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In his 09-Nov-2019 New York Times Opinion piece Martin Scorsese: I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain. the director, writer and producer laments "the sameness of today’s franchise pictures", and says:

It’s a perilous time in film exhibition, and there are fewer independent theaters than ever...

this being one illustration of the author's point that formulaic and highly market-engineered franchise films that draw huge audiences and consume a large fraction of all available screens are making it difficult to get, for the lack of a better term, artistic film from big-screen time, and pushing it to the streaming world.

...the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.

Of course literally speaking "fewer... than ever" can't be true, since several hundred years ago there were zero.

Question: But is there data available on the number of independent theaters or screens over time, and does it show that the number, either in the US or worldwide, is in decline?

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In general this is probably true

"Independent" (see below) theaters (chains) are less likely (for economic reasons) to be able to switch to digital projection as is now required by current practice.

The practice of projecting movies onto a screen via 35mm film reels is no longer the norm, as digital methods prove simpler and more versatile. As a result, the number of analog movie screens in the U.S. has dwindled whilst digital screens (including 3D) take over the market.

Statista

However, the term "independent" is somewhat vague.

The term “independent” is a flexible one. NATO (National Assocition of Theater Owners) defines it as a theater or theater chain that has 75 screens or less.

Variety

Overall, very small cinemas did decline for a while but have started back on the rise.

The total screen count of cinemas housing one to four screen was in decline from 2014 to 2017 ....but 2018 saw nearly a 6% increase in screens.

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The number of actual sites has shown a marginal increase in the last few years but this considerably reduced from the 1990's

In 2018, there were 5,803 cinema sites in the United States, a similar amount to the 5,786 recorded a decade earlier. However, a look at the figures during the mid to late 1990s shows that there has been a significant decrease in the number of cinema sites in the U.S., dropping from 7,744 in 1995 to just over 6,100 in 2005.

Statista

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The number of actual screens though has seen a general increase since the late Eighties but has been relatively flat for the past few years.

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NATO

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    Thank you for the thorough and well-sourced answer! – uhoh Nov 5 at 18:25
  • Do these figures include drive-in theaters? Just curious... – MissouriSpartan Nov 6 at 3:51
  • The number of drive ins is shown in the image – Paulie_D Nov 6 at 7:01
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    Good grief; that 1999-2001 drop is remarkable! (Although the graph's scale is very misleading) What caused this I wonder? – Lightness Races with Monica Nov 6 at 12:01
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    @LightnessRaceswithMonica Anecdotally, a lot of mall based theaters disappeared as the first sign of mall retailing woes and/or consolidation by the big chains merging. – pboss3010 Nov 6 at 13:50

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