Movie Theaters Are In Trouble

Joseph Fusco
5 min readJul 26, 2021

The Pandemic Is Not The Only Reason Why

Auditorium of the Paris Theater in New York City.
Auditorium of the Paris Theater in New York City. Photo by the author.

Movie theaters are at an inflection point. While the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated the issue, the existential crisis cinema is going through has been brewing for years in no small part due to the increased popularity of streaming services, the astronomical cost of tickets and concessions, and a natural change in people’s entertainment tastes and habits. Having worked in movie theaters for years I have some expertise in the field of how a theater should run.

After having been fully vaccinated and feeling a bit more comfortable being back in the world, I returned to movie theaters several times in the last few months. I live in New York City, once the moviegoing capital of the world, so it meant a great deal to me to support my favorite theaters which had been closed longer than most across the country due to city and state regulations.

I went to both the biggest chains and small art house cinemas. Overall, to put it mildly, the experiences were unpleasant. Nothing had changed: from broken seats, to neglected bathrooms, to bad film projection. Once the reality of Covid-19 and the shutdowns set in, cinema owners and managers had a year without staff and customers to evaluate how they could fix what wasn’t working and to woo customers back once they had the all clear.

This was a found opportunity, in the worst of circumstances, and yet the theaters I went to didn’t really do anything (aside from instituting Covid-19 protocols) to enhance or improve the audience experience. Therefore, I believe, the inherent problem with moviegoing right now is primarily a customer service issue.

Here are four things that cinema operators can do immediately to start to turn the ship around:


Theater employees are by and large minimum wage part-time workers. In cost cutting measures, theater operators always look first to reducing staff hours and positions. Or in the case of post-Covid reopening, not hiring people back.

While this might work for the theater’s bottom line, it doesn’t work for the efficiency of the theater or for the customer’s experience. It is very frustrating to purchase tickets and have them scanned by the same person who sells the concessions. First of all, it’s gross, second of all, it’s too much of a burden to put three positions on one person. Accuracy of orders, speed of moving the line, and a backlog of tickets that need to be scanned are all compromised.

Nobody wins when one person does three jobs. Pay your employees a livable wage and train them as to how a cinema runs. They will learn. They will do a good job. Make an investment that might seem painful at first for greater success in the future.

Snazzy Usher from the late RKO National Twin in Times Square, ca. 1985. | Photo courtesy Gregory Lamberson


Here’s a secret about movie theater popcorn: it’s rarely freshly popped. A theater can go a full day without popping a new batch of popcorn. A theater will pop a big batch in the morning and then whatever is left over at the end of the night is stored in yellow bags, specifically designed for the storage of popcorn and placed in the warmer the next morning. Artisanal hot dogs and flatbread pizzas are not the menu items that are going to win people back to theaters. It’s high quality, freshly made popcorn; soda that isn’t flat; a decent cup of coffee; and candy that people actually want to treat themselves to at a theater.


Torn seat in an auditorium of the AMC Empire 25 in Times Square. Photo by the Author.
Torn seats at the AMC Empire 25 in Times Square, January 20, 2020 | Photo courtesy the Author

Hey theater operators, you’ve had a year…maybe spruce up the place? How about putting up a fresh coat of paint? Maybe dust off the sconces? Repair the seats? Give the carpets a deep clean, or maybe replace them entirely? After a year of closure theaters could use a good case of sprucing up, and a deep spring cleaning. (Or in the current case, it would be spring, summer, fall, winter, spring again cleaning.)


In 2013, a technology shift in the film industry changed the way movies are made and distributed. Movies stopped being projected from reels of 35mm film, and projecting movies switched to digital files that could be downloaded or shipped via a small thumbnail drive. By eliminating film from the aspect of projection, it also eliminated the job of the projectionist.

Projectionists were highly skilled laborers who were union represented and required extensive training to hold the job. Now that movies are projected from computer files that are programmed into an iPad and projected automatically, projectionists have been essentially shit outta luck and out of a job.

Theaters now just train their staff — often the same person taking your ticket and getting your popcorn — how to troubleshoot the projector. There is no supervisor for the booth, therefore nobody who is adequately trained in how to run a movie, show a movie, adjust the focus, properly set the masking on the screen, is actually running the show. The result is a lazy film presentation.

This is tantamount to running a restaurant without a cook, letting the waiters and cleaning staff prepare the meals. A movie theater’s main job is to show movies. Yes, their main source of income is to sell popcorn, but their main job is to show movies. Theaters are not putting care into running the heart of their business.

Crowded Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center taken in 2019 by the Author.
Crowded Walter Reade Theater, circa 2019. | Photo by the Author.


Throughout history, each new disruptive technology has spelled the supposed death knell for movies. Yet, movies have always rebounded. Radio, Television, Home Video, Cable TV, and Streaming, have all been the subjects of countless editorials spelling the end of the brick and mortar cinema. Yet, Cinemas have always bounced back and that is because the owners, the managers, the film studios, actors and audience, wanted that experience to survive.

For over 100 years, there has been the desire within the industry to keep cinemas alive. Aside from the astronomical cost of commercial real estate in New York City which has been the direct cause for the closure of several popular indie cinemas in recent years (a subject for another day), the only thing right now that is making movie theaters face its own mortality…is a result of the apathy with which theaters have been run.

Movie theaters are in trouble, and to be fair, much of it is their own fault. Which means theater owners — both big and small — have the power to make going to the movies a pleasant experience again.

The question is, will they invest in their own future?



Joseph Fusco

Joseph Fusco is a writer, director, actor, and drummer from New York City.