There was something comforting in the way the megaplex never changed. Every time we stepped inside the glass doors of the South Florida Cinemark in Boca Raton, we’d find the same sticky sweet sensations. Bright lights and a dusting of disintegrated popcorn across a carpeted floor. The smell of synthetic butter, the kind employees would squirt over giant buckets of popcorn, golden but disturbing. Soda dispensers gushing and clicking amid the hum of muffled conversations between elderly couples, teens on first dates, parents and their kids, me and my grandfather.

We fancied ourselves a couple of film buffs, though I was just in middle school. Every couple weeks, he’d pick me up in his sun-baked black Mercedes-Benz and we’d choose a show during the short drive to the theater. He fell asleep half the time, so he didn’t usually pick, but today he was excited for a rare screening of “The Godfather,” the 1972 mafia classic and one of his favorites. He saw himself in the cast of mostly Italian men with bushy eyebrows. So I followed his diminutive silhouette into the darkened auditorium, with a frozen Coca-Cola Icee in hand. 

A lonely trumpet played in the dark, then a man’s voice spoke with a marked accent, saying “I believe in America.” I saw several scalps peeking over the backs of red velvet seats, backlit by the screen, and wondered who they belonged to, what they were thinking, whether they’d seen this before. I felt a certain kinship with them because we’d chosen the same movie, forgoing whatever new Marvel installments were playing a few screens over. I didn’t know their names but we were temporarily bound by a shared interest and neighboring seats. 

I didn’t know then that I was living a quintessential American experience. For more than a century, we’ve gathered to watch films as neighbors and strangers, in small towns and big cities, at strip mall theaters and drive-ins, movie palaces and megaplexes. The cinema was a technical wonder that brought the dramatic arts within reach of the masses, geographically and financially, and that brought us closer to each other. The silver screen became a symbol of prosperity and culture, but pull back the camera and the audience comes into the picture, laughing, crying, mourning, frightened but daring to hope — together. 

Another pandemic was raging in 1918 when a vaudeville impresario started building the Pantages theater in downtown Salt Lake City, a marvel of eclectic architecture.

Today, that all feels like a distant memory, even at the height of summer blockbuster season, with “Indiana Jones” and “Barbie” on what is now a proverbial marquee. Outside a few brand-name movies, theaters are struggling to rally from three years of social distancing and isolation, and decades of growing competition for our shrinking attention spans. Even before screens went dark in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans were choosing to watch at home — if at all. Streaming is convenient, and sophisticated home theater systems are common, but the cinema also seems to occupy a different place in a society that has largely lost interest in the shared experience. I can’t help wondering if we’re losing more than a big screen.

Don’t worry, there are plenty of super-sized movies to watch this summer. Besides Indy, “Mission Impossible,” “Spider-Man” and the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” are back, packed with zingers and special effects. Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling bring the Barbie and Ken dolls to life, though “Barbie” may not be as wholesome as the concept sounds. Serious viewers might prefer historic biopics by big-shot directors, like Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” or Martin Scorsese’s “Roosevelt.” Their budgets don’t seem to indicate an industry in crisis. 

Still, there are signs of trouble. Around 3,000 screens closed down between 2019 and February 2023, when Regal Cinemas, the country’s second largest theater chain, shuttered 39 locations after its parent company filed for bankruptcy. Analysts have blamed lost revenue due to pandemic-era limits on social gathering, along with a 30-percent increase in leasing costs nationally. Meanwhile, the Writers Guild of America went on strike this May for the first time since 2007, saying the industry’s changing economic models have made their jobs untenable.

Even as pandemic aftershocks seem to be wearing off in other industries, box-office numbers fell short in the first quarter of 2023 after totaling just $7.4 billion in 2022, about 25 percent below projections. That’s down a third from $11.3 billion in 2019. Theater chains are trying new tactics to lure audiences, from direct marketing and loyalty programs to live-streaming events and AMC’s first-ever advertising campaign, a $25 million project starring actress Nicole Kidman. Still, about half as many people went to the movies in 2022 as in 2018, and that could be the most salient figure here.

Attendance numbers portend a longer, more ominous trend. The number of Americans who go to movie theaters actually peaked back in 2002, when an average of $5.81 bought a ticket to franchise films like “The Lord of the Rings,” “Harry Potter,” “Spider-Man” and “Star Wars.” According to industry observer Nash Information Services, attendance fell 22 percent by 2019, a creeping decline largely obscured by rising ticket prices that kept revenues fairly steady when adjusted for inflation. Today, the average ticket costs about $11. Premium screenings, which accounted for 15 percent of domestic tickets in 2022, average $15.92. Imagine taking a family of four or five.

For comparison, basic Netflix costs $10 a month. The streaming service has approximately 74 million subscribers in the U.S. and Canada. Others like Disney Plus, Hulu, Prime Video, Max, MGM Plus and Paramount Plus are also jockeying for our attention. They compete, in part,  with original shows and movies, luxuriously produced, with excellent writing, acting and visual effects. So when “Top Gun: Maverick” was released last year, the blockbuster rehash wasn’t just competing with megaplex neighbors like “Doctor Strange” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” Viewers could also stay home and watch the premiere of Star Wars offshoot series “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” or binge a new season of “Stranger Things,” without spending another dollar. 

This is not about who’s winning. You might argue that we all are, as we’ve never had access to such a vast library of video entertainment. The economics of streaming even seem to be boosting the profile of niche audiences who were historically underrepresented in Hollywood, like ethnic minorities and the LGBTQ community, as represented by the projects that reach the screen. But that market fragmentation also reflects our growing isolation from one another, as we each hole up on the couch to watch movies that cater to our own demographic. You might argue that we’re all losing something, too.

Another pandemic was raging in 1918 when a vaudeville impresario started building a lavish new theater in downtown Salt Lake City, even as Americans argued about masking up against the Spanish flu and waited for an end to the Great War. Part of a growing national chain, the Pantages Theater was a marvel of eclectic architecture, incorporating styles from Greek revival to art nouveau. It featured marble floors, opera-style seating, mahogany furnishings and gilded detailing under Tiffany skylights. Spaces like this one were designed to imbue traveling variety shows — from short plays and musical comedies to roller-skating bears — with a little grandeur. But the landscape was already changing and soon the Pantages chain would have to catch up.

From humble beginnings in nickelodeons, storefront theaters and pop-up “air domes,” the American movie house was getting an upgrade. The first-ever movie palace, designed to draw upper-class viewers and make average folks feel special, opened in Harlem in 1913. The idea took off, with more than 4,000 such establishments across the country within a decade, offering amenities like air conditioning, padded seats and child care. As economic infrastructure, movie palaces helped to usher in technical innovations like synchronized sound and technicolor, and epic productions like “Citizen Kane” and “The Wizard of Oz.” Americans loved going to the movies! 

The ancient Greeks called this catharsis, purging negative emotions through vicarious release. Crying over the death of a character can help us to process grief.

When vaudeville was snuffed out by the Great Depression in the 1930s, grand old theaters like the Pantages — then owned by RKO — were converted to full-time cinemas. And they thrived. “Historically speaking, film was invented at a moment in which the value of public space was very strong,” says Francesco Casetti, the Sterling Professor of Humanities and Film and Media Studies at Yale University. Even with 1 in every 4 workers unemployed, impoverished people uncertain of a safe future still flooded theaters to escape together. By 1933, drive-in theaters brought that shared experience to rural corners that lacked brick-and-mortar alternatives.

Even during great crises like the Second World War, people loved to share a space and watch somebody else’s problems, laughing or gasping together as fictitious characters navigated a break-up, a bank heist or the loss of a loved one. The ancient Greek philosophers might call this catharsis, a purging and cleansing of negative emotions through vicarious release. Laughing at on-screen hijinks might offer an escape, as Plato argued, but crying over the death of a character could even help us to process our own grief. Aristotle taught that witnessing tragedy forces us to experience it, learn from it and use our emotions as a tool to navigate the difficulties of what it means to be human. 

Science now tells us that both tragedy and comedy flood the brain with feel-good chemicals like oxytocin and endorphins. And tragedy seems more important for our health, because those who restrain themselves from crying risk weak immune systems, cardiovascular disease or hypertension in the long term. In either case, being part of an audience can help us to access those feelings. 

Perhaps this has something to do with mirror neurons, brain cells specialized in reacting to another’s observed behavior. Some scientists believe these cells enable humans to empathize and cooperate. “It is as though this neuron is adopting the other person’s point of view,” explained neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran during a TED Talk. The UC San Diego researcher called mirror neurons the basis of our civilization and said the best way to activate them and their empathetic benefits is to sit back and watch. 

By the 1950s, the Pantages had been renamed the Utah Theatre, with a neon sign to match. The downtown landmark had a Hollywood-style marquee announcing the latest shows and stars like Robert Mitchum and Kathrine Hepburn. The remodeled building now had two screens in stacked theaters, as Americans in that prosperous time had money to spend and time to kill. Cars that were not yet classics lined Main Street. But even golden eras pass.

The Pantages was demolished without ceremony one Tuesday morning last year. An engine growled and the head of a wrecking crane crashed through a wall of light-colored bricks, then did it again and again. A bearded activist watched from a half-block away, a year after he chained himself to the theater doors in protest. His legal effort to save the building had failed, so now he streamed its demise. And rather than joining him in person, many who backed his efforts watched their phones in horror, probably missing the irony. Today it’s just a hole in the ground.

Like any industry, the theater business rises and falls with societal trends and its ability to adapt. Vaudeville died in the 1930s; movies took its place. After World War II, the middle class moved to the suburbs and cinemas followed, expanding drive-ins and moving in next to grocery stores to show reassuring Westerns and patriotic war movies with stars like John Wayne. In the 1960s, counter-culture’s success accelerated the breakup of the old studio system as theaters became a front in the fight for desegregation. By the 1980s, when the rise of blockbusters with sequels like “Ghostbusters” and “Die Hard” called for over-the-top venues, megaplexes followed Americans to the mall. 

His legal effort to save the Pantages had failed, so now he streamed its demise. Many who backed his efforts watched their phones in horror, probably missing the irony.

In 2020, movies followed us home.That’s when Nolan — who also directed “Inception,” “Interstellar” and “The Dark Knight” — promised a future for cinemas, in a piece for The Washington Post. “Much of this short-term loss is recoverable,” he wrote. “When this crisis passes, the need for collective human engagement, the need to live and love and laugh and cry together, will be more powerful than ever.”

But from another perspective, streaming to a phone, a laptop, or a home theater — picture a huge wall-mounted TV screen with a surround sound speaker system and a comfy sofa — could just be a new, convenient form of distribution. Maybe a living room is ideal for binging mega-franchises like Marvel and “Star Wars” with our families, cinematic universes that link dozens of films, TV series and cartoons into larger stories. Or maybe we’ll just watch memes. Our collective attention span has shrunk almost beyond repair since 2000, now ranging from eight to 12 seconds. That’s due to technology like smartphones, which, uncoincidentally, should be turned off in theaters.

Casetti calls the shift away from communal experience “a question of generations,” because “the primary experience for kids is the electronic screen.” In his book, he writes: “There is a persistence of cinema, but it faces deep transformations at every step of the way,” yet what remains unchanged is how “we are convinced that it is the permanence of this idea — the permanence of a form of experience — that guarantees the survival of cinema.” 

There’s still hope. An S&P Global report found last year that the loyal moviegoers who typically attend screenings at least once a month were trickling back. And some blockbusters have bucked trends. Last year’s “Top Gun: Maverick” — initially released in theaters only — passed $700 million in ticket sales to become the fifth highest grossing film in North American history. Still this year’s summer blockbusters will have to pull their weight to resuscitate theaters nationwide. 

Either way, for the first time, we’ve come face to face with the reality of what the death of the movie theater could look like. It’s a future with not only less connection, but fewer places to seek it out. I can’t point any fingers; I haven’t attended movies with any regularity since that summer with my grandpa. I was thrilled to see “The Godfather,” honored that he took me along. But mostly I remember stealing glances at him, gauging which parts resonated with him and why. That’s what resonated with me. 

This story appears in the July/August issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.