movie theater audience
Insights

The Show Must Go On: Audiences Return to Movie Theaters

by Anthony T. Occhipinti , Senior Analyst 9 Min.
June 8, 2022 | Updated August 1, 2022

As the world reopens from pandemic lockdowns, we examine movie theater resurgence as a proxy for where we are in the recovery. While the theater industry was already dealing with secular headwinds such as better home entertainment experiences and the rise of streaming prior to the pandemic, we attempt to understand how the acceleration of streaming adoption during COVID-19 might affect attitudes toward theater-going now. The upshot: theaters are back, but not quite to pre-COVID levels.

Key Takeaways 

  • Similarweb estimates show traffic has yet to reach pre-pandemic levels. Fandango’s total site visits exceeded 40 million in April 2019 compared to only 18.5 million in April 2022. The highest number of monthly visits since April 2019 was December 2021 which saw over 32 million visits. 
  • In spite of the pandemic-induced acceleration of streaming adoption, the recent surge in traffic for tentpole films, like the much-anticipated Top Gun sequel which saw a 227% increase in site traffic to AMC’s related pages from May 25th to the film’s May 27th release date per Similarweb estimates, indicates audiences will return to theaters for highly-anticipated, sensory-extravaganza-type movies whose experience is difficult or impossible to replicate at home
  • Top Gun: Maverick’s strong opening weekend of $160 million domestically and over $300 million when including international ticket sales, as evidenced by a 423% surge in traffic visits to the film’s website according to Similarweb estimates, proves you don’t have to be a superhero or animated movie to attract large audiences
  • 2022’s strong remaining film slate bodes well for the movie industry, as theaters continue to recover from pandemic shutdowns that threatened to drive the handful of surviving chains to bankruptcy

With vaccination rates in the U.S. now exceeding over two-thirds of the total population, life is beginning to regain some sense of normalcy as people resume non-essential activities many had not experienced since before the pandemic. Returning to movie theaters is one activity many of us missed and, now that studios are again releasing blockbusters, movie-goers are eager to return to theaters to see these much-anticipated films. But the theater industry’s future remains uncertain with secular trends, especially streaming, presenting headwinds even before the start of the pandemic. Using Similarweb estimates, we looked at the current state of the theater industry to gain a better understanding of people’s desire to return to theaters. 

Movie Theater Sites See Strong Traffic Resurgence

Similarweb estimates for traffic to three popular movie theater sites, where theater-goers can purchase their tickets and choose their seats in advance, show strong traffic growth going into the holiday movie season of 2021, led by Spider-Man: No Way Home. However, Similarweb estimates show that, as of May 2022, traffic to these theater sites has yet to reach pre-pandemic levels seen in the spring of 2019. Fandango’s total site visits exceeded 40 million in April 2019 compared to only 22.7 million in May 2022. The highest month by visits since April 2019 was December 2021 which saw over 32 million visits.

Traffic to popular movie theater sites

Pent-up demand for returning to the movies appears to be high considering the recent strong performance of some films. Spider-Man: No Way Home, which opened in December 2021, was the highest-grossing movie released last year, taking in a worldwide box office of $1.9 billion according to Box Office Mojo. Traffic to movie theater sites during summer and fall 2021 did see spikes driven by Spider-Man and other superhero franchise titles, with Similarweb estimates showing Fandango’s monthly traffic spiked by almost 158% from August to December. For 2022, the highest-grossing movie worldwide is Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness followed by The Batman.

Similarweb estimates show an early spike for presale tickets on AMC’s site for Doctor Strange, surging over 3,700% on April 6th, the day tickets went on sale, compared to the day before. This was followed by a period of subdued sales until spiking once again by over 538% on Fandango from April 30th to May 6th for the beginning of its opening weekend. Traffic has since petered out and the film debuted for streaming on Disney+ on June 22nd. And with a Rotten Tomatoes audience score of 86%, Doctor Strange appears to be a crowd-pleaser. 

Dr. Strange & the multiverse of madness traffic

The Batman opened in early March to much fanfare and also performed well at the box office, currently in the number two spot for worldwide box office returns in 2022. We captured Similarweb traffic estimates to ticket pages at AMC Theaters for the film, which showed a spike of 56% week-over-week from the last week of February to the first week of March for the film’s debut. Traffic data also shows subsequent spikes during the first week of April of 57% week-over-week and over 40% week-over-week for the first week of May, a testament to its resiliency with audiences. The film was well-received by critics and movie-goers alike, with Rotten Tomatoes scores of 85% for critics and 87% for audiences. 

The Batman traffic

Also, pre-pandemic investments in theaters and the overall movie-going experience by theater proprietors may be paying off as theater companies realized they needed to give people reasons to go to the movies in the era of streaming, plus high-definition, large-screen and relatively inexpensive TVs as the home-viewing experience has greatly improved over the course of the last decade. These amenities include IMAX screens, Dolby sound systems, reclining seats and improved concessions options that go beyond traditional popcorn and candy.

Movie theater traffic - May 2022 - Mobile vs. Desktop

Mobile web traffic for movie theater sites eclipsed desktop traffic 3:1 in May 2022 per Similarweb estimates 

Top Gun Maverick Continues to See Strong Ticket Sales

Top Gun: Maverick Traffic

Top Gun: Maverick, the sequel to the 1986 original, had a record-setting Memorial Day weekend opening, raking in domestic ticket sales of $160 million. Similarweb estimates show AMC’s site traffic visits to the movie’s related ticket pages spiking over 227% from May 25th to the film’s May 27th release date. And it continues to see strong traffic at AMC with day-over-day changes of 48.4% on June 3rd and 64.6% on June 17th. The film has been critically acclaimed with a 97% critics rating and an even better 99% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It may be one of the few blockbusters we see this year that is not a superhero film. The film’s early success is further proof of an industry recovery that appears to be in full swing and bodes well for a hot film slate going into the second half of this year.

Superheros Continue to Dominate Box Office

In addition to Doctor Strange and The Batman’s debuts this year, last year’s box office saw strong performances from several other superhero films: Black Widow, Eternals, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Venom: Let There Be Carnage and 2021’s number one movie by worldwide box office receipts, Spider-Man: No Way Home

Disney’s success with Marvel Studios, and its dominance of box office sales, as a result, has brought other studios into the superhero fold as Hollywood is in a seemingly never-ending search for the next big superhero franchise. As these films typically appeal to the young, male demographic cohort and other die-hard fans, they have proven to be reliable generators of box office sales while other more adult-oriented dramas or comedies tend to elicit a more tepid response. The formula here is young, fanatical movie-goers with discretionary income who can’t wait for these movies to move to on-demand or streaming services and want to experience the spectacle of these films on the Big Screen. 

Similarweb estimates show the demographics of visitors to these theater sites tend to skew male and approximately 50% of traffic comes from the 18-34 age cohort.

Gender Distribution - Movie theater sites

Age Distribution - Movie theater sites

Jurassic World Dominion Sees Strong Opening Weekend

Jurassic World Dominion is the latest film in the popular Jurassic Park franchise which is now almost 30 years old. The film opened on June 10th and saw a strong traffic surge at AMC of 171.6% growth from the 8th through the 10th. Fandango also saw a strong traffic surge of 117.2% during the same period. And AMC saw another strong jump in traffic to related pages of 57% from June 16th-18th showing the film had good follow-through in its second theatrical weekend. The film isn’t appealing to critics with only a 30% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes but seems to appeal to fans with a 77% audience score.

Jurassic World Dominion Theater site traffic

Lightyear’s Opening Weekend Provides More Evidence for Theater Resurgence

Disney Pixar’s studio may have another hit on its hands with Lightyear. Fandango’s traffic to Lightyear’s related pages jumped 242% from June 15 to June 17. This compares with Jurassic World Dominion’s surge of 117% and Top Gun: Maverick’s surge of 100% during their comparable Wednesday – Friday opening weekend run-up. AMC’s traffic to Lightyear’s related pages jumped 39% from June 15 to June 17. This compares with Jurassic World Dominion’s surge of 172% and Top Gun: Maverick’s surge of 227% during their comparable Wednesday – Friday opening weekend run-up. Fandango’s traffic peaked on June 17 at 44,000 while AMC’s peaked on June 16 at 22,700. The film has a 75% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes and an 85% audience score positioning it well for a strong theatrical run.

Lightyear theater site traffic

Streaming vs Theater-Going

Last year, Warner Bros (recently merged with Discovery) shocked many when it announced its entire 2021 movie slate would be simultaneously released on HBO Max and in theaters. This move eschewed the typical 90-day window studios give theaters before moving their films to on-demand and/or streaming. This led to concern for theater-lovers as some feared this new model would be copied by other studios. However, it appears Warner Bros is alone in this move thus far and has pivoted back to the traditional release model for 2022, where its films will wait at least 45 days before appearing on HBO Max. Warner Bros 2021 experiment seems to be nothing more than that for now, as studios prefer to introduce movies in theaters where margins are presumably higher before moving films to other delivery methods. Also, there’s a delicate dance here between getting audiences easy access to films while not damaging relationships with movie theater operators whom the studios may still depend on, especially to quickly recuperate sales dollars for large-budget films. 

While streaming adoption accelerated during the pandemic, the continued popularity of superhero films, along with other popular and visually-stunning films such as the Top Gun sequel, prove that people will still go to theaters for films they either can’t wait to see or want to see in the full-theater, with those big screens and Dolby surround-sound experiences. 

AMC’s Meme Stock Rally

Last year, while Covid lockdowns continued, the stock market managed to rally with many stock gains driven by retail investors’ recently growing interest. This was partly fueled by Robinhood (a trading app), a suspension in sports and sports gambling in 2020 and the rise of the so-called “meme” stocks driven by the Reddit chatroom Wall Street Bets. The two stocks that benefited most from this phenomenon were Gamestop and leading theater-chain AMC. 

In AMC’s case, management shrewdly took advantage of the spike in its stock price to raise capital, shoring up the company’s finances to stave off bankruptcy. Management was so appreciative, they created a program for shareholders to receive free large popcorn. Similarweb estimates show how traffic to the Wall Street Bets Reddit site skyrocketed over 855% from the week of January 15th through the week of January 29th during the height of the meme stock craze during early 2021.

Reddit - Wall street best traffic

Conclusion: 2022 Pipeline Looks Strong Enough to Continue to Attract Theater-Goers

Top Gun: Maverick kicks off the start of the summer movie season and, with Covid restrictions behind us, a combination of pent-up demand and a robust movie pipeline for the remainder of this year should continue to fuel ticket sales and strong year-over-year growth. The summer movie season is front-end loaded with several potential blockbusters coming in June. In the U.S., we’ve already seen strong opening weekends from Universal’s Jurassic World Dominion and Disney’s Lightyear. Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis starring Tom Hanks is next up, opening June 24th. And for the holiday season, James Cameron’s long-awaited Avatar: The Way of Water, the sequel to his 2009 blockbuster, will hit U.S. theaters in mid-December. 

 

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Report By: Anthony T. Occhipinti, Senior Insights Manager

Supporting Data

Methodology

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