Nebraska movie theaters are in competition not only with larger corporate theaters but also with the accessibility of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. It’s forced theaters in smaller communities to adapt in unexpected ways in order to remain competitive.
According to a 2019 Morning Consult survey, 59 percent of Americans said they attend movies in the theater frequently. In 2022, that number has fallen to 41 percent. Fifty-five percent of those surveyed said the reason for attending movies less frequently is because they prefer watching movies at home more.
It’s estimated that 85 percent of homes in America pay for at least one streaming service.
In Nebraska, it’s not just streaming giants that pose a threat to smaller theaters. Larger venues like Marcus theaters dominate the moviegoing landscape, with seven Marcus Theater locations between Lincoln and Omaha. Four of which are in Lincoln.
Marco Abel, a professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said one of the biggest issues movie theaters are facing today is the lack of movies being made for the big screen. Abel also said a majority of movies that find success in theaters are very similar to one another. Homogeneity creates a limited selection for moviegoers, Abel said.
“When a big Marvel film or Star Wars or something like that comes out, they’re being shown on multiple screens,” Abel said. “So instead of choosing from 14 films, I’m choosing from six films.”
Abel pointed to the Marcus-Grand theater in Downtown Lincoln. The Grand has up to 14 screens and, on a Friday night, might only play seven films.
However, the limited selection isn’t the only thing keeping people at home. Seeing a movie in the theater also demands more from an audience member, Abel said. Being at home often comes with more distractions than what would be present in a movie theater.
“The degree of concentration that one can have at a movie theater is different than what we have when we’re watching at home,” Abel said. “At home, we tend to be more distracted.”
Patrick Kinney, Film Stream theater’s director of marketing in Omaha, said the theater is continuing to thrive because of its non-profit status and channels of income that a larger movie house might not.
“We have memberships, we have donations, we received grants from corporations, from the government, from foundations,” Kinney said. “Because we have these other revenues, we can take risks on films that might not be as commercial.”
When Film Streams opened in 2007, it exclusively showed movies that weren’t showing at any other movie houses in Omaha. That included films without national marketing campaigns or movies made by local filmmakers. In recent years, the theater has moved toward more mainstream releases but still tries only to show films that are of high quality and avoid franchises, sequels or blockbuster films. Kinney said that 50 percent of the movies shown at the theater in 2022 are lesser-known films.
Kinney said the films that have performed the best at Film Streams are movies that strike a balance between prestige and wider appeal. That includes films that are projected to do well at the Academy Awards or movies that are more experimental.
In other parts of the state, smaller communities are adopting unorthodox methods to keep their local movie theaters open for residents. The Hebron Majestic, a theater in Hebron, Nebraska, is exclusively run by volunteers from the community.
Kristy Lukert, the vice president of the Arts Council of Thayer County, the non-profit organization that has owned and operated The Hebron Majestic since 2013, said it’s thanks to the community that the theater has remained successful.
“We have great community support,” Lukert said. “Not just people helping at the theater, but we have great support from people just coming to the theater to watch the movies.”
The support extends beyond Hebron, and Lukert said it’s not uncommon for people from Fairbury, Geneva or Superior to come to Hebron for a night at the movies.
“People don’t want to see us close,” Lukert said. “We provide a great source of entertainment for our community and for its families.”
Lukert volunteers in the theater as a team leader, overseeing a night of screenings and finding volunteers to help out with the shift. Lukert is one of 15 team leaders.
Lukert said COVID-19 played a big role in stopping people in Hebron from attending the theaters, and when they could finally re-open, there weren’t enough movies to fill their screens.
“We had our doors closed for several months,” Lukert said. “I think we’re slowly getting back to where we were.”
Since reopening, Lukert said The Hebron Majestic’s most successful showings are children’s movies and religious films.
Abel said he understands why some people might not be as eager to visit movie theaters. He said only time will tell if movie theater attendance will ever return to where it was before the pandemic. He is doubtful it ever will.
Despite this, he maintains that there’s no better way to experience a movie than on the big screen. However, Abel said that in the future, movie theaters might cease to be financially viable.
“I’m not saying there won’t be moving pictures on screens down the road,” Abel said. “But I think it will not have the same dominance it used to have in the 20th Century.”
Patrick Kinney offered a similar prediction regarding the future of cinemas, but he was slightly more optimistic.
“I think movie theaters will always exist in some form,” Kinney said. “I think eventually theaters like Film Streams– a model with a non-profit– will be the ones that fare the best.”
Film Streams was forced to close its doors for a time in 2020 due to COVID-19, and Kinney said that extended time inside, watching movies at home may be having an impact on people’s desire to go out to the theater. However, Kinney said the challenge of getting people to want to go to the movies was a challenge long before the pandemic, and COVID-19 has only served to exacerbate it. For Kinney, the solution is a simple one, engage with the community.
“It’s about making sure you’re actively listening to the people that are coming into your building, and the ones who aren’t, and finding out what kind of programming they need and want,” Kinney said.