What does it take to get young moviegoers to the theater? Here's what they told us.

"Must-see" movies "Barbie" and "Inside Out 2" created a potent mix of nostalgia and authenticity to drive Gen Z-ers to the theater.

Young audiences connected with Barbie for its authenticity and because it was a must-see in theaters.
Young audiences connected with "Barbie" for its authenticity and because it was a "must-see" in theaters. (Photo illustration: Alex Cochran for Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images, Warner Bros./Courtesy Everett Collection)

After hotly anticipated films like The Fall Guy and Furiosa failed to stir up “Barbenheimer” levels of heat at the box office, what did move the needle for audiences was an animated sequel that mixed nostalgia with a hefty dose of the feels. Inside Out 2 followed its beloved 2015 original to the top of the charts, which has all but guaranteed it a billion-dollar success.

Who was responsible for making it a megahit? Families with kids, of course, but the box office — and Disney Pixar — can also thank Gen Z.

“According to general audience exit polls conducted by PostTrak over the June 22-24 weekend, nearly 40 percent of ticket buyers were between the ages of 18 and 24,” the Hollywood Reporter wrote about the film. “Teenagers, or those between ages 13 and 17, represented 23 percent of the audience.”

For Gen Z audiences especially — who generally make less money than older generations and have grown up with access to myriad TV shows, movies and more on a variety of devices — it takes a lot to get this generation into theaters. For moviegoers in their 20s and younger, forking over a chunk of their spending money better be worth it.

“Obviously they are not a generation that has lacked for home entertainment,” Walt Hickey, author of You Are What You Watch: How Movies and TV Affect Everything, told Yahoo Entertainment. “They have had at the fingertips streaming services that, back in the day, millennials could only dream about.”

When it comes to making the choice between hitting the multiplex and watching at home, for considerably less money and effort, it has to be for something they don’t want to miss.

Mia Lima, a University of Southern California rising senior who is also co-president of the Trojan Filmmakers Club, told Yahoo “there's an increase on the importance of the movie in the theater being an event.”

Otherwise, if you can wait “and watch it on streaming,” Lima said, you might as well. Audiences, she added, are waiting for “something that feels like a quote-unquote must-see.”

While FOMO is one factor getting Gen Z into theaters, it’s not the only one.

According to UCLA’s October 2023 Teens and Screens report, which surveyed 1,500 people ages 10-24, Gen Z is also looking for content “centered around friendships and platonic relationships” over “forced” romance, as well as storylines that reflect “real life” versus unrealistic ones but are nevertheless hopeful, uplifting and authentic.

“Adolescents are looking to media as a ‘third place’ where they can connect and have a sense of belonging,” Stephanie Rivas-Lara, the UCLA study's first author, said in a statement. That combination showed up in Barbie last summer and arguably added to the can’t-miss factor of Inside Out 2.

Inside Out 2 brings Joy (Amy Poehler) back to headquarters and introduces Anxiety (Maya Hawke).
"Inside Out 2" brings Joy (Amy Poehler) back to headquarters and introduces Anxiety (Maya Hawke). (Disney/Pixar)

Social media campaigns have been huge forces in creating excitement around a film’s release, helping drive younger audiences — and audiences in general — to films like 2023’s one-two punch of Barbie and Oppenheimer, both of which went on to garner awards recognition along with box office spoils.

For Christophe Merriam, 19, who is co-president of the USC film club alongside Lima, seeing a movie in theaters means being part of an inside joke or a larger cultural phenomenon.

That’s where, he said, “Barbenheimer” succeeded.

Are you going to wear pink? Are you going to wear all black to the screening? And then you're going to go watch the movies back-to-back because that's what was culturally cool,” he said. “People were excited to go do that or share their experience of [being] willing to do that or taking pictures and posting on social media.”

The effect showed up in ticket sales too. Forty percent of general audiences saw the “Barbenheimer” double feature same day in theaters, according to a 2024 Fandango survey of more than 6,000 people. That number jumped to 60% for audiences 18-34.

A more recent example is Anyone But You, starring Glen Powell and Sydney Sweeney. The film, released in December 2023, pulled in more butts in seats thanks to a highly coordinated social media campaign Sweeney was heavily involved in. After noticing moviegoers posting TikToks of themselves lip-syncing and dancing to Natasha Bedingfield’s song “Unwritten,” which appears in the film, the actress shared the posts with her roughly 20 million Instagram followers. And with more than 24 million views, the co-stars' put their chemistry on display to promote the film.

The mid-budget movie went from a “meh” reaction on its opening weekend to full-on blockbuster after giving audiences a chance to be in on the film’s jokes.

For some so-called Gen Z “film nerds,” seeing a movie in theaters means high expectations for elements like screen size and sound quality.

The Fandango survey found that 71% of general ticket buyers said they watched at least one movie this past year in a premium format. That number jumped to 79% among moviegoers ages 18-34.

“There's this nostalgic feeling about going to the movie theater. And so when you're in there, you can see it on IMAX, you can have everything like this huge surround-sound system,” Maddi Koch, a 23-year-old TikTok creator who posts about movies, told Yahoo Entertainment. “Nobody can recreate that in their house to the extent that IMAX does.”

Koch, who lives in South Carolina, added: “All my friends, at least around my age ... they're always like, ‘You saw that in IMAX, right?’”

IMAX has seen a boon recently, with net income up 33% year over year and new system installations up 67% year over year, according to the company’s April 25 earnings report.

CJ 4DPlex Americas CEO Don Savant told NBC News that 4DX cinemas, which have motion seats and other in-theater effects, are attracting younger audiences “in the 10-to-30 range, who are seeking more experiential viewing.”

“I recently went and watched Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes in 4DX,” Merriam said. “I want to see the film in its absolute max quality. I want to hear it with Dolby Sound. I want to see it in IMAX. I want to see it in 4DX.”

When it comes to storylines that some Gen Z moviegoers are skeptical about, “gratuitous” sex that values skin over story is something they aren’t showing up for.

In the UCLA survey, 51% of respondents wanted to see more platonic relationships onscreen while slightly less than half said sex “isn’t needed” for most films.

Merriam, Lima and Koch all cited instances when sex in films felt “forced,” “gratuitous” and “not necessary.”

“I feel like there's films that do a whole lot better of a job of sex actually having an impact in the story of the film and how sex is actually evolving it,” Merriam said. “For example, even in Saltburn, there's some very lewd scenes. … But I feel it does contribute to the overall narrative of the story, in my opinion. I feel like it does have a lot to say in painting who the characters are, where I feel maybe more traditionally in previous generations, it was just more like, ‘Yes, sex is in it.’ It is what it is. But for us, it's just kind of like, why is this here?”

Gen Z-ers also see the way social media usage is depicted onscreen among their age group as a turnoff, with current films not telling the whole story.

“It's very social media-heavy, the way Gen Z is portrayed, which I don't necessarily disagree with,” Bailey Vought, 23, who works at the Cherokee Film Commission, told Yahoo Entertainment. “There tends to be a sort of focus on that and being obsessed with those images, and that's all that they care about.”

However, she noted that it’s also “flattened” the portrayal of a generation and “not necessarily giving credit where it’s due, and especially in a lot of the Gen Z activism that you see today, in real life and social media.”

Koch pinpointed a sequence in the film A Man Called Otto in which an older man falls onto train tracks and instead of helping, a Gen Z bystander yells “take video.”

“Nobody in their right mind would watch an old man fall on the train tracks and not help him,” she said.

Hickey sympathizes with the characterization.

“Welcome to the club. I'm a millennial, and for an entire decade, millennials were painted with an extremely flat brush — going around killing industries and going around basically being too broke to function but also spending too much on other things,” he said.

As for Gen Z telling their own stories, Hickey said, “It’s just a matter of time.”