Big Screen Revival

College students stream video, but still enjoy the movie theater experience.

By Steve Lehman

In the age of online streaming, college students are going to local movie theaters more than you would expect. In fact, they’re going even more than they used to.

A recent study from the Pew Research Center shows that 61% of young adults use online streaming services as their preferred method of watching TV. When you have access to thousands of movies online for the monthly price of one traditional theater ticket, why go to the theater at all?

Isaac Kahan, a Haverford College junior, has some answers. While he enjoys streaming movies on his phone just like any other college student, Kahan also frequents the Bryn Mawr Film Institute (or BMFI) and other nearby theaters.

“I like the movie theater experience,” he told me in his apartment on Haverford’s campus, about a 10-minute bus ride down Lancaster Avenue from the BMFI. “I like how you can… go into another world for a little bit. And it feels like you’re doing something more productive than just watching a movie in your room.”

Why does he go the BMFI specifically? Because it’s easy. Kahan and other Haverford students can either walk or take the bus to Bryn Mawr, while Bryn Mawr College is around the corner from the theater.

Statistics some local theaters are actually thriving. reported that the Bryn Mawr Film Institute “represents a rousing success in the digital age” due to “tapping into the movie-loving community in its backyard.”

The BMFI, an independent and non-profit movie theater, is selling more memberships to students now than in the past few years. Patricia Russo, membership manager for the Bryn Mawr theater, said that they “see a positive trend” in student membership sales.

The increase isn’t accidental: the BMFI is pushing for more student involvement. Possible reasons for the increase in student memberships include local business discounts, an annual College Night, and more community partners such as colleges and secondary schools in the area. “We’re doing as much as we can to bring in students,” Russo said over the phone.

This isn’t unique to the BMFI. Four local movie theaters managed by the parent non-profit Renew Theaters, based in Doylestown, each saw a steady increase in student ticket sales over the past three years, according to Renew Theaters’ Membership Manager Lauren Nonini.

Based on data provided by Nonini, student attendance at the Princeton Garden Theater leapt from 4,318 in 2015 to 10,344 in 2017, while the Ambler Theater, County Theater, and Hiway Theater saw similar — though less dramatic — increases over the same time span.

Streaming is convenient and easy, but Netflix can only go so far. Some college students want more out of their movies, especially if it means a way to relieve stress, get off campus, and not think about school for a while.

Will Zhu, another Haverford junior, also appreciates the local theater experience. For Zhu, riding his bike the short distance down Lancaster Avenue to the BMFI is part of the fun.

“I usually bike to the Bryn Mawr theater… the biking experience, plus the movie experience… all help me get away from the Haverbubble,” said Zhu, referring to the idea that Haverford students don’t leave the campus enough.

Like Kahan, Zhu also likes to stream the occasional movie on his computer. But seeing new movies on the big screen is “something that watching on my tiny laptop cannot replace.”

Going to the movies is also a good way to let off steam after a tough week. “I usually go on a Friday or Saturday, after turning in all my problem sets or papers and stuff,” Zhu said. “I just need to get off campus.”

That fits into a larger pattern of student ticket sales: The Princeton Garden Theater, located across the street from Princeton University in New Jersey, sold thousands more student tickets in 2017 than the Ambler, Hiway, and County theaters, all of which are located farther from local colleges.

In the end, young people will go where it’s convenient. Like the Princeton theater, the BMFI is easily-accessible to local schools such as Bryn Mawr College, Haverford College, and Villanova University.

It’s not all young people, though. Kahan said that “usually when I go, I don’t see many college students there. Maybe there are some, but the vast majority are older.”

Zhu shared similar sentiments. The last time he went, “it was packed,” he remembered. “Everyone in there was over 60 years old.”

That doesn’t stop them, and many other students, from enjoying the local theater experience. Sometimes, you just need to sit back, relax, and enjoy the magic of the movie theater.