Is Detroit a Cinema Desert?

Detroit is an underserved city for film exhibition, specifically first-run theaters. This lack of theaters in Detroit is largely due to suburban fears multiplied by poor media representation. As a historically segregated city, the overall absence of theaters serves to further stratify Detroit across racial lines and disenfranchise black Detroit residents. Not only is film exhibition underserved in the physical space of Detroit, but also in the academic space. There are no studies of modern Detroit film exhibition, and few studies of past exhibition. All studies on film exhibition in Detroit are centered around specific movie palaces of the early 20th century.[1] For other cities, modern film exhibition is also a neglected topic, with no available studies on movie theaters in modern American cities. Without a library of literature to refer to, I rely instead on related conceptual ideas, particularly sociological theory, to investigate Detroit’s cinema landscape. Important to my argument are three central theoretical concepts: multiplexes as suburban fear avoidance, cultural/economic/social capital exchange, and consumption practices as identity.

German sociologist Ulrich Beck theorized that that post-industrial landscapes are often marked by a tendency “to manufacture certainty” and avoid risk-taking. Hubbard’s work expands upon his theory, positing that this tendency often leads to the exclusion of minorities, and strong Othering practices.[2] Conducted surveys further indicate that many people choose suburban multiplexes because of safety, certainty, and the promise of “shallow sociality.”[3] Hubbard further believes that suburban multiplexes exist because of these risk-avoiding and Othering practices, a theory that this paper largely built around.

Cultural capital is a concept first introduced by Bourdieu in 1976 in his seminal work, Distinction. It is one of the three types of capital discussed by Bourdieu, along with economic and social capital. Cultural capital is an amount of cultural competence gained through education, social standing, and time. Economic capital can be easily measured with finances and transferred instantaneously. Social capital is how many social connections one has. Economic, cultural, and social capital can all be exchanged for each other. Some exchanges require multiple types of capital and cannot be acquired with only one kind, making all three types of capital essential for social mobility.

Holt further expands upon cultural capital theory.[4] One of his most engaging arguments is that consumption of mass culture becomes the mark of high cultural capital in our post-industrial society that is defined by mass consumer culture. Holt further went on to study the effects of high vs low cultural capital on tastes and consumption choices. Among Holt’s findings is a differing in how one creates identity in relationship to mass consumption. Those with low cultural capital are marked by “passionate and routinized participation in particular consumption activities” while those with high cultural capital attempt to cultivate a sense of authenticity through connoisseurship and eclecticism.[5] He also notes that those with low cultural capital tend to form their consumption identities as part of a community, but those with high cultural capital use consumption to express individuality.

The works of Hubbard, Bourdieu, and Holt have also been instrumental in examining Detroit’s cinema landscape. This essay will first show that there is a lack of first-run theaters in the Detroit and that this is unusual as compared to peer cities. The latter half of the essay will explore how media portrayals of Detroit affect suburban fears of the city and how a lack of theaters affects citizens. I will use the monikers “Detroiter” and “Suburbanite” to refer to people living within the city limits and people living in the Greater Metro-Detroit Area, respectively.

Detroit Cinema

The movie theaters of concern in this essay are movie theaters that show first-run films on a consistent 7-days-a-week basis. There are organizations throughout the city (mostly in Downtown and Midtown) that screen films but are not first-run theaters by this qualification. The Detroit Film Theatre, a part of the Detroit Institute of Arts, occasionally screens independent films, but the films are not always first-run and are not on screened on a consistent/every day basis.[6] Pop-up cinemas (like Mothlight Microcinema and Cinema Lamont) utilize more permanent spaces to screen films monthly or several times throughout the year but will also be discounted on the basis of inconsistent screenings.[7]

Since 1905, Detroit has had over 300 theaters. Several of the historic theaters still stand today. On the East Side, a historic art deco cinema, The Alger Theatre, remains undergoing long-term renovations. Other historic theaters, like the Fox Theatre, Bonstelle Theatre, and Fisher Theater, now show live theatre performances. Live music performances have taken over other historic theaters like the Fillmore Theatre, Garden Theatre, Majestic Theater, and Senate Theater. Many more theaters, however, never had renovations and sit empty.

Today, Detroit, a city of nearly 700,000 people, has only two first-run movie theaters: a multiplex called the Bel-Air Luxury Cinema and an independent theater called Cinema Detroit. The Bel-Air sits right on the edge of the northern border of the city, while Cinema Detroit is in the center of the Midtown neighborhood, a centrally located area currently in the process of being gentrified.[8] Almost on complete opposite sides of the city, each theater serves a very different group of people and has a very different cultural purpose.

Image A 

The Bel-Air was previously run by multiplex chain Regal Entertainment until it was purchased by the current owners in 2000. When the Bel-Air opened in 2001, it was the city’s only movie theater.[9] The cinema typically only shows Hollywood blockbusters, but occasionally hosts community events, independent, and local films. The theater is located on 8 Mile, the infamous road dividing the black city from the white suburbs. If a Detroiter were to try to take the bus from Downtown to the Bel-Air, it would take over an hour. Though it is technically located within the city limits, the Bel-Air is almost more relevant to the suburbs that sit only thousands of feet away.

Nine miles away, Cinema Detroit sits in Cass Corridor, part of a series of neighborhoods recently rebranded as “Midtown” to attract more artists and college students.[10] In 2013, Cinema Detroit started as a pop-up theater before moving to the vacated Burton Elementary School in Cass Corridor. After two years at Burton, the theater packed up and moved several blocks away to their current location. Cinema Detroit shows exclusively independent and local films, though they occasionally host community events. The owners describe their audience as half Suburbanites and half Detroiters.[11]

Peer Cities

Detroit’s twelve screens fall far short of the 2004 national average of 8,270 people per screen, while screens in the suburbs grow steadily.[12] The movement of cinemas from urban centers to suburban centers is well-documented, particularly in post-industrial cities like Detroit.[13] Though most post-industrial cities have suffered a decline in cinema within the urban city limits, Detroit’s is different in two significant ways: the scope of the problem and the type of theaters.

Attempting to find peer cities to compare to Detroit is complicated and involves attempting to distill “what is Detroit” into quantifiable variables. The variables I chose are in no way representative of the city as a whole, but instead are intended to reflect economics, suburban perceptions of the city, and variables that would matter to theater-owners.

Population size, and population density are variables that matter to entrepreneurs and business owners and, after all, “an audience spread too thinly is the same as no audience at all.”[14] Similarly, an audience that can’t afford your products is of little interest to business owners, so per capita income is also of importance.[15] Crime rates and the binary variable “Rust Belt” were included as a matter of suburban audience’s perceptions (and fears) of the city. For simplicity, I included cities from the following states as Rust Belt Cities: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wisconsin, as well as FBI Crime Data from 2015.[16] Originally, I had also controlled for ethnicity demographics, but few cities were similar to Detroit and those that were had few other variables in common. For first-run movie screens, I used the popular ticketing service Fandango and individual cinemas’ websites to determine which cinemas fell within the city limits and how many screens they had.[17] Any numbers in green in Table A are within a 5% difference of Detroit’s numbers, making the city comparable in that variable. Using this methodology, I found that the cities most comparable to Detroit are St. Louis, Las Vegas, Cleveland, and Memphis.[18]

Table A

As seen in Table A, Detroit has 56,066 people per screen, an outlier when compared with peer cities. Cleveland, a city only three hours’ drive away, has half as many people and twice as many screens. While it is true that Detroit has an unusually low population density for a city with this much land, cities with similar populations and similar population densities do not have the same deficit of theaters. Las Vegas, a city with nearly the same population density has over six times the number of screens than Detroit does, and Memphis, a city of comparable population, has five times as many. The lack of theaters in the city cannot, therefore, be attributed to low population or low population density. Neither does the amount of theaters appear to be correlated with the violent crime rate, per capita income, or Rust Belt decline. St. Louis is similar in all three variables and while it has the same quantity of screens, has theaters nearly twice as dense when using the people per screen measure.

A more in-depth look at the theaters in the peer cities reveals another discrepancy as seen in the last several columns of Table A. Most peer cities have a significant number of multiplexes while Detroit has only one.[19] A local Michigan multiplex chain, Emagine Entertainment, has been discussing moving to Detroit for several years. As recently as June 2017, the CEO has discussed opening a 10-screen multiplex in either the Midtown or Downtown neighborhoods, saying “over the next one and a half years, there will be population to justify the investment.”[20]  If Emagine opens their Detroit location, Detroit will have a similar screens per capita as St. Louis, and a similar makeup to Cleveland, but will still fall far short of the national average and other peer cities.

Public Perceptions of Detroit

So why is Detroit unable to attract multiplexes? The public perception of Detroit has varied wildly over the city’s history. Since the 1960’s, the most popular depiction of Detroit has been of a crime-ridden, morally (or literally) bankrupt city, while other popular portrayals paint the city as a “vast, featureless stretch of nameless peril.”[21] These perceptions can begin to “overwrite memories” of reality and overtake the real city, as happened with Toronto recently. Toronto has become the city that has been shown on screen because the image of city has become more profitable than the reality. In particular, it is more profitable for tourism, but the city has, in turn, lost some of its original character.[22] While poor depictions certainly affect the national opinion of Detroit and hinder interstate tourists, this essay is more concerned with what these images of the city do on a regional level.

In 1996, Heath and Gilbert noted the well-documented effect of sensationalized reporting of crime on suburban fear.[23] Sensationalized reporting of Detroit and fear of Detroit are both extremely well-documented. The suburbs of Detroit have long viewed the city as a place to fear, as exemplified by the Detroit Eight Mile Wall built to divide white neighborhoods from black neighborhoods.[24] Today, the racist tradition continues. The extremely-white suburb of Grosse Pointe recently built several de-facto barricades made of snow, potted plants, and temporary buildings.[25] Oakland County borders the city to the north, and the County Executive L. Brooks Patterson often paints the city in a negative light, once publicly announcing that “There’s no reason for [suburban people] to go to Detroit.”[26] Curran did an extensive survey in 2013 about Metro-Detroit Suburbanites’ perceptions of the city and found that all feared the city in some capacity, many citing crime, coded racial stereotypes, and blight as reasons why. Several respondents evenly openly admitted to avoiding the city altogether.[27] In Leicester, Hubbard’s interviews also found that travelling through the city was a source of fear and anxiety for people. His survey further indicated that white affluent consumers were far more likely to visit a suburban multiplex than other respondents because of these fears. Many respondents also implied that they were visiting the nearest cinema, while in actuality, there was at least one cinema closer; these respondents were also far more likely to visit suburban cinemas than urban ones. Some respondents explicitly stated safety concerns as their reason for avoiding cinemas in the city, while others cited general anxiety about the city being unpredictable.[28]

Multiplexes offer security, a sterile Disney World-esque environment, and the promise of a night out without “unwelcome encounters.”[29] Hubbard’s theory of the multiplex as a purposeful place of white safety and certainty makes sense, especially in a city like Detroit. Of course, white Suburbanites are not the only people to attend multiplexes, but the modern luxury “exclusive” multiplex is largely marketed toward these audiences. The white male audience is often also seen as the “neutral” expected audience, and any deviation is viewed as a niche. If Detroit is a place of fear and anxiety for white Suburbanites, then a place of security and white safety does not belong in the city at all.

But what about Independent Cinemas? Holt’s cultural capital findings provide an interesting answer. Both Bourdieu and Holt measure low cultural capital as a result of social origin (measured by father’s profession) and educational qualifications. A 2015 study found that Detroit lagged behind in both average family income and educational attainment.[30] These findings indicate that Detroiters are more likely to have low cultural capital. Holt found that those with low cultural capital are more likely to participate in mass media consumption unapologetically.[31] By nature of showcasing independent films, independent theaters are less likely to show Hollywood blockbusters. Therefore, independent theaters cater less to people with low cultural capital (Detroiters) and more towards people with high social origin and educational qualifications (Suburbanites).

The Racial Divide

A 2010 study found that Detroit was still the most segregated city in the United States, and the landscape of cinema is no exception to this.[32] Hubbard says that “postmodern cities are characterised not by landscapes of production, but by landscapes of consumption.”  In Detroit, the sites of consumption have slowly been segregated over the last several decades as shopping malls and multiplexes have moved to the white suburbs. Two suburbs in particular, Birmingham and Royal Oak, have respective populations of 21,000 and 60,000, but have two theaters each in their downtown areas. Many people go to these suburban multiplexes to avoid “crime-ridden” areas. As it has for over 50 years, “words like ‘freedom from crime’ [are] code for moving away from blacks.”[33]

As private spaces, multiplexes are inherently exclusionary, sometimes informally and sometimes quite formally. In 2015, one of the Royal Oak theatres, the Emagine Palladium, banned all children on the premises after 6pm unless their parents had paid a $350 membership fee.[34] Policies like this make suburban “luxury” multiplexes inaccessible to poor people and in Metro-Detroit, that means black Detroiters are the ones excluded. Detroiters are further excluded from suburban cinemas in a way Suburbanites are not excluded from Detroit cinemas: accessibility of transportation. While travelling to the city may be stressful for Suburbanites, it is difficult, time-consuming, and sometimes impossible for Detroiters to travel to the suburbs. Detroit has a very low level of car ownership and a notoriously bad public transportation system.[35]

Even within the city limits, cinema initiatives in Detroit are taking place in white areas of a city that is 84% black.[36] Cinema Detroit is located in Midtown, and the Bel-Air Luxury Cinema mostly serves suburban (white) residents. Other recent failed cinema initiatives, like the Burton Theatre and Corktown Cinema took place in not only the same neighborhood as Cinema Detroit, but literally the same building. The most recent movie theater to shut down, the Ren Cen 4, was also located in a white area of the city (downtown).[37] Regardless of the intentions behind locating these businesses, the effect is the same: cinema-going in Detroit is segregated.

While seeing the latest Transformers flick might not be life-changing, disenfranchising minorities from seeing films in theaters has real-life consequences. There is a prevailing sociological theory that what we purchase has become the locus of our identities as modern Americans. This overemphasis on our purchases “may be a means to self-actualisation—a reconfirmation of Self through encounters with others.”[38] As shown by Holt’s findings, community events are particularly important to communities with low cultural capital.[39] More than personal identity, denying people access to mass media consumption denies people access to cultural capital. Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital emphasizes the need for all three kinds of capital for social mobility. It is important to note that cultural capital in this capacity refers to “an accumulation of specific forms of knowledge, skills and abilities that are valued by privileged groups in society.”[40] While Bourdieu’s “high” vs “low” terminology implies a strict hierarchy of value, this essay does not intend to impose that hierarchy onto Detroit. When I speak of Detroiters having “low cultural capital” it refers only to the types of capital valued by the white middle and upper classes. Those without access to this type of cultural capital will find this mobility to the middle and upper class more difficult. In Detroit, this means disenfranchised black Detroiters are kept disenfranchised.


However unintentional, the location of theaters in Detroit segregates the city, and the small amount of theaters in the city prevents black Detroiters from accessing the cultural capital necessary for social mobility. The city of Detroit has a long history of formal and informal racial barriers, and although many of the explicit segregationist laws have been repealed, many informal systems remain in place. While the premise of this essay certainly implicates white Suburbanites as being complicit in a cultural system of segregation, I do not intend to present white migration into the city as the solution, in fact, I present no solutions. Consumption choices and tastes are informed by unconscious racial biases, racial geographies, and normative racist systems. Questioning these choices is important to desegregating cultural and physical spaces, even for something as routine as cinema-going.


[1] Hauser, Michael, and Marianne Weldon. Detroit’s Downtown Movie Palaces. Arcadia Publishing, 2006.

[2] Phil Hubbard, “Fear and loathing at the multiplex: Everyday Anxiety in the post-industrial city.” Capital & Class 27, no. 2 (2003): 70.

[3] Ibid. 71.

[4] Douglas B. Holt, “Does cultural capital structure American consumption?.” Journal of consumer research 25, no. 1 (1998): 1-25.

[5] Ibid. 14.

[6] Detroit Institute of Arts, “Detroit Film Theatre.” Detroit Institute of Arts.


[8] Lee DeVito, “Midtown or Cass Corridor? Jack White attempts to change the conversation.” Thu, Jun 4, 2015.

[9] Elizabeth Voss, “Unchained cinemas: Locally owned theaters fill seats through services, attentiveness.” Crain’s Detroit Business.

[10] Lee DeVito, “Midtown or Cass Corridor?”

[11] 8-Wood Blog, “Cinema Detroit has new digs, but needs new digital equipment.” 8-Wood Blog.

[12] R-T Associates, “Market Feasibility and Impact Study of Proposed Mega Plex Theatre in Lincoln, Nebraska.” May 2005.

[13] Hubbard, “Fear and loathing”, 57.

[14] Chris Anderson, The long tail: Why the future of business is selling less of more. Hachette Books, 2006.

[15] Population size, population density, and per capita income was gathered from the 2016 Census.

[16] This definition of Rust Belt was taken from: Alder, Simeon, David Lagakos, and Lee E. Ohanian. “The Decline of the US Rust Belt: a Macroeconomic Analysis.” (2014).


[18] There is one city of note that I did not include in these figures. Jackson, MS has not had a theater in the city limits in several years. The city has a similar ethnic makeup to Detroit, but is dissimilar in most other variables. Research on why Jackson has no theaters is not available, although the city has been trying to attract cinemas for several years.

[19] In this study, St. Louis is the exception to the multiplex dominance, swinging instead the other way: the largest theater in the city is a Landmark theater, part of a national independent theater chain.

[20] Dana Afana, “Emagine movie theater eyeing sites in Downtown Detroit, Midtown” MLive. June 23, 2017.

[21] Elvis Mitchell, “FILM; You Won’t See My Detroit in the Movies.” New York Times. DEC. 8, 2002.

[22] Vicki Mayer, “The cultural impacts of runaway film production.” The Routledge Companion to Global Popular Culture (2014): 393.

[23] Linda Heath and Kevin Gilbert, “Mass media and fear of crime.” American Behavioral Scientist 39, no. 4 (1996): 379-386.

[24] Ardelia Lee. “The Detroit Wall: A Tale of How Federal Policy Helped Divide A City”. Daily Detroit. Jun 6, 2016.

[25] Rose Hackman “’Detroiters stay out’: racial blockades divide a city and its suburbs”. February 2015.

[26] Paige Williams, “Drop Dead, Detroit!” The New Yorker. January 27, 2014.

[27] Paul Curran, “Stand Up And Tell Them You’re From Detroit: Belonging, Attachment, And Regional Identity Among Suburban Detroiters.” (2013).

[28] Hubbard, “Fear and Loathing.”

[29] Phil Hubbard, “Screen-shifting: Consumption,‘riskless risks’ and the changing geographies of cinema.” Environment and Planning A 34, no. 7 (2002): 1253.

[30] Leonidas Murembya and Eric Guthrie. “Demographic and Labor Market Profile: Detroit City.” April 2015.

[31] Holt, “Does cultural capital structure American consumption?”

[32] John R. Logan and Brian J. Stults “The persistence of segregation in the metropolis: New Findings from the 2010 Census.” Census Brief Prepared for Project US 2010 (2011).

[33] THOMAS J. SUGRUE “A Dream Still Deferred” New York Times.  MARCH 26, 2011.

[34] Ian Thibode, “ACLU says Metro Detroit Emagine theater banning youth is discriminating” MLive. October 28, 2015.

[35] Alex B. Hill, “Map: Vehicles in Detroit as Percent of Total Population 2012.” DETROITography.

[36] 2016 United States Census. “American FactFinder – Results.” American FactFinder.

[37] DENNIS ARCHAMBAULT, “Despite Few Theaters, Detroit’s Film Culture Proves Resilient.” ModelD. TUESDAY, MAY 31, 2016.

[38] Phil Hubbard, “Screen-Shifting.” 1254.

[39] Holt, “Does cultural capital structure American consumption?”

[40] Tara J. Yosso*, “Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth.” Race ethnicity and education 8, no. 1 (2005): 76.