A comforting cliche that has held true for decades is that film always performs well in a depressed economy. In hard times, the argument goes, cinema is the cheapest and best escape from the humdrum worries of life.
The perception, however, appears to be under threat. Average cinema ticket prices have been rising in recent years, mainly due to the cost of the premium charge for 3D.
The price rise is illustrated by the growth in gross box-office revenues compared to admissions. In the five years 2008-2012, for example, box-office revenues in France rose at an annual growth rate of 3.7%, compared to a 1.8% rise in admissions; in North America it was 2.9% compared to 0.3%; and in Japan revenues rose at a rate of 9.7%, while admissions actually fell 0.8%.*
The creeping increase in prices seems to be having an effect on consumer perceptions of value for money.
A YouGov opinion poll in 2013, for example, suggested that 69% of UK cinemagoers believe that ticket prices have become too expensive, with only 33% saying it represented value for money.
Perceptions, of course, need to be understood in context. A prolonged period of economic gloom, rather than a snap recession and recovery, naturally leads people to reassess the costs of products and services against reduced disposable income.
There are, however, two particularly important factors that may have long-term significance for film.
The first is that ticket pricing has a disproportionate effect on young audiences. A sense of declining value may be exacerbated by unemployment among the under-25s, which at the end of 2013 was running at 24.4% in the Eurozone; at 57.4% in Spain; and 58% in Greece.
There is legitimate concern that independent film, at least in its traditional form, is struggling to refresh its roots. It is not necessarily a simple rejection of cinema as much as competition for time from an unprecedented range of alternative ways to spend leisure time and limited money, but the effect is the same.
Research In Germany reveals that while the biggest single cinemagoing demographic remains (just) the 20-29-year-old group, younger audiences are not growing, and may even be in a slight decline. On the other hand, the study from Professor Elizabeth Prommer, of the University of Rostock, shows dramatic increases among older audiences – up 41% among the over-50s.
‘Event cinema’ screenings of live opera and theatre have also proven a big draw for older demographics, amplifying an impression that independent and arthouse cinemas are not for the young – or to borrow a phrase attributed to Francois Truffaut, that it is the “cinema de papa.”
A conference at Tyneside Cinema – organised by SampoMedia in association with Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle – supported those concerns.
The Kids Are Alright brought together industry speakers, marketing and data experts and programmers to talk about the obstacles to attracting young people to independent and arthouse venues. Most importantly, it was an event that put the voices and ideas of those young people at centre stage. The day was inspired by a new piece of research into the perceptions of 15-19-year-olds involved in a project called Young Tyneside (backed by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation).
It identified a number of barriers that stopped teenage audiences attending independent and arthouse cinemas, such as an “intimidating” sense that arthouse cinemas catered for “old people” and student “hipsters”
But the conference heard that price was a critical factor in the alienation of younger audiences. Not only did it stop visits to the cinema, but it also led to more conservative choices of film when they did go. It is a combination of lower prices and more responsive programming that has begun to break down barriers at Tyneside.
Without addressing the core concerns of price and perception, however, the research suggests, along with much other recent work, that there is a serious demographic danger. While the general ageing population in richer countries will reduce the economic impact, the long-term risks of losing a generation is significant.
There is a second salient factor that influences price perception. SampoMedia research (commissioned by the British Film Institute and Curzon Film World and released soon), shows that the value-for-money calculation is increasingly influenced by Subscription Video On Demand (SVOD) channels, such as Netflix and LoveFilm.
Such services offer very low-cost access to a large number of film and television programmes. In a multiple occupancy, or family home, the subscription price is a small fraction of the price of a DVD or a cinema ticket. As more films are offered for streaming, and as release windows are reduced, the idea of a fair price for film may be transformed.
That downward pressure might be inevitable as consumer VOD use grows – the music industry has had to come to terms with new patterns of demand and the services that support them (though there are still strong voices of dissent, such as Thom Yorke of Radiohead).
These may be existential questions for cinema, or just a cyclical shift. But the evidence from other industries is that film would be well advised not to take its ‘value for money’ image for granted, or to sleepwalk into a world in which price and perception are set by globalised SVOD empires.
* (Figures from the European Audiovisual Observatory, Focus 2013, World Market Film Trends)