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Smaller Billings movie theaters thriving post-pandemic, national chains see decline in ticket sales

Posted at 6:00 PM, Jan 07, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-08 11:42:58-05

BILLINGS — It's been a tumultuous couple of years for box office movie theaters as they navigated the pandemic and then the writer's strike in Hollywood. However, smaller community focused theaters, like Art House Cinema and the Babcock Theatre have flourished for several reasons.

Movies are an escape for Billings resident Stephanie Jackson.

“I love movies, you know, it takes a minute you can get out and get away and stuff,” said Jackson at Art House Cinema and Pub on Saturday.

It's why she celebrated her 40th birthday with a private screening at the theater.

“This is your old school mentality with that modern stuff going on and so, I’m not a huge fan of the newer movie theaters. There’s no heart in it,” Jackson said.

She's not alone. According to National Association of Theater Owners, AMC Entertainment Inc., Regal Cinemas, and Cinemark USA Inc. make up 48% of cinemas across the country.


COVID shutdowns prompted an 83% drop in their ticket sales and box office revenue from 2019 to 2020, and now, 2023 box office and ticket sales are off 28% from pre-COVID times in 2019.

“It was a really good time for us ‘cuz we could do a lot of different things for the community,” said Jake MacKenzie, the director of operations for Art House Cinema and the Babcock Theatre.

“We just broke our sales record this week with Boys in the Boat, so it’s been our number one movie here at Art House of all time,” MacKenzie said.

Movie making was stunted during the pandemic and the writer's strike.

“We have opportunity to lean on the other things and so whether that’s reparatory, so those classic films that everyone knows and loves, but also some of the other film, art, and culture, which is our main mission,” said MacKenzie.

Jake MacKenzie

The theaters were able to show independent and foreign films while movie making was delayed. They also offer music concerts, art shows, and the opportunity for private screenings.

“It is a huge avenue for us and now that we have four screens to kind of offer those different size ranges of, how big is your group today. Okay, let’s see if we can do this. So, events are great for us,” MacKenzie said.

The theaters are also more affordable compared to big box office chains.

“Now it’s not worth the price, it’s not worth the experience. It cost $50 to go and have a snack and go see a movie, when you can wait six months or just skip it and go straight to streaming,” said Art House Cinema patron, Vance Elumbaugh.

However, there's a light at the end of the tunnel for the traditional movie theater.
“I think that between the Super Mario Brothers movie last year, Barbie, Oppenheimer, they’re smashing some box office records. I’m pretty excited and hopeful to say that I think some of our big movie watching is back,” MacKenzie said.