The Cinema: An Ethnographic View

It is often viewed that the cinema going experience is an overall declining pastime (Seitz 2018). This includes Australia, where cinemas only experienced 85 million admissions in 2017 (Screen Australia 2018).  This seems like a large number and only a small drop from 91 million in 2016, but the peak of Australian cinema admissions was 187 million in 1928 (Screen Australia 2018).

These numbers dropped due to events such as World War 2 and they never reached the same heights again. Why is this? It started with the evolution of the household television which I have written about on this blog previously. More recently, the rise of online streaming services such as Netflix, in addition to the illegal downloading of movies has resulted in the further decline of the cinema (Ibisworld 2015).


Credit: Karen Zhao

Overall, we know the attendance of the cinema has dropped but in order to understand why and how we must undertake an ethnographic research approach. To do this, we can look at Torsten Hägerstrand‘s developments of field geography. Hägerstrand acknowledges various limitations that occur within human spatial activity (Hägerstrand 1970, cited by Corbett 2001, p. 2). These limitations were identified as capability, coupling and authority constraints. Capability refers to physical movement limitations. Coupling refers to the need of being in a certain place at a certain time, often with other people. And finally, authority constraints is the limited access to a domain as a result of control by other individuals or groups (Hägerstrand 1970, cited by Corbett 2001, p.2).

Linking this to the cinema experience, the spatial activity in question is the physical interaction with the cinema space. Capability restraints for this activity could include not being able to travel to the movie theatre due to transport limitations. Coupling restraints may be the specific times a movie will be showing, people may not want to attend a certain viewing time that the cinema selects. Lastly, an example of an authority restraint would be rating classifications for films.


Credit: Felix Mooneeram

These limitations present themselves as reasons why people won’t attend the movie theatre, which is how the admission numbers in Australia have dropped. It was noted that streaming services and illegal downloading have influenced the decline of cinema. It is interesting to see that these alternate methods of watching movies don’t have the capability, coupling or authority restraints of the cinema. You can watch from home, on your own time and you can choose what content to watch.

Although the idea of going to the movie theatre is less popular in 2018, I find myself among the crowd of avid movie goers who still enjoy the experience. I particularly like watching horror movies at the cinema, but do not enjoy watching them at home. The cinema space creates a unique feeling that makes horror movies even scarier. Being immersed in the wide open space, watching the large screen surrounded by other people adds to the experience.

In conclusion, the trend of the declining cinema experience was further explored using ethnographic processes. Specifically, a theory that was originally developed for geography was used to understand how and why individuals may not attend the movie theatre, a very media oriented study. This shows how multifaceted and versatile ethnography can be.

Reference list:

Corbett, J 2001, ‘Torsten Hägerstrand, Time Geography, CSISS Classics, UC Santa Barbara: Center for Spatially Integrated Social Science, p. 2, January 1, viewed 19 August 2018, <>.

Ibisworld 2015, ‘Silver screen slowdown: Cinemas under threat from streaming services’, Ibisworld Media Centre, 25 February, viewed 19 August 2018, <>.

Screen Australia 2018, Cinema industry trends, admissions and key events, 1901–1932, viewed 19 August, <>.

Screen Australia 2018, Cinema industry trends, admissions and key events, 1975 to present, viewed 19 August, <>.

Seitz, D 2018, ‘Movie Theater Attendance Has Hit A 24-Year-Low, And 2018 May Be Worse’, Uproxx, 18 January, viewed 19 August, <>.

Header Image Source: Krists Luhaers



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