal: to provide knowledge and insight to those who bring movies to the public. Radio, TV, home video, and streaming have all been perceived as threats to the theatrical exhibition industry over the years, but movie theaters are still here—and so are we.

We at Boxoffice Pro are devotees of the exhibition industry, so we couldn’t resist the excuse of a centennial to explore our archives. What we found was not just the story of a magazine, but the story of an industry—the debates, the innovations, the concerns, and above all the beloved movies. We’ll share our findings in this series, A Century in Exhibition.

The 2010s were a dramatic decade for the exhibition industry, full of rapid, profound transformations, innovation, and ingenuity, most notably the digitalization of the economy. Thanks to new platforms, social media, and big data, exhibitors and studios harnessed the power of information to better communicate with and understand their audiences. 

But with new opportunities also came new threats, as third parties and streaming platforms “disrupted” the cinema industry, largely from the comfort of the audience’s home. The disruption, however, pushed exhibitors to innovate and offer unique cinematic experiences in their theaters. A key element of that innovation had been under way since the previous decade in the form of digital projection. In 2009, only 15 percent of screens worldwide had been digitally converted. Ten years later, the digital transition was nearly complete, as 97 percent of the world’s 200,000 screens were digitized. Digitalization established a new standard for cinema technology and raised the bar for premium offerings like 3-D, premium large-format screens, and immersive seating. 

The digital transition was a global endeavor, and exhibition gained a distinctly multinational identity through increased technological exchanges and innovations and an expansion of global markets, which in turn transformed Hollywood films and the studio system.

The Digital Road Map: Reaching the Connected Moviegoer

The switch to digital tools, especially the smartphone, ushered in a second digital revolution for the movie theater industry. The adoption of new technologies expanded the reach of exhibitors, who were now able to communicate directly with their customers anytime and anywhere, giving them, perhaps for the first time in the history of the industry, the power to better know their audiences.

The push to innovate initially came from outside players, as third-party digital companies rushed to fulfill market needs that had been neglected by exhibition. Digital ticketing was such a market. In 2010, Fandango and MovieTickets.com, the biggest online ticketing companies in the U.S., celebrated their 10th birthdays. Their first decade had been marked by growth and innovation. In the 2010s, Fandango’s expansion was particularly aggressive: it acquired Ingresso and Cinepapaya to ground itself in Latin America, established a presence in the U.K. and Canada, and diversified its content with the acquisition of leading YouTube channel MovieClips, streaming platform M-Go, and review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. By the end of the decade, Fandango had created a comprehensive, international film hub with a strong, identifiable brand meant to accompany the movie fan on every step of their moviegoing journey. In November 2017, it acquired its longtime rival, MovieTickets.com, becoming the indisputable leader in digital ticketing. 

Fandango, like MovieTickets.com, was an early adopter of one of the biggest trends of the decade: mobile ticketing. The results of mobile ticketing were promising as early as 2010. In an April 2010 article, West World Media CEO and founder Brett West shared encouraging figures: “In January, our daily average of all mobile users served was 13,846. In February, our daily average was up to 42,957.” The interest in mobile ticketing not only coincided with the popularization of smartphones but also with a new, mobile-centric, start-up culture. Companies such as Atom Tickets, which understood e-commerce primarily through mobile platforms, experimented with mobile apps, group ticketing, and dynamic pricing. 

But Silicon Valley was not the only influence for this shift to mobile; China was leading the way. Per a December 2016 article, in 2015, 57.9 percent of movie tickets were bought online (as opposed to 20% in North America), and 9 out of 10 of those tickets were purchased using a mobile phone. “Mobile will be the key to the next stage of the cinema evolution,” said Will Palmer, CEO of Movio, in an interview in May 2016. “I was just in China, and there’s been a huge step forward in mobile ticketing there, and that will continue to gain importance for a number of reasons. One, it’s convenient, customers can transact quicker. And two, it enables you to capture all the data information you need to capture a consumer’s purchase behavior.”

In the 2010s, digital ticketing became more than a way to avoid long box office lines; it was all about reaching and understanding the “connected moviegoer.” A 2019 Boxoffice Pro white paper found that the entire journey of the moviegoer, from the discovery of the film to the purchase of tickets, increasingly took place online. From third-party ticketing companies to the growing trend of exhibitor apps and websites, one of the essential attributes of the mobile-first strategy was its overall convenience for the tech-savvy moviegoer. That meant a seamless, enjoyable, interactive, personalized platform that was always available. 

In addition to reserved seating, exhibitors (like AMC in May 2019) and third parties, such as Atom Tickets for select theaters, introduced mobile concession ordering. In the latter half of the decade, it became clear that the next frontier was about finding the moviegoer at the source, on any platform where their cinematic research started, including search engines and voice-activated assistants like Amazon’s Alexa. According to Marine Suttle, SVP chief product officer at The Boxoffice Company (Boxoffice Pro’s parent company), in 2019, Google was the third most common source of showtime information for moviegoers, behind exhibitor websites and Fandango. In a September 2019 article, she summed up what that meant for the future of digital ticketing: “[It will become] easier for consumers to find showtimes and buy their tickets through a number of digital platforms, none of them necessarily exclusive to the cinema sector. The entry of digital publishers into the cinema e-commerce ecosystem signals this shift, as tech titans like Amazon, Facebook, and Google have begun to dip their toes into the business with unique offerings.”

Websites, mobile apps, third-party platforms, search engines, virtual assistants—the days of the unique sales channel for exhibitors were long gone. With a rapid multiplication of platforms throughout the decade, it became imperative to target moviegoers on as many of them as possible. Social media became an essential part of this strategy. In April 2011, the magazine’s publisher, Peter Cane, noted, “everybody knows that social networking is changing the landscape, but nobody can tell you definitively how important it really is, how much of a change it’s really made, and how far the change will go.” 

The impact of social media on the entire cinema industry was nothing short of revolutionary. Social media changed marketing, programming, and even content itself. Boxoffice Pro documented this trend closely. To help exhibitors navigate these new tools, Boxoffice Pro started integrating Facebook and Twitter analysis into box office predictions in September 2009, presented the “Giants of Social Media,” with data and insights from exhibition’s most active social networkers, and launched the “Boxoffice Social Club” series in August 2014, with profiles of individuals and companies that made a difference in the way they harnessed the power of social media. Boxoffice Pro also gauged the interest of early “social networkers.” In a November 2010 article, an exhibitor from Alabama explained his enthusiasm: “Do it! At this moment, there is no better way to communicate with your customers—if for nothing else, think about how valuable it would be to have your customers read your name daily. Just think about that!” 

The advent of social media allowed exhibitors to establish a direct line of communication with their fans, empowering them to enhance their brands and launch grassroots marketing campaigns. As audiences in North America and Europe became older, social media was a way to attract younger moviegoers. Social media metrics also became key to predicting box office performance. Facebook, Twitter, and later Instagram allowed exhibitors and studios to quantify “word of mouth.” The platforms gave moviegoers the power to make or break a film: Their ability, or lack thereof, to generate “buzz” could strongly impact a film at any point of its release, especially on the opening weekend. “Engaging with audiences on social media has to be done on the consumer’s terms, through the networks they use and sites they visit,” wrote Daniel Loria in June 2015. Similarly, “The internet is a place where users have a great deal of control,” said Jake Zin, V.P. of digital marketing for 20th Century Fox in July 2010. “That’s a good thing, but it’s also a challenging thing as a marketer—we have to be very strategic.”

Fortunately for marketing specialists, studios, and exhibitors, the tools that gave audiences more control were also the ones that granted the industry the power to be strategic. The key behind this was big data. Though cinemas often served as cultural centers for their communities, exhibitors had historically little information about their customers. With social media, mobile ticketing, and other digital tools, it became possible to use analytics to gather information about patrons and decipher their behavior, habits, and preferences. In October 2014, Marcus Theatres’ president and CEO Rolando Rodriguez highlighted the importance of data. “We should know our customers, including how they prefer to purchase tickets, and we should customize our conversations to them.”

Never had decision making in the industry been driven by data as much as in the 2010s. Reflecting the closer ties between exhibition and data, Boxoffice Pro was acquired by Webedia Movies Pro (later The Boxoffice Company), the world’s second-largest publisher of web and mobile movie platforms, in 2015. Naturally, the focus on data was already evident throughout the magazine, but it boosted its coverage of box office grosses, started using data for its predictions in 2010, and regularly profiled the main data players in the field. 

Data greatly contributed to the development of loyalty programs and an experimentation with different price points. Using the data, however, required access to the data first. “The key word here is control,” said Malcolm MacMillan, at the time chief marketing officer of Webedia Movies Pro. While data was a potential gold mine for the industry, exclusive proprietary data and “data silos” were sometimes impediments to effective strategies and growth. In particular, the collaboration between distribution and exhibition was crucial for better programming, marketing, and the development of content. Julien Marcel, CEO of Webedia Movies Pro, stressed the importance of sharing in a panel on Big Data at 2017’s CineEurope, noting that “this data only is valuable when we can share it; digital is an economy of collaboration.”

The Digital ‘Disruptors’

The question of data and its control was central to the development of subscription services. In 2011, San Francisco–based MoviePass launched a subscription service that allowed audiences to attend up to one screening a day for a fee of $50, a price point later to be adjusted downward, depending on the market. Five years later, former Netflix and Redbox executive Mitch Lowe took over as CEO. MoviePass truly took off after the summer of 2017, when it was acquired by the data firm Helios and Matheson, which leveraged data from their subscribers for the purpose of targeted advertising and providing analytics to studios. The program was revamped, and membership prices were slashed to $9.99 per month. By January of 2018, MoviePass had gained more than one million subscribers, passing that milestone faster than Spotify, Hulu, and Netflix. The trade press quickly labeled MoviePass a “disruptor.” In February 2018, at the height of MoviePass’s popularity, Julien Marcel noted that “‘Disruption’ is an often-repeated buzzword in any business publication. (…) MoviePass isn’t new to the industry, and neither are subscription models, but its influence is stronger now than it has even been.” As proof that anything that sounds too good to be true usually is, in June of this year, the operators of MoviePass agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission allegations that they developed tactics to deny service to subscribers and failed to secure users’ personal data.

Subscription models, which were starting to pop up in every sector of the economy, were already well established on the other side of the Atlantic. In France, UGC launched its UGC Illimité, an unlimited subscription plan, in the 1990s as a response to the popularity of the cable channel CanalPlus. Cineworld, Odeon, and Gaumont Pathé also enjoyed success in implementing the concept. MoviePass brought the trend to the United States. Its early success revealed what could happen when the price factor was taken out of the equation and moviegoers were able to choose the theaters and films they truly enjoyed. As Boxoffice Pro’s editorial director Daniel Loria wrote in an interview with Mitch Lowe in February 2018, “The MoviePass effect sheds light on one of the biggest challenges facing American exhibitors after a 2017 marked by a downturn in attendance. After years of upgrades to the moviegoing experience, what can the industry do to drive more people to the cinema? And what can be done to have them come back more often?” 

Subscription services skyrocketed in 2018. Following the rapid rise of third-party providers, North American theaters introduced their own in-house offerings, often as expansions of their loyalty programs. In December 2017, Cinemark became the first major U.S. circuit to launch its own unlimited subscription service with Cinemark Movie Club, which experimented with concession discounts, shareability, and rolling credits. Just a few months later, AMC launched its own service with AMC Stubs A-List, a premier tier of its loyalty program. Studio Movie Grill, Studio C, Showcase Cinemas, Regal, and Alamo Drafthouse also introduced their own subscription services.

The idea behind in-house subscription services was to boost the attendance of frequent moviegoers. Jean-Marie Dura, who was part of the UGC team when they first launched their subscription service, explained in April 2019 that to increase the frequency of attendance, you need to appeal to the audiences who support you the most. “The airline industry perfected this: If you’re a frequent flyer, you get a first-class experience all around. Similarly, we need to take care of our most frequent moviegoers. Our best customers are our greatest allies.” Ultimately, while in-house solutions remained, MoviePass, after internal power struggles and a reckoning with the reality of an unsustainable business model, interrupted its service on September 13, 2019. Cash shortages, emergency loans, and a plummeting stock price led to a series of decisions by MoviePass executives to secretly limit customers’ use of the service, irreparably damaging its brand reputation and ultimately leading to the above-mentioned FTC ruling. Despite its short-lived success, MoviePass was a catalyst in the introduction of exhibitor solutions. But MoviePass’s experiment also underscored the resilience of the exhibition industry against the big threat of the 21st century: “disruptors.”

At the January 2017 Art House Convergence, producer/screenwriter James Schamus detailed the “latest” headlines from the trade press emphasizing the imminent demise of theatrical exhibition. The catch was that the entire presentation used clippings from 1916. “The alarmist, doom-and-gloom storyline has been around for over a century, renewed by today’s increasingly tired tropes of tech stories vying to break the latest ‘disruption du jour,’” commented Boxoffice Pro’s editor in the May issue. In his State of the Industry address at CinemaCon in 2018, NATO’s John Fithian reassured the audience: “The word ‘disruption’ is thrown around way too much. Nothing needs to be disrupted when it comes to the basic goal of our industry: bringing people together to share a communal experience,” he proclaimed. His comments were also pointed toward streaming and exclusivity windows.

The debate began with premium video on demand (PVOD), an experiment proposed by a handful of studio executives in the early 2010s to counter the declining sales of their cash cow, DVDs, affected by piracy and the low cost of streaming outfits. The idea was to make films available via video on demand or streaming following a much shorter theatrical window, just 30 to 60 days after a film opened in theaters. While “exhibitors and the creative community responded aggressively, and the experiment failed,” as summarized by Fithian in May 2012, the threat of streaming was just beginning.

In August of that year, Patrick Corcoran, vice president and chief communications officer at NATO, wrote, “The world has fundamentally changed, we are told. The internet—and now the myriad of devices that connect to it—has altered forever the relationship between content creators and the people that consume it.” Streaming platforms had surely changed the way films were consumed at home. But their challenge to exhibition began in 2014, when Netflix announced a deal with Imax and The Weinstein Company to release Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny simultaneously in theaters and on the streaming platform. Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, provoked the ire of the industry when he announced that “movie distribution is pretty stuck in old models. We need to stop distinguishing the experience by access. Many movies are just as good, if not better, at home.” Corcoran critiqued Sarandos’s position in a December 2014 article stating that “the entire argument for simultaneous release is founded on bad faith, shoddy data, and mysterious bookkeeping.” Fithian also rebutted the economic argument put forward by Netflix, saying that “it makes absolutely no business sense to accelerate the release of the lowest value in the chain.” In May 2016, in his takeaways from that year’s CinemaCon, Fithian argued that “third parties will not decide movie distribution models. … To be sure, more sophisticated window modeling may be needed for the growing success of a modern movie industry,” he wrote. “But those models will be developed by distributors and exhibitors in company-to-company discussions, not by third parties.”

At that CinemaCon, another unlikely “disruptor,” Amazon Studios, made a point in front of exhibitors with the presentation of its upcoming films, including Manchester by the Sea and The Neon Demon. “Amazon simply gets it,” wrote Fithian in March 2019. “Though Apple [which entered streaming in 2019] does not have an established record of release patterns yet, the company has begun to entertain theatrical windows as it enters into movie deals. … The one clear exception to all of this, of course, is Netflix.”

In a strategic shift, in 2018 Netflix announced a limited theatrical run prior to a streaming release to boost the chances of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and Susanne Bier’s Bird Box. While the plan allowed a small period of theatrical exclusivity and gave Netflix its first Academy Award for a feature film, exhibitors condemned the move because of the shortness of the window, as well as Netflix’s refusal to divulge its data.

Despite the tension between exhibitors and SVOD players, toward the end of the decade the conversation on streaming moved from pure antagonism to complementarity—if the rules of the game were respected. In fact, an Ernst and Young survey commissioned by NATO in 2018 revealed that the more time people spend streaming at home, the more times they go to the cinema. At 2019’s CinemaCon, Fithian also noted that streaming platforms could help audiences get exposed to more content that would in turn boost theatrical attendance. That was the case with the documentary renaissance of 2018, when 14 documentaries grossed over $1 million each.

Then came November 12, 2019. In a watershed moment for the industry, Disney launched its own streaming platform, Disney Plus. As explained by a Boxoffice Pro writer, Disney’s capacity to leverage millions of fans due to its IPs “will not only drive subscriptions but help drive interest in further theatrical films.” He concluded, “Disney Plus might be the first streaming service to show how the two can coexist and thrive together.” Other studios quickly announced their plans to launch their own platforms in 2020, altering the dynamic with exhibitors. On the exhibition front, exhibitors also understood the value in building a platform that not only allowed them to adapt to the streaming and data era, but also to enhance their own brands and build a stronger, more direct relationship with their fans. Already in the late 2010s, circuits like Canada’s Cineplex, Mexico’s Cinépolis, and, since November 2019, AMC, had launched their own streaming services for the members of their loyalty programs.

Toward a Premium-Experience Economy

Just as it came to pass with the advent of radio, TV, Betamax, VHS, and DVDs, streaming revealed that the resilience of theaters lies, at least partly, in the unique, communal experience they provide. The experiential value of exhibition was frequently defended by exhibitors and filmmakers, including Christopher Nolan, Steven Spielberg, Aaron Sorkin, Sean Baker, Greta Gerwig, and Jordan Peele. With this new context of heightened competition with home entertainment and a better knowledge of the expectations and habits of their loyal customers, exhibitors fully embraced the “experience economy.” To provide a moment that could not be replicated at home, it became necessary for exhibitors to create a unique and memorable experience at a premium price point. Jay Baer, a digital marketing and online customer service expert, highlighted this at the 2018 CinemaCon. “It’s not about providing a better experience than another theater chain or the cinema across town,” he said, “but about how your experience compares to everything else.” Just as exhibitors were improving the moviegoing journey with digital ticketing and mobile apps, they were improving the moviegoing experience at the theater with large-format screens, luxury and immersive seating, and premium food and drink options.

The digital transition introduced the concept of premium ticket prices with 3-D. The industry had James Cameron’s Avatar to thank for their new moneymaker. “Any remaining doubt about the power of 3-D exhibition evaporated with the runaway success of Jim Cameron’s Avatar, a name applauded so often in Vegas, it would have made Elvis jealous,” wrote Fithian after the first-ever CinemaCon in May 2010. Opening in 2009, Avatar became the top-grossing film of all time with $2.7 billion in global ticket sales, more than 80 percent of which came from 3-D screenings. Critics within the industry like Roger Ebert and Walter Murch took the view that 3-D was nothing more than an overpriced gimmick. Yet its effect on the box office was astounding. In 2010, according to NATO, 8 percent of box office revenues came from the 3-D/2-D ticket price differential. In March 2014, MasterImage 3D estimated that the surcharge for 3-D added $1.5 billion to box office sales worldwide in 2013, increasing profits as much as 30 percent in some markets. In that year, more than a third of U.S. screens were equipped to display the format. Nevertheless, the 3-D hype did not last long in the U.S. Disappointing performances of films like Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace and Titanic compelled studios to scale down their investments. But 3-D had already left its mark on the premiumization of the industry. “The proliferation of [PLF] formats in the last half-decade has to be considered alongside the decline of 3-D box office revenue in recent years,” wrote Daniel Loria in May 2019. The rise of PLF and immersive seating in the last part of the decade showed that premium pricing at cinemas wasn’t eradicated—it merely diversified.

Data from IHS Markit showed that the number of PLF auditoriums worldwide nearly doubled between 2014 and 2017, jumping from 1,667 to 3,202. Imax, a pioneer of PLF, solidified its presence throughout the North American market and abroad in the 2010s. In 2015, Dolby ventured into the market with the launch of its branded premium cinema offering, Dolby Cinema, in Barcelona and Eindhoven, Netherlands. Dolby Cinema coupled Dolby’s immersive sound system—Dolby Atmos, introduced in 2012—with its high dynamic range (HDR) projection system, Dolby Vision. More PLF solutions, including RealD, ScreenX, CGS, and Samsung’s Onyx LED cinema screen, proliferated, employing the latest developments in projection technology, including laser, HDR, and RGB. Though these global PLF brands accounted for 57.4 percent of total PLF screens in 2018, exhibitor-branded screens such as CinemarkXD rose 16.8 percent, creating a more cluttered space. The rise of in-house PLF solutions was often motivated by a desire for greater control by exhibitors. A case in point is CGR’s ICE technology, which adds ambient light effects and peripheral video to a large-format screen and allows exhibitors to keep control of their ticketing revenues, as it is based on a zero third-party royalty business model. The concept was introduced in 2018 in France before expanding to the Middle East and North Africa in 2019 and finally reaching Los Angeles in early 2020 at Regal’s L.A. Live flagship.

The PLF trend was preceded by a boom in luxury seating. “For years now the home-theater market has been trying to bring the movie theater experience into the home,” said Gaylord Stanton, V.P. of sales at First Class Seating in December 2014. “Now, exhibitors are bringing the comfort of home to the theaters.” The concept of luxury seating was already present in premium theaters like iPic and Cinépolis, but it was truly popularized after 2014. For instance, luxury seating, mostly comprising an array of premium recliners, was a key component of Marcus Theatres’ $50 million investment in premium features in 2014–2015. The investment was aimed at boosting attendance and adding revenue. In a December 2014 article, AMC credited recliners as a catalyst for enhancing the productivity of its existing assets after the average attendance in theaters with premium seating went up by 76 percent despite a seat loss of 62 percent.

Luxury seating coincided with the rising trend of high-end cinemas. In the middle of the decade, boutique cinemas—a new take on art house and luxury theaters—offering premium amenities for a more general audience emerged in North America. Chains such as iPic Theatres, Alamo Drafthouse, Movie Tavern, and Landmark Theatres differentiated themselves with premium amenities and expanded and elevated their menus. The trend had originated a few years earlier in Asia, just like immersive seating, which after its success in the APAC region and Latin America began to pique the interest of North American exhibitors. “Since synchronized sound in the 1920s, we’ve been only using hearing and our vision; we haven’t been using the other senses,” said Mervi Heinaro, CEO of the Finnish immersive seating company Flexound in September 2019. Immersive seating became a way to expand the moviegoing experience by adding another amenity that could not be replicated at home. According to European cinema trade body UNIC, immersive seating grew 39 percent worldwide in 2018. All major 4-D companies expanded their footprint in the 2018–2019 period. CJ 4DPLEX, with its 4DX immersive seating concept, announced a major deal with Cineworld in 2019 to increase its presence at Regal locations in the U.S., grew in Saudi Arabia, and entered the Latin American market with Cinépolis. Canadian immersive seating provider D-Box, which celebrated its 10th birthday in 2019, clinched high-profile deals with major players like Cineplex and Hoyts, extending its footprint in Canada and in Australia. MediaMation’s MX4D did so in five continents with deals with B&B Theatres, Cine Colombia, and Nigeria’s Filmhouse Cinemas. Emerging markets, where the construction of new theaters was still on the rise, witnessed the largest growth, while Western Europe and its mostly saturated market lagged behind.

A Global Industry: Between Uniformity and Diversity

The digitalization and the premiumization of the industry in the 2010s shared a common strategy: optimizing individual admissions instead of trying to maximize mass admissions. They shared another commonality: they both had global roots and a global reach. Mobile ticketing started in China, subscription services in France, immersive seating in Asia and Latin America. The 2010s made clear that exhibition was now a globalized industry.

“Exhibition is itself becoming a global business,” proclaimed John Fithian in March 2017. “U.S.-based AMC is going into Europe with the acquisitions of Odeon and Nordic. Chinese company Wanda has invested in AMC and has acquired Hoyts in Australia. Korean-based CJ CGV has acquired Mars in Turkey and is opening cinemas in the U.S. Mexico-based Cinépolis operates now in four continents, with cinemas across Latin America, India, Spain, and the U.S.” Mexico’s second-largest circuit, Cinemex, opened its CMX upscale dine-in theater in Miami and acquired Cobb Theaters in 2017, the same year that Kinepolis Group acquired Canada’s Landmark Cinemas. Cineworld, the U.K.’s leading cinema circuit, acquired Regal in 2018.

The globalization of the industry led to the birth in June 2017 of the Global Cinema Federation (GCF), a volunteer-based organization meant to represent the global cinema exhibition community and to advocate for global stakeholders. Its creation, however, came at a moment when the future of globalization was under fire by politicians everywhere. “In many territories in the world, including Europe and the United States, nationalism is on the rise,” Fithian wrote in March 2017. “Voters in many countries are supporting candidates who seek to reduce immigration, to pull back on international alliances, and to impose barriers on free trade. In this author’s opinion, those trends are bad for the exhibition industry.” NATO, GCF, UNIC, and other multinational trade bodies vowed to protect free trade and the global movement of people and goods in order to sustain the competitiveness of global markets. The interconnectedness of the industry also created unprecedented vulnerabilities, exemplified by the 2014 Sony Pictures hack. In November of that year, the studio was attacked by a hacker group, allegedly linked to the North Korean government, who leaked confidential data and demanded the withdrawal of The Interview, the controversial film about a plot to assassinate North Korea’s leader.

Regardless, emerging markets, such as Russia, Nigeria, the newly opened Saudi Arabia (where cinemas were legalized in 2018 for the first time in four decades), and APAC countries, created an international moviegoing audience of billions of moviegoers, often younger than North America’s graying audiences. But no other market intrigued American exhibitors and studios as much as China and its 1.44 billion inhabitants. An Ernst and Young report published in the magazine in 2013 predicted that China would overtake the North American box office by 2020. Tapping into that market, however, meant that U.S. studios and exhibitors needed to overcome strict regulations, quotas, and censorship. According to the MPA, the global box office increased by a whopping 15 percent in the first five years of the decade. In a December 2012 article entitled “Our Future Is Linked to Asia,” a Boxoffice Pro writer stated that “success at home will feel empty to Hollywood studios if they haven’t also hit the bullseye in key international markets. … The number of films that appeal only to Americans will shrink very rapidly,” he predicted.

The writer was right. Overseas appetite for foreign films changed Hollywood. It was the era of mega-franchises, of superhero movies and blockbuster IPs that championed universal ideas and themes. Conversely, midbudget films were increasingly struggling to compete, frequently finding homes on streaming platforms. As the studio system adapted its stories to cater to vast global audiences, the global box office responded accordingly. With fewer movies accounting for larger percentages of annual revenues, the international marketplace brought profitability to domestic flops. It also contributed to the trend of unprecedented, massive opening weekends. Marvel’s The Avengers and its record-breaking opening weekend started this phenomenon in 2012. “We are now living in a new era for blockbusters,” commented one writer in June 2012. “An opening of $150 million is no longer the ultimate goal—and that’s kind of insane.” The Avengers records were soon dwarfed by those of many other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Star Wars saga.

Hollywood’s international strategy required studios to be more sensitive to foreign cultural values. But studios also began to look inward, realizing the potential of their overlooked audiences at home. “Our rapidly globalizing industry has helped bring about a welcome wave of inclusion and diversity, just as Hollywood studios begin to capitalize on the rewards of inclusiveness when it comes to their tentpole productions,” wrote Julien Marcel in April 2018. Although much remains to be done, and the “newfound” interest in diverse audiences has periodically manifested itself in other periods of exhibition history, the industry ramped up its efforts to appeal to its underserved audiences in an unprecedented manner in the 2010s. Trade events increased their panels on diversity and inclusion. Boxoffice Pro, too, increased its coverage of such issues significantly, offering studies on underserved moviegoers, interviews with more diverse filmmakers, and launching a series showcasing the most influential women in the industry. Vendors like Dolby and QSC began offering accessibility products such as descriptive audio and captioning for patrons with disabilities. More independent films, such as Moonlight and Get Out, were centered on the African American experience to great commercial and critical success. Exhibition also increased its targeting of America’s biggest movie fans: Hispanic audiences, who are consistently overrepresented among frequent moviegoers. Just a few examples of this effort include the launching of TheaterEars, an app providing dubbed content in Spanish for non-English-speaking moviegoers; the partnership of ticketing company Ticketón with Atom Tickets in 2019 to serve Hispanic audiences; and Marcus Theatres’ introduction of the CineLatino Hispanic Film Festival in 2017. Finally, the massive successes of Coco, Crazy Rich Asians, and Black Panther shattered the myth that films led by persons of color couldn’t draw in diverse audiences. There were no more doubts that diversity was paying off, domestically, and globally.

The industry’s diversity strategy occurred, however, against the backdrop of increased consolidation. The trend was evident in exhibition, but more so in distribution. At CinemaCon 2019, for instance, Annapurna and MGM announced their merger to revamp United Artists. Nothing could compare to the shock produced by Disney’s presentation at CinemaCon, where the studio touted its own slate as well as that of 20th Century Fox. After more than a decade of stunning acquisitions, including the purchase of Marvel Entertainment in 2009, Lucasfilm in 2012, and 20th Century Fox in 2019, Disney had total dominance. In 2019, Disney claimed the top five highest-grossing movies in North America with Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, Toy Story 4, Frozen II, and Captain Marvel. Owning the most lucrative IPs with the Star Wars universe, Marvel, and Pixar, Disney controlled nearly 40 percent of the domestic market by the end of the decade.

The decade came to a close with the announcement of the end of the Paramount Decrees, in place since the late 1940s. Seventy years after the landmark ruling that prohibited it, vertical integration was once again on the table.

Despite an uncertain landscape full of “disruption” and consolidation, in the 2010s the industry learned to use the digital revolution to its advantage, reinvented its premium strategy, and expanded across the globe. In 2019, global box office receipts surpassed $42 billion for the first time ever. The domestic box office clocked in at $11.4 billion, the second highest-grossing year of all time, and international revenues passed the $30 billion mark. The sky did not fall, and exhibition not only survived but thrived. The 2010s were another testament to the power of the cinematic experience. Just like the nine decades of Boxoffice Pro’s existence before that, the 2010s proved that the larger-than-life theatrical experience was still an essential part of moviegoers’ lives everywhere in the world. 

That fundamental truth would be called into doubt by naysayers yet again at the beginning of this decade; Covid-19 and its aftermath continue to spark conversations about the theatrical exclusivity window, competition from at-home viewing, the shifting balance between domestic and international markets, and the expansion and contraction of the industry through mergers and acquisitions. The challenges brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic are significant but not unsurmountable; as we’ve shown in this 10-part series, they’re not even new. The story of exhibition is a story of resiliency, of an industry that’s jumped every hurdle put in its path, from radio and TV to a global pandemic. It’s a story that Boxoffice Pro has been proud to tell for 100 years and looks forward to telling for 100 more.

For our fellow exhibition history buffs: Keep an eye out for the December issue of Boxoffice Pro, in which we celebrate our own centennial and honor the generations of Boxoffice Pro reporters and editors for their contributions to this industry.

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