May 23, 2024

As the holidays arrive and another year draws to a close, I have been reflecting on my first eight months of representing the exhibition industry. 2023 has been quite a year for theater owners and employees, and fans who love motion pictures on the big screen. From the highs of the global cultural phenomenon that was “Barbenheimer,” to the lows of a protracted labor impasse, this year has seen a little bit of everything. Yet, on the eve of a theatrical year with challenges ahead, I am more optimistic than ever about the future of exhibition and filmed entertainment.

Let’s look at the numbers. The easiest metric is domestic box office, and 2023 will be up nearly 20% over last year, signaling a continued strong recovery. While there will be some short-term impacts in the next few months, resulting from delays in production, there is no doubt that the overall box office trajectory will continue to trend upward in the years to come. Why? Because the commitment to theatrical from our distribution partners is stronger than ever. We see it in headlines on a regular basis: Disney is bringing Pixar movies to theaters that were originally released on Disney+, Apple continues to pursue theatrical partnerships for their biggest movies, Amazon MGM recently won a bidding war with the help of a theatrical guarantee, and all major distributors continue to plant a flag on future release dates as far out as 2026. In 2023 we saw concert films, specialty programming and foreign films give the box office a boost, and that trend will also continue.

But my belief in the theatrical success story goes beyond the numbers. In 2023, movie theaters did what they have always done: create lasting memories. The experience of seeing a quality motion picture in a darkened theater surrounded by other moviegoers is a truly communal one. It is a meaningful shared part of our culture, and an experience that cannot be replicated anywhere else. Ultimately, that inalterable fact is why movie theaters have always and will always triumph over any challenge to the industry. Audiences love them and there’s nothing else like them.

And I talk to exhibitors every day all over the world who are creating the next generation of that beloved experience. Movie theater owners are upgrading projectors and sound systems, creating new and exciting food and beverage options, finding creative ways to “eventize” moviegoing, and connecting with their communities. They know today’s consumers want more, and they are rising to the challenge. Exhibitors are seizing the moment to capture audiences’ imaginations about what theatre experience can look like. There is so much promise for the evolution of the theater experience in 2024 and beyond.

Movie theaters have been overcoming challenges and thriving for over 100 years, so the smart view of our industry is the long one. As productions resume and the release slate expands, movie fans the world over will continue to enjoy an amazing array of options at their cinemas. If we have learned one thing in the past 100-plus years, it’s that fans are always excited to discover new titles and there are always surprises when it comes to the box office. We saw it in 2023, and we’ll see it in 2024 and beyond.

When I look back at this year, I will recall the hundreds of theater owners from across the world who have told me about their passion and love for what they do. I will remember the candid and beneficial conversations I have had with our partners in the creative and distribution industries and our shared goal of enjoying movies on the big screen. But most of all, I will remember the unparalleled feeling of going to see “Oppenheimer” with my son and bonding over it afterwards. Sharing conversation about the amazing performances, the masterful storytelling, the incredible experience in the theater, made possible by world class projection and sound systems. And I’m not alone: millions of people all over the world had experiences just like that with their friends and family this year – and they will again in the year to come, because there simply is no place like the movie theater.

Michael O’Leary is the President & CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners.

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