Apr 10, 2013

From the Archives

Superheroes, Presidents, a Girl on Fire

In early 2011, Entertainment Weekly asked: “Are movies losing their mojo?” Both 2010 and 2011 were down years for movies, with box office slumps the norm. Many observers suggested that, in a world of HDTVs and easily accessible films from the comfort of a living room, perhaps the era of the movie theater was over.


And then 2012 happened.

On the heels of massive box office performance from The Hunger Games and The Avengers, 2012 ended up setting a record for total box office sales (a staggering $10.8 billion), and also saw an incredible 1.36 billion tickets sold. With this weekend’s Academy Awards broadcast—the pinnacle of the film awards season—the cultural obsession with movies is at its peak. Viewership for the Oscars is still one of the larger of the year, and—in a year when most of the best picture nominees garnered over $100 million—arguments over who is (or isn’t) nominated and who should win are in full force.

But what are Americans’ true attitudes toward movies? Who sees them? Are Americans still going to the movies? Do Christians see more or less movies (or the same) as non-Christians? And, what do believers think of the movies they see?

Who Goes to the Theater?
If you’re a moviegoer, you might assume everyone goes to the movies. If 1.36 billion movie tickets sold in 2012, that means there were more than four movie tickets sold for every American. But, in actuality, a full 35% of the American population says they didn’t see a single movie in theaters in the last 12 months. And of people ages 67 and older, respondents report they’ve only seen, on average, 0.4 movies in the last year—meaning less than half of Elders set foot in the movie theater in 2012.

So who bought all those tickets? As you might expect, it was mostly young adults (i.e., Mosaics, ages 18-28) filling the darkened venues. Of that age group, the average Mosaic saw 3.4 movies in the theater over the last year—double the national average for all adults, which was 1.7 movies per person.

Dinner and a Movie—at Home
A big year at the box office was also a big year for at-home movies. With streaming, cheap rental options like Blu-ray, online renting and purchasing services like Apple TV and Amazon Instant Video, it’s become easier than ever to watch movies at home. In the past year, the average American adult has watched over 10 movies by DVD, Blu-ray, streaming or video. Once again, Mosaics watched about twice as many movies (20) as the national average while Elders only watched 3.7 movies in these ways. The other age groups fall somewhere in between (Busters see 10 movies this way and Boomers watch 16).

But, the numbers are nearly turned on their head when it comes to movies watched on cable, satellite or broadcast television. While Mosaics only saw 8.4 movies via TV in the past 12 months, Elders watched 12.2. And Boomers, or people between the ages of 48 and 66, watched, on average, over 15 movies on television over the last year.

Does Faith Affect Viewing Patterns?

How does a person’s faith affect their movie watching habits? Well, in terms of the amount of movies seen at the theater, evangelicals saw 2.7 movies at the movie theater in the last year, a full movie more than the national, adult average. In fact, the average number of movies evangelicals saw is bigger than any of the age groups except for Mosaics. The only faith group that saw more movies than evangelicals were people who didn’t identify with any faith—that segment saw an average of 3 movies per person in theaters over the last year.

Which movies did evangelicals see? The year’s biggest film, The Avengers, was also a big hit among evangelicals. Over the last 12 months, 42% of evangelicals saw the film. That’s the highest rate except for people with no faith—43% of those surveyed who don’t identify with any faith saw The Avengers. Evangelicals also flocked to The Hunger Games (36% of them saw it in the last year) and The Lorax (24%).

The biggest difference in movies between people of faith and people with no faith exists in movies like Skyfall and Argo. While 21% of people claiming no faith saw Skyfall, the most recent James Bond blockbuster, only 12% of evangelicals and 16% of non-evangelical born again Christians witnessed 007’s latest romp. And the highest group of people of faith who saw Argo—the story of a group trying to escape Iran during the 1981 U.S. embassy hostage crisis—were Catholics, at just over 4.5%. At the same time, 17% of people with no faith identification saw Argo.

Much has been made about how Hollywood influences the values and spirituality of Americans. And movies do affect how people think about faith and spirituality, but in smaller numbers than religious leaders might expect. For all the concern about the degradation of cultural values and Hollywood’s lack of a moral compass, just 1% of respondents say they saw a movie that changed their beliefs over the last year. Whether this is a perception or a reality is hard to say—but at the very least, people don’t think Hollywood is influencing their values and beliefs. In fact, only 11% of people say they saw a movie in the past year that made them think more seriously about religion, spirituality or faith.

However, 32% of evangelicals say they would seek out movies that dealt with more religious or spiritual themes. And with movies like Darren Aronofsky and Russell Crowe’s upcoming Noah adaptation and Mark Burnett and Roma Downey’s The Bible TV mini-series premiering this week, it seems audiences might be getting their wish.

What the Research Means
Given the number of movies seen by Mosaics versus the national average—twice the national average—Hollywood will likely continue to produce films that primarily target that age group, because they’re the ones who buy more tickets. What does that mean in practicality? Simple: Expect a lot more superhero blockbusters. And don’t expect a big-screen adaptation of Matlock or Magnum PI any time soon.

The numbers of people watching movies at home suggests younger people are more comfortable with media that require some knowledge of current technology—learning how to rent and stream something off of Apple TV is certainly more difficult than, say, tuning in to watch a movie on TBS.

So, do movies still hold the cultural cache they have in the past? If 2012 is any indication, the answer is a loud “yes.” 2012 also shows the power of movies that cut across social segments—like superheroes (The Avengers), novel adaptations (The Hunger Games) and family-friendly movies (The Lorax). Now that it’s 2013 and more Mosaic-friendly fare like Iron Man 3 and Superman: The Man of Steel is on the horizon, this year will be a true test to see if Tinseltown can still attract the audience it wants.

About the Research
The study on which this report is based included online surveys with 1,075 adults who were randomly chosen from the United States. The maximum margin of sampling error for a sample of that size is estimated to be within +2.8 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.

The study was conducted between January 17 and January 23, 2013 using the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population, operated by Knowledge Networks. Initially, participants are chosen scientifically by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses. Persons in selected households are then invited by telephone or by mail to participate in the web-enabled panel. For those who agree to participate, but do not already have Internet access, Knowledge Networks provides a laptop and ISP connection at no cost. People who already have computers and Internet service are permitted to participate using their own equipment. Panelists receive unique log-in information for accessing the online survey they were recruited to participate in.

“Evangelicals” meet the born again criteria (described below) plus seven other conditions. Those include saying their faith is very important in their life today; believing they have a personal responsibility to share their religious beliefs about Christ with non-Christians; believing that Satan exists; believing that eternal salvation is possible only through grace, not works; believing that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life on earth; asserting that the Bible is accurate in all that it teaches; and describing God as the all-knowing, all-powerful, perfect deity who created the universe and still rules it today. Being classified as an evangelical is not dependent upon church attendance or the denominational affiliation of the church attended. Respondents were not asked to describe themselves as “evangelical.”

“Non-evangelical born again Christians” is defined as people who said they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. These adults are born again, but do not meet the additional evangelical criteria.

Generations: Mosaics / Millennials are a generation born between 1984 through 2002; Busters, born between 1965 and 1983; Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964; and Elders were born in 1945 or earlier.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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