The Erosion of Movie Ticket Sales Before the Pandemic

Nader Elhefnawy
3 min readMay 17, 2024

Writing in this blog in the past I have repeatedly discussed how after the collapse of theatergoing in the 1950s and 1960s North American theatergoing stabilized at about 4–5 per capita ticket sales a year.

I made that calculation over a decade ago, and it seemed to me that the situation did not change so dramatically as to compel redoing that calculation.

Reexamining the numbers for the 2010s I am no longer convinced of that. Certainly there has been nothing so dramatic as the collapse of filmgoing when Americans became TV-watchers. Still, consider these figures for 1995–2019 as split into five year periods.

In 1995–1999 the average was 4.4 tickets per capita per year.

In 2000–2004 it was 4.6.

In 2005–2009 it was 4.2.

So far, so good. Of course, after 2009 the figure fell below 4, but that was in the wake of the shock of the Great Recession, after which the figure got back up to about 4 in 2012, so it looked like the old pattern held up to that point, 4–5 trips a year plausibly remaining the norm. Still, 2012 proved the anomaly just a few short years on. When we take the two five-year blocks after 2009 as wholes, we find that in 2010–2014 the figure was just 3.8 tickets per capita, and if one could think of the number as depressed by the Great Recession, in 2015–2019 the figure was 3.6. Of course, even this rounds up to four, so that one could say that North Americans saw four movies theatrically a year, but that is not the same as 4 to 5, while within the 2015–2019 block one could see the decline continue, the figure hitting 3.4 in 2019 — a pre-pandemic low.

The shift from 4–5 in 1995–2009 to 3–4 in 2010–2019, a slippage of one trip a year, can seem a small thing relative to the drop in the ’50s and ’60s from thirty per capita movie tickets a year to just four. But proportionately it is still quite a bit, a decline of a fifth or a quarter from what it had been in the early 2000s to the late 2010s.

Of course, 3.6 per capita ticket sales, or even 3.4, is now quite a bit more than the business Hollywood is doing. In 2023, which plausibly looked like the “new normal” for the industry in light of moviegoers’ habits and the abundance of major releases on offer, ticket sales were more like 2.2 per capita — 2 to 2.5 rather than 3 to 4, another big drop, which may not represent the end of the fall. After all, 2 to 2.5 per capita ticket sales a year still indicates a good deal more moviegoing than we see in some other advanced industrialized countries (in Germany and Japan it is more like 1–2), suggesting that still less is far from implausible, while the factors that are driving moviegoing down continue, not least competition from other sources of entertainment (why not just stay home and watch streaming?), and of course, the reality that Hollywood’s model for making hits seems to be in a state of collapse, with any shift to a successful new model at best in its earliest stages — and very possibly pure fantasy in the face of the financial, technological and cultural trend.

Originally published at https://raritania.blogspot.com.

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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.