The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind happened to be dueling contenders that year for Best Picture at the Twelfth Academy Awards, each movie available for less than the price of ten minutes at a parking meter today. Also available for less than a quarter that halcyon year include, among other movies, the remaining eight nominees for best picture: Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Stage Coach, Of Mice and Men, Wuthering Heights, Ninotchka, Dark Victory, Love Affair, and Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Gone With the Wind won, the following February at The Coconut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel where the awards took place. But a lot of people thought The Wizard of Oz should have gotten it, and some movie buffs are still pissed off that Gunga Din and The Hounds of the Baskervilles weren’t even nominated.
Movies were cheap then, and, even after adjusting for inflation, memorable ones were plentiful. Of the ten top-grossing movies of all time, two from the late nineteen thirties (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Gone With the Wind) are still on the list.
In 1939, an average of 85 million Americans went to the movies every week. What else, besides listening to the Crosley Cathedral Radio, was there to do? Television, video games, Internet, were the stuff of future sci-fi. In addition to a (perhaps classic) movie like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, what were moviegoers getting in 1939 for 23 cents? Several cartoons, coming attractions, MovieTone News, (and no commercials!!!), all of this delivered in an opulent setting that included a velvet curtain, ushers in uniform and in many cases a golden dome.
How do we fare today? — sans curtain, usher, cartoons, and opulence, but including that tiresome ad for Sprite? Recently, the average movie ticket price hit a new high, at $11.00, though the National Organization of Theater Owners is keeping mum. How about that 23-cent ticket?
It’s shocking how steadily movie theater attendance has declined since 1939, when approximately 70% of the U.S. population sat in the dark and munched popcorn at a local palace or neighborhood cinema at least once a week. In the year 2000, that figure had shrunk to 27.3 million people, or just 9.7 percent of the population.
Forty-six years ago in 1976, for a buck fifty, we offered second- or third-run double features at our magnificently empty movie palace. Despite the 63-cent savings (first-run theaters charged around $2.13 cents), we managed to fill only about an eighth of our 2,672 seats on a good night, and the first-run houses, by the way, weren’t turning people away either.
By then, in addition to a steady drop in theater attendance, (culprit: television), twins and multiplexes were proliferating. In 1963 AMC famously opened the 2-screen Parkway Twin (Kansas City) brainchild of Stan Durwood, who apparently realized he could double the revenue of a single theater "by adding a second screen and still operate with the same size staff."
Falling audiences, but more screens, followed by competing entertainments or techno-pursuits equals higher ticket prices. And so we arrive at a family of four spending a hundred dollars for tickets to Halloween Ends, or The Woman Queen.
But don’t listen to this discouraging math! Big screens are worth your while, like the Prytania in New Orleans, the last remaining single-screen theater in Louisiana. The Paris in New York City has opened its doors again, the United Palace in Washington Heights has a screen big enough to do justice to Lawrence of Arabia, and, hey, there’s always L.A.! At some theaters, it’s necessary to come late (so as to miss the annoying ads for chain restaurants or, ironically, HBO). The theater owner will still get her or his money for placing these billboards — you just don’t have to look at them.
With streaming and binge-watching what they are these days, it’s downright patriotic to go out to the movies; it may be what’s left of being American, that we all can share: slouching in the dark, reaching into a bag of exploded corn.