Moviegoing won't return to pre-pandemic levels, says Disney's Bob Iger

Robert Iger attends the Stella McCartney “Get Back” Capsule Collection and documentary release of Peter Jackson’s “Get Back” at The Jim Henson Company on November 18, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.

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The coronavirus pandemic has left a “permanent scar” on the movie theater business, says former Disney CEO Bob Iger.

“I don’t think movies ever return, in terms of moviegoing, to the level that they were at pre-pandemic,” the veteran media executive said during a panel at Vox Media’s Code Conference in Beverly Hills, California, Wednesday.

Iger, who stepped down from his post as CEO of the Walt Disney Company in February 2020, handing the reins to then-head of theme parks Bob Chapek, said “choice” is the main reason moviegoers have not returned to cinemas at the same pace as before.

He noted that consumers became more comfortable with streaming services while in lockdown and grew to enjoy the content on these platforms and the flexibility of being able to choose what to watch and when. Iger was quick to add that he doesn’t think the movie theater industry is a “dead business,” but that the pandemic exacerbated and hastened a change in consumer habits.

Between January and the end of August, the domestic box office generated around $5.3 billion, down around 31% compared to 2019. It remains on pace to deliver around $7.5 billion in total ticket sales by the end of the year. For comparison, in 2019 the box office tallied $11.4 billion for the full year.

There are other factors leading to this decline in box office, including a significantly smaller number of film releases. Only 46 films have been widely released domestically during the first eight months of the year. During the same period in 2019, 75 films had been released widely.

On the plus side, moviegoers are now spending more when they go to cinemas, opting for higher priced tickets to see films on premium screens and buying more concessions.

Iger noted that cinemas aren’t the only place for audiences to see the birth of major franchises.

“I think the movie industry used to argue that you could not create cultural impact without having everybody go to a movie theater on the weekend in every country in the world,” he said. “And then just couldn’t create franchises. I don’t agree anymore.”

Iger pointed to HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and Disney’s own “The Mandalorian” as series that have made significant impacts on the cultural zeitgeist without assistance from cinemas.

“It doesn’t mean moviegoing goes away,” Iger said. “I’m a big believer in movies. I love big movies … but it doesn’t come back to where it was.”

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