Why Young People Still Go to the Movies

Historical and contemporary cinemagoing audiences in Belgium

Authored by: Lies Van de Vijver

The Routledge Companion to New Cinema History

Print publication date:  February  2019
Online publication date:  February  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138955844
eBook ISBN: 9781315666051
Adobe ISBN:




One of the recurrent arguments within new cinema history is that cinemagoing was more than consuming or making sense of movies; it was a social event as well, and the sociality of the cinema was a key motivational factor for historical audiences. Researching contemporary cinema audiences raises a question about whether cinema remains a social event, and if so, what is the nature of its sociality in the digital era of a hypermediated society? The goal of this chapter is to examine the motivations for cinemagoing today and to establish the role of sociality for contemporary cinemagoers. After examining the literature on historical cinema audiences and their social motivations for cinemagoing, I will use a mixed-method approach in order to understand shifting cinemagoing motivations, both in the past and the present, highlighting the persistently social nature of cinemagoing. The chapter will use the results of a large-scale survey of contemporary youth audiences in Belgium, as well as an oral history study on historical cinema audiences.

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Why Young People Still Go to the Movies

One of the recurrent arguments within new cinema history is that cinemagoing was more than consuming or making sense of movies; it was a social event as well, and the sociality of the cinema was a key motivational factor for historical audiences. Researching contemporary cinema audiences raises a question about whether cinema remains a social event, and if so, what is the nature of its sociality in the digital era of a hypermediated society? The goal of this chapter is to examine the motivations for cinemagoing today and to establish the role of sociality for contemporary cinemagoers. After examining the literature on historical cinema audiences and their social motivations for cinemagoing, I will use a mixed-method approach in order to understand shifting cinemagoing motivations, both in the past and the present, highlighting the persistently social nature of cinemagoing. The chapter will use the results of a large-scale survey of contemporary youth audiences in Belgium, as well as an oral history study on historical cinema audiences.

The social motivation of cinema audiences

Film scholars have demonstrated that cinemagoing is shaped not only by screen content but even more by the variety of times and places in which screenings occur, highlighting the social factor of cinemagoing. Ever since the arrival of the VCR in the 1980s, and even more in the contemporary age of digital cinema, theaters have, however, no longer been the sole point of access to filmed entertainment. Proclamations of cinema’s death are usually justified by pointing to its outdated distribution model and the fact that theatrical release is now seen as the tail wagging the marketing dog for subsequent and more profitable sales (Allen, 2011). Audiences, it is argued, are no longer obliged to watch a film on first release on the big screen; this is now just one consumer choice among many.

Advocates of convergence culture pay attention to new media forms and to consumers who experience film as multi-platformed, brand-extended, and participatory (Jenkins, 2006; Jenkins and Carpentier, 2013). As viewing becomes more mobile, with expanded access to media content on an increasing number of screens and hence less dependent on programming by venues, they argue that media consumption becomes more individual (Tryon, 2013) and presumably less social. The tendency in this line of argument toward technological determinism can lead commentators to ignore the extent to which cinemagoing is foremost a social activity. Historically, film was not universally distributed, nor was it exhibited in a uniform way, and it was certainly not viewed nor experienced in identical circumstances. Patterns of cinemagoing simply vary historically.

Empirical research using socioeconomic, ethnographic, and other methods has underlined the heterogeneity of film audiences and emphasized the importance of social, cultural, and historical conditions to their varied experiences (Kuhn, 2002; Sedgwick, 2000). In order to engage with the lived experiences of actual audiences in the context of their everyday lives, scholars have abandoned broad generalizations and large-scale quantitative research designs to focus on close, detailed studies of specific places, people, and chronologies. Research on the sociality of cinemagoing practices engages us with cultural geography’s distinctions between place and space (Massey, 2005): where place locates a site of cinema, space identifies a constructed social site of cinemagoing (Allen, 2006). Historically, there has been much research into the place, architecture, infrastructure, and technology of film screenings, but traditional film studies have largely disregarded the spatiality of the film experience. Social conditions and cultural spatialized practices are, however, vital to the experience of cinema and are thus theoretically and historiographically inseparable from it.

In calling for a “re-spatialised notion of film and film history,” Robert C. Allen (2006: 247) has argued that “meanings and pleasures cannot be read off the text in isolation but are rather deeply embedded in the social contexts of its viewing.” The space of cinema cannot, in consequence, be reduced to the places of filmic exhibition, because space, as Doreen Massey (2005: 26–28) argues, is not static or neutral but relational and always in process, a “simultaneity of stories-so-far.” This notion of the importance of the socially constructed space for the film experience has brought to the forefront of audience research the way that films are experienced in particular places at specific times. The cinema place is the most concrete element that the loose social actors who constitute an audience have in common; it gathers them up to watch a film. The experience of cinema does not exist outside the experience of space; it is a product of historically specific spatial practices of located social interaction.

Much of the historical audience research concerning the sociality of cinemagoing is based on oral history, and research on memories of moviegoing has contributed significantly to defining the spatial and social conditions of the cinematic experience (Kuhn, 2002; Stacey, 1994). This illuminating bottom-up approach of lived cinema cultures has, at first, been limited to the Anglo-Saxon experience of American films in English-spoken film markets, but the field is growing rapidly, emphasizing the importance of oral histories for the understanding of the social experience of cinemagoing in different European countries (e.g. Paz, 2003; Treveri Gennari and Dibeltulo, 2017) and elsewhere (Dass, 2015).

Together with new cinema historians’ interest in more recent cinema history, research on media industries and political economy have directed attention to the growth and development of the multiplex cinema and its audiences since its introduction in the 1980s. There are industrial analyses of the rise of multiplex cinemas in the United States and Great Britain and the decline of traditional single-screen theaters (Acland, 2003; Fuller-Seeley 2008; Gomery, 1992; Hanson, 2013; Klinger, 2006; Smith, 2005). Other studies have looked at their effect on programming diversity (Barker, 2013) and the digital turn with its concomitant impact upon distribution (Hanson, 2007a). Contemporary empirical audience research within film studies is quite varied in its attention not only to the contemporary commercial cinema audience (Atkinson, 2014; Corbett, 2001; Docherty, Morrison, and Tracey, 1986; Hanich, 2017) but also festival or art house audiences (Ateşman, 2015; Dickson, 2015; Evans, 2011; Hollinshead, 2011; Martinez et al., 2015), genre and national cinema preferences (Meers, 2003), and the gendered experience of specific films (Bradby, 2013). Surveys on contemporary audiences in Belgium, for instance, are often related to or focused on the profound entwinement of cinema and digital culture, especially within convergence culture research (Veenstra, 2017). As such, film consumption is examined within a broadened multi-platformed media environment, entangling the cultural practice of cinemagoing within a multimedia use. The “surviving” practice of going to the cinema today is, however, less researched (Van de Vijver, 2017). The commercial multiplex cinema provides a site through which to explore the evolution of film experiences since the fundamental changes of the 1980s in production (blockbusters), distribution (saturation release), and exhibition (purpose-built multiscreen theaters; Hanson, 2007b).

At the beginning of the 1980s, the social construction of moviegoing changed radically, with the spread of multiplex venues, which Phil Hubbard (2003) has described as providing audiences with a service hatch rather than a social site, since these venues were architecturally designed to individualize the cinema experience for media consumers. Now that ancillary markets have a higher economic importance than the theatrical premiere, the industry no longer depends primarily on the social habit of going to the movies (Klinger, 2006; Allen 2011). Contemporary cinema audiences predominantly consist of a generation who have had their most common experiences of movies in nontheatrical exhibition sites: the domestic spaces of bedrooms, living rooms, and kitchens. Allen (2011: 44) has argued that these viewers experience cinema as a textually disintegrated phenomenon through multiple and unpredictably proliferating sites and modalities. The sociality historically ascribed to cinemagoing is, for this generation, no longer an intrinsic characteristic of film viewing. In today’s personalized media landscape, in which film is accessible on any screen at any time, the social has itself become an option for seeing a film.

Yet neither the architecture of the multiplex nor the individualized film watching platforms exclude the social. Janna Jones (2011) argues that “while contemporary cinema-going practices are far less public than they once were, many of the fundamental elements of cinema’s sociality in cinema’s classic era persist into the present.” She fortifies her argument by examining the ritualized familial event called movie night, the fundamental elements of which are the organization of leisure time and connectedness to other people. Because her research is focused on young people’s relationship to family, Jones (2011, 2013) considers film consumption as an element in a life course but still insists on the social aspect of film consumption. Kevin Corbett (1998) reached a similar conclusion when looking at the act of cinemagoing as symbolically important to the forming, maintaining, and transforming of interpersonal relationships. He argues that industrial imperatives as well as cultural forces are likely to preserve the cinema place, because the multiplex can offer the simultaneous promise of a primarily social event in which one can also experience highly individualized escapism (Corbett, 2001).

1950s and millennial audiences in Belgium go to the movies

Besides arguing that cinemagoing had less to do with the movie than with the act of going to the movies, Richard Maltby has described the challenges of new cinema history’s quest for audiences as “pursuing the heterogeneous purposes of the unidentified participants in a myriad of undocumented events” (Maltby, Biltereyst, and Meers, 2011: 33). Questions about who actually saw films, when and how they were experienced, make up a large part of the debate concerning cinema audiences. The individual ordinariness of everyday life is unique to everyone, but it is also shared through routinized behavior (Inglis, 2005). To consider cinemagoing motivations in everyday life involves analyzing the accessibility and availability of movies on a daily basis and assessing their creation of meaning within other leisure-time activities. The analysis that follows is based on two research methods – oral histories and surveys – which are both part of larger research projects on the historical and contemporary experience of cinema culture in Ghent. 1

The oral histories aimed to analyze the importance of cinemagoing in a local community defined by class, language, and a pillarized society (in which everyday life was compartmentalized within socialist, Catholic, Flemish nationalist, or other frameworks, creating a pattern of ideological and religious segregation which overlapped with social class conflicts). Respondents were found through an advertisement in the local newspapers. In total, 62 participants were selected and interviewed about their cinemagoing habits from the 1930s onward. Respondents were selected by age (born between 1915 and 1950) and interviewed in their home environments about habitual cinemagoing experiences when they were young people. Discussion of cinemagoing experiences was preceded by questions of a sociodemographic nature and issues about behavior patterns in the periods under consideration. The interviews were structured around three themes: the context of moviegoing, the pillarized film exhibition scene, and personal memories of moviegoing experiences. All interviews were fully transcribed and analyzed according to a coded tree structure, and in this chapter, my focus is on respondents’ motivations for cinemagoing and the social aspects of the cinemagoing experience.

The survey on contemporary cinema experiences was part of a larger research project on film culture in Ghent since the introduction of the multiplex in the city in 1981. It covered a convenience sample of 472 cinemagoers born between 1975 and 1995 2 , and focused on contemporary and remembered multiplex cinema experiences. In order to contextualize participants’ cinemagoing, the survey included questions regarding contemporary media use, leisure activities, and diversified digital visual consumption. The closed-ended questions in the survey were analyzed using SPSS software to provide statistical information on the respondents’ media use. The qualitative analysis focused on a close reading of the answers to the open-ended questions.

Cinemagoing has long been embedded in the ordinary activities of everyday life. According to older cinemagoers, their main recurring reasons for choosing cinema as a form of leisure in the past were its inexpensive status, its provision of social entertainment, and its often being the only available form of leisure, all of which preceded any consideration of the movies that audiences actually saw. But the everydayness of cinemagoing was conditioned by having the necessary financial resources (Van de Vijver and Biltereyst, 2013): for some, cinemagoing was only possible by using discount cards for certain cinemas during the week or else by finding or being given small change. Weekly attendance, or what can be called habitual cinemagoing, might have been the case before the Second World War, when movie programs changed every week and social routines included visits to district or neighborhood cinemas, but even then, oral histories consistently indicate the importance of tickets being discounted or paid for by friends or parents and attendance this frequent was never the case for cinemagoers who had to pay full price.

Interviewees also reported making an assessment of the ratio between price and quality: if cinemagoing meant paying for the tickets, then the evening needed to have a full program of movie entertainment, including newsreels and cartoons as well as the feature, which would if possible be spectacular. Male cinemagoers also talked about their clear understanding of the price differentiation mechanisms in city center cinemas, some of which had special entrances to avoid class mixing. Female respondents discussing attendance in the 1930s and 1940s often cited financial reasons when talking about the advantages of working in the cinema with free admission to other cinemas or the paying companionship while courting. These recollections raise questions about the claimed inexpensive nature of cinemagoing as an explanatory factor in its popularity. Cinema attendance rates rose after the 1930s, but in the late 1950s, with the introduction of television and the vast diversification and growing accessibility of leisure possibilities (Van de Vijver and Biltereyst, 2013), attendance fell.

In addition to its relative affordability, cinema was regarded as a socially sanctioned form of leisure spending. Interviewees reported that one of the most common reasons for visiting a cinema was to be with one’s friends or a date in a safe and socially acceptable environment but out of sight of prying parental eyes. The idea of communal cinemagoing is also ever present in the oral history testimonies. The need to escape, mentally as well as physically, was understandably more frequently mentioned in memories of the war years of the 1940s, but some families also spent entire Sundays at the movies because of the heating.

From the 1950s to 1970s, the everyday nature of cinemagoing in an environment with few alternatives gave way to one in which it became one possible choice among a number of increasingly varied and accessible forms of leisure, including theater, dancing, sport, and tourism. As cinemagoing became less habitual, the cost of going to the movies became less imprinted in these respondents’ memories, and their attendance was often combined with other activities like dancing or visiting a bar. Recalling the late 1960s and 1970s, respondents mentioned restaurant visits more frequently, implying a greater capacity for discretionary spending and an expansion of the social aspect of cinemagoing beyond the event of the screening itself. Cinema managers shifted their programming profiles to diversify their audiences, catering to the declining number of habitual cinemagoers during the week but showing an increasing number of movies at the weekend that were suitable for adults only. This strategy, however, made cinema a more questionable form of social leisure spending for young people, and in all the oral history accounts, the last days of going to the movies are recorded as being drained of nostalgia and filled with spite toward the deteriorating condition of the city center cinemas, their services, and their movies. Confronted with the new way of organizing cinema audiences in the multiplex, older cinemagoers describe the experience of these venues as being devalued by the lack of social elements and the absence of cinema staff catering to their needs. Combined with the “loud noises and fast images,” the lack of social decorousness, familiar atmosphere, and good-mannered contact between the audience and staff members kept elderly cinemagoers from visiting the multiplex cinema.

For the digital generation who did not grow up with the city center cinema palaces that existed before the 1990s, nostalgia cannot overshadow the “shoebox theatre,” as the multiplex is derogatively nicknamed by elderly respondents in the oral history research. One cannot question contemporary cinema audiences without being aware of the prolific presence of movie-watching platforms available to them. Yet their motivations for watching a movie on the big screen are strongly reminiscent of those of earlier audiences for whom cinemagoing was an everyday pastime. Although these young people have a wide range of opportunities to watch films, they retain an overt fondness for cinemagoing. In their discourses, watching films on small screens – whether on television, iPad, or computer – was mentioned frequently but not valued or preferred over cinemagoing. For them, the foremost characteristic of watching a movie on a small screen is that it needs to be free of charge. Financial constraints are still important for young people; it is the main reason for not going to the multiplex cinema more often. Time, effort, and transportation are not, however, issues. Their cinemagoing is motivated by their desire for the best aesthetic experience and by the need to escape, often simply from boredom.

The reasons that young viewers give for watching film in a nontheatrical environment have to do with personal comfort, the range of film choice, spontaneity, convenience, and control. They appreciate the cinematic experience for the possibility it presents of being engulfed or immersed but criticize it because it cannot be controlled by pausing at one’s convenience. Personal comfort and control over the filmic experience keep young people in front of smaller screens, while going to the movies is an event, a cultural practice defined through an aesthetic choice of films deemed to be worth the financial input. Today, film watching is mundane or ordinary, while cinemagoing is extraordinary. This becomes evident in the young people’s mentioning of image quality and the aesthetics of digital surround sound, reminiscent of older viewers’ remembered demand for spectacular film in the 1950s. Contemporary viewers’ descriptions of television trailers triggering their anticipation for a movie, and of the hustle and bustle of the audience or the smell of popcorn, can be compared to older respondents’ descriptions of the majestic calicots (painted billboards), endless queues, and snacks offered by cinema personnel. Although the idea of being led through concession stands by the architecture of the multiplex is not appreciated at all, the atmosphere is still described as relaxing as well as exciting. Even the in-house unwritten rules of socially accepted behavior are not that different: from having previously been guided to your seats by ushers to the silencing of smart phones and hushing of talkative audiences today.

The social factors of multiplex audience behavior and the remembered social factors of the historical audiences constitute similar communities of social actors who share a common set of cultural references. In parallel descriptions of cinema’s immersiveness, both sets of respondents describe the atmosphere inside and outside the venue as being comfortable and relaxing, but at the same time anticipatory, concentrated, and excitingly tense. Although contemporary young people may pursue the best possible screening quality with which to consume spectacle, their treasured memories of multiplex visits continue to emphasize the sociality of the event, and their memories and retold experiences testify more to a remembered space that is emotionally charged rather than recalled for its technical or aesthetic virtues. These are recollections of nights out with friends, of smuggling food into the cinema, of date nights and “end of an era Harry Potter” nights. They might acknowledge the service hatch, as they testify of the guided audience movements, but they hardly feel trapped in hyper individualistic “space bubbles” (Hubbard, 2003). Their treasured memories affirm more a certain type of socialized experience (Morley, 1992) than their present-day arguments would suggest and identify the importance of life stages for cinemagoing. Just as the elderly respondents were, contemporary audiences are in a stage of their life in which cinemagoing is a prominent social cultural practice. They express their requirements for excellent cinematic experience linked to film aesthetics, followed by a need to simply spend leisure time in good company. These interviewees are filmic flâneurs, who find pleasure in wandering through cinematic and other media landscapes, alone and with others. Like their predecessors, they are limited by the financial constraints. Given the opportunity, however, they prefer the cinematic experience because of their appreciation of film aesthetics and remembrance of its social aspect.


When looking at cinemagoing motivations today, the literature often tends to emphasize changes in the market and the economically questionable prioritizing of theatrical release. An understanding of how audiences create social meaning in cinemagoing, and what forces drive social and aesthetically motivated movie-watching, can add to such an account. Going to the movies was and remains a social activity, not substitutable by individual consumer opportunities, in much the same way as the introduction of individual music listening does not substitute for concert attendance. Cinemagoing is remembered both by contemporary and historical young audiences because of treasured company or the imagined community submerged in the eventfulness of blockbuster or spectacle experiences. The memories of sociality and the present dynamics of cinematic experience suggest that the substitution debate around modes of viewing cannot be considered in technological terms alone and that the cinematic experience is nowhere near its demise. Starting from a bottom-up approach, these accounts balance the sometimes binary discussions in the literature on the technologically deterministic agency of hypothetical audiences and the Bourdieuian emphasis on the structuring practices of media producers (Van de Vijver, 2017). The audiences in both research projects are not hypothetical constructions; the projects’ methodologies ensured that they defined their own practices and routines. These specific practices by these specific audiences, framed by a specific cinematic architecture, can result in certain detectable scripts or rules of engagement. Space is revealed to be a key factor of the cinematic experience when these audiences themselves articulate their experiences in spatial terms.

There is a methodological argument here to be made for the use of oral histories, surveys, and the importance of combining quantitative with qualitative analysis, or close readings, of discourses on social and cultural practices. I would, furthermore, argue that the sociality of cinemagoing constitutes an understanding of cinema as a set of practices rather than a normative or foundational mode of the experience of specific places. This chapter’s bottom-up approach to young peoples’ historical and contemporary experience of cinema has indicated that the supposed decline of the cinema cannot be reduced to technological explanations, as it is still best understood as selling a habit, a certain type of socialized experience.


The oral histories were part of the larger research project “Gent Kinemastad” (funded by the Special Research Fund-Ghent University (BOF), 2009–2011, supervisor D. Biltereyst) on the history of the film exhibition, programming, and experience in Ghent (1896–2010). The survey was part of the research project “Cinema Located” (funded by the Special Research Fund-Ghent University (BOF) 2012–2013 and the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO) 2013–2016), study on place, space, and social experience of cinema in Ghent (1982–2012).

For this research, I set up an online survey available to first bachelor students in a class on international communication, hence the age range of the respondents; it is, however, important that an average of 75 percent of the respondents were between nineteen and twenty-two years old. The survey made use of nonprobability sampling.


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