Majestic Theater (Johnson City, TN) Courtesy of Cinematreasures.org
In the early years of the 20th-century film projection, theaters were regulated to only one screen per theater and with an average capacity of about a 100. As the movie-going experience continued to spread out into a more cultural norm serving as an entertainment medium for the working-class population theaters begin to go through several phases such as 3-D, Cine-O-Rama screens, Drive-in theaters, Smell-O-Vision and so on. But as film-watching started to rise the celluloid it was being shown began to slowly fall out of vogue by the end of the century nearly as quick as it rose.
As with most trends in America, the effects gradually trickled down to from major markets like New York or Los Angeles to smaller markets such as my current subject-cities-at-hand: The Tri-Cities of the Northeastern region of Tennessee. With an estimated population under about 90,000 the area was considered one of Tennessee’s smaller divisions, so as with all lower populated regions, the theaters available for publicly viewing films were limited. Like the rest of the country theaters solely dedicated to single screen film projections began to fall going into the latter years of the century. To further explore into those theaters in Tri-Cities I decided to look into the venues during that period to look for any congruent trends and ultimately what eventually cause the decline from 12 theaters in the 50s to only one by the beginning of the 90s. For my data set, I found that between 1920-1990 there were approximately 21 venues that served as movie theaters peaking at about 12 being operated at the same time in the early 50s. After my findings, I concluded that there were two primary factors playing into the decline of the theater, one local and the other closely related to the nationwide decline.
The simplest conclusion for the decline of the theaters in relation to locally is just the changing of times (which I’ll talk about more in-depth in the next paragraph), most of the theaters that were torn down were largely due to the capital the establishment was pulling in. Theaters such as the Majestic Theater in Johnson City were renovated every few years only to be later closed in the early 80s and ultimately demolished in 1993. There is, however, something to be said about the sheer number of theaters opened during the peak of film projected theaters. During those times, certain Appalachian areas were keen on visitors coming from different areas of the country, so to keep those visitors busy, many operations of entertainment were opened. That may lend a hand in helping to know why the Tri-Cities which now currently only has about 8 theaters in operation could manage 10-12 at one time in the mid-1950s.
1950s Drive-In Theater Courtesy of Gunther Toody’s
Now as for the over-arching cause for the decline of the single film projected theaters as it relates to the national scale, the reasons are many. Most notably the fall of the celluloid craze came to an end by way of technological advances, such as the videotape. Movie studios were able to provide a direct-to-consumer model for a low cost which as result drove down the audience attendance at theaters. Big theatrical releases only served as an advertisement for the VHS that would later be released. Another cause of the decline could be traced back to the fall of drive-in theaters in the late 60s, during that time period many citizens began to downsize their cars due to the oil crisis of cause by the embargo by OAPEC during the Yom Kippur War in the 70s. Along not being able to bring a sizable amount of people and the uptick in stereo quality provided by newer vehicle models and the aforementioned invention of the VHS tape slowly but surely wiped out the many theaters in the country and most certainly a decent amount in the Tri-Cities.
“The History of Drive-In Movie Theaters (and Where They Are Now).” Www.nyfa.edu, New York Film Academy, 7 June 2017, www.nyfa.edu/student-resources/the-history-of-drive-in-movie-theaters-and-where-they-are-now/.
Cunningham, Bill. “Remember How VHS ‘Destroyed’ the Movie & TV Business?” Thewrap.com, 20 Apr. 2009, www.thewrap.com/remember-how-vhs-destroyed-movie-tv-business-2557/.
Staurt, Chelsea. “History of the Drive-In Theater.” Jetsetter.com, 22 June 2016, www.jetsetter.com/magazine/history-of-the-drive-in/.
Cheshire, Godfrey. “The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema.” Nypress.com, 30 Dec. 1999, www.nypress.com/the-death-of-film-the-decay-of-cinema/.
Munsterman, Nicole. “What Can Bell Curve Analysis Tell You About Your Revenue Opportunity?” Eidebailey.com, 17 Oct. 2017, www.eidebailly.com/insights/articles/2017/10/what-can-bell-curve-analysis-tell-you-about-your-revenue-opportunity