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Student Loan Debt, Flat Wages Causing Youth to Ditch Theaters, Says AMC Chief

Money worries — not gaming or YouTube — are responsible for the decline in younger moviegoers, AMC Entertainment CEO Gerry Lopez told Variety this week at CinemaCon.

Over the past five years attendance among moviegoers ages 18 through 39 has steadily declined, raising concerns about the long-term health of an aging audience. That’s led some analysts and observers to speculate that movies lack the sizzle of digital entertainment when it comes to generations that spent their formative years online.

Younger consumers still like going to the movies, Lopez argued; they just can’t afford going as much as they once did. “I have seen no indication whatsoever that there’s less enthusiasm,” Lopez maintained. “I have seen changing economic conditions.”

It’s not just the rising costs of cellphone or cable bills that are eating into discretionary spending. There are macro-economic trends at play, he stressed. “They just have less money, and they need to be more careful about how they choose to spend their money,” he said. “I worry about the amount of disposable income this segment has available to spend.”

Studies show that wages have stagnated or declined over the past 35 years. At the same time, college loan debt has reached punishing levels. The average graduate leaves college with loan bills totaling $28,400, according to a 2014 Project on Student Debt report.

Theater owners have stressed that moviegoing remains a relatively affordable entertainment option, with national ticket prices hovering around $8 on average in recent years. However, analysts emphasize that the alternatives they are measured against, such as the cost of going to music concerts or baseball games, are deceptive. Moreover, premium theatrical formats such as Imax or 3D carry surcharges that make hitting the multiplexes a more costly proposition.

“Pricing is a problem,” said Marla Backer, an analyst with Research Associates. “People don’t think about movies the same way they think about sports or music. They go to movies on more of a recurring basis, but they’re willing to spend more on baseball because they only go to one or two games a season.”

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