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What National Cinema Day says about the state of the film industry

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Three-dollar movie tickets are coming soon to a theater near you this Saturday. We're talking any show, any format - including IMAX - at more than 3,000 participating theaters. It's being billed as a celebration - National Cinema Day. But we asked critic Bob Mondello what it says about the state of the film industry.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The first sign that pandemic-weary audiences might actually come back to cinemas in force was the cheers.

(CHEERING)

MONDELLO: Packed houses greeted "Spider-Man: No Way Home," and audiences ultimately rewarded their favorite webslinger with almost $2 billion in ticket sales - a number that did not require any qualifiers, like best of the pandemic era. Spidey's pal Doctor Strange and Jurassic dinosaurs each collected another billion in the spring. And then summer brought Minions and Thor and Tom Cruise...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOP GUN: MAVERICK")

TOM CRUISE: (As Pete "Maverick" Mitchell) Good morning, aviators.

MONDELLO: ...Whose "Top Gun: Maverick" is still going strong...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOP GUN: MAVERICK")

CRUISE: (As Pete "Maverick" Mitchell) This is your captain speaking.

MONDELLO: ...As it closes in on 1 1/2 billion. So moviegoers are back, right? Sort of. Attendance has certainly grown this year, but it's still only at about two-thirds of pre-pandemic levels. Young audiences are fully back, but older moviegoers - the sort who should have powered "Bullet Train" and "Elvis" to bigger numbers - are still hesitant.

So with just a few days of summer vacation left, theater owners are throwing a sort of Hail Mary pass, a one-day bargain - any show for $3, which is a price not seen at most theaters since Elliott and his new best bud took flight 40 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL")

HENRY THOMAS: (As Elliott Taylor) Not so high. Not so high.

MONDELLO: It's an industry-wide promotion to deal with a looming industry-wide challenge. Fall is always a slower time for movie theaters, and if things slow from their current levels, theaters will be in serious trouble. So about three-quarters of all U.S. cinemas have signed on to participate on Saturday, from local repertory houses to AMC, Regal, Cinemark - more than 30,000 screens in all. You'll want to check to be sure your local theater is among them. But if it is, for a snappy three bucks plus tax, you'll be able to see "Top Gun: Maverick" in IMAX...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TOP GUN: MAVERICK")

CRUISE: (As Pete "Maverick" Mitchell) Having any fun yet?

MONDELLO: ...Or "Thor: Love And Thunder" in 3D or take a family of four to a kid flick for about what a single ticket would usually cost...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MINIONS: THE RISE OF GRU")

PIERRE COFFIN: (As Minions, laughter).

MONDELLO: ...The theory being that once the ice has broken, patrons will be more likely to come back. Streaming's not going away, of course, and the pandemic, though it seems to be receding, could still throw a wrench in the works. But theater owners figure that after two years of not seeing an important segment of their audience - the folks that turn awards contenders into hits - it can't hurt to remind them that there's a kick to being audience members rather than an audience of one. And who knows? Maybe with the money they save, they'll spring for the jumbo popcorn.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.