Just this past week, a friend and I were debating over the idea that ‘the theater’ — that is, the physical movie theater — had outlived it’s usefulness. As nostalgic as I often find myself in this blog, I am unapologetically on the pessimistic side of this discussion. After years of patronizing these establishments, I’m strongly coming to the conclusion that there’s little that National Amusements or any other mega-plex theater can offer me that a $2000 HDTV with a $200-300 surround sound setup, an HD movie player and a Netflix account can’t deliver.
OK, sure, we’re talking about a substantial investment here. Not many folks have that kinda cash laying around (even during tax season) to invest in a $2000+ display. But the price of displays are coming down. Way down. I saw some great 42″ plasma displays for $1200 – $1800 recently. And prices are only going to go down even further. If you’re going to have one high priced item in your home, aside from your mattress and your sofa, I’d argue that your display should probably be the most expensive item. It’s probably the centerpiece of most family entertainment. And at $8 on average for a movie ticket, plus cash for snacks and fuel, it probably makes sense in the long run to invest in your own home theater.
The annoyances alone are enough to make me strongly consider abandoning theaters altogether. Kids kicking the back of your seat during the performance. Parents scolding. Children crying. Cell phones emitting tinny ringtones (and even worse, the extremely rude few that actually hold phone conversations during a showing). Having to sliding around on oily, buttered floors in the dark. The inability to pause the showing when “nature calls” — or to even stop and go back a bit when I feel that I missed some small-yet-significant detail. Overpriced, unhealthy (and poor tasting) food. And let’s not forget the know-it-all guy who has to verbally navigate his wife/girlfriend through each plot turn. These are just a few of the annoyances that are driving folks like me away from the theater.
I’ve heard some make the argument that taking away these annoyances might change my mind about the experience. Not likely. I’ve heard Alex Lindsay on his This Week In Media podcast talk about some of the theaters on the west coast that try to offer a more upscale experience — some by installing high quality displays or upping the quality of the food. One attraction in San Francisco actually has compartmentalized sections for intimate showings with you and your friends. These are all nice tries (and I’d still like to check those theaters out someday), but for my money, I’d rather watch the film on a 50″ plasma with DTS.
I’m not completely progressive. Some of my most memorable film experiences were with a crowd of strangers as we reacted to an action film with shouts and applause. Or even crying together with an audience at a touching scene. Those were some great moments. And I can look back on those memories and smile. But looking forward, I’d still rather be home with my 50″ 1080p LCD set.
So, is it the annoyances that have got me so down on theaters? The rising costs? The poor quality of most of the content? Well, it’s probably a little bit of each of those things. But on a whole, I just feel that the movies are a dying breed that Hollywood is trying desperately to cling to. It may be a wild and fanciful notion to most that a world would exist without movie theaters. But I’m sure that same thought came to many when the thought of not having to go to the movie house to see news footage was first debated. Or perhaps the fact that there was no longer a need for drive-in movie theaters. Sure, drive-in movie theaters conceptually sound like fun (and I can recall them being kinda intimate and fun when I was a kid and saw a few films in an actual drive-in theater. ) But ultimately drive-ins proved to be somewhat of a novelty and didn’t offer anything above nostalgic value. Turning the page to 2007, movie theaters – like drive-in theaters before them – aren’t bringing much value to the consumer outside of nostalgia. In every decade since the 50’s, going to the theater was a social activity, but also a necessity since there wasn’t the ability to replicate the film experience in the home. Today, not only can we replicate the experience, but we can do it significantly better. Not only because of improved displays, but also digital distribution of films has made it easier and less costly to deliver the film experience to viewers – as the service so eloquently states – “on demand”.
I could go on for hours talking about whether the business model is there for movie studios to begin to abandon the theaters. But regardless of the business debate, the fact remains — many avid film goers like myself are shifting the amount of film watching they are doing at home vs. at the cinema drastically. I predict that in the next 5 years, we’ll be seeing first run movies distributed direct to consumers via set-top box. It’s already happening. But I predict that we’ll see it with more high profile releases and with more frequency. It will be the norm.
So what about our historic movie theaters? Well, we can still see encore performances of great films with a crowd of others who are also avid fans. It will be like seeing The Rocky Horror Picture Show but with scripts for other movies. Well, maybe not that extreme. But one thing is for sure — theaters are going the way of the dodo. Or of the drive-in theater. So, goodbye sticky floors. Goodbye, “kid who can’t stop running up and down the aisles while mom sits by watching”. Goodbye, “guy who insists on fingering the actor who he thinks ‘did it’ in the murder mystery”. And most of all, goodbye, “lady who’s Gwen Stefani poor-quality midi ringtone keeps going off as she fumbles through her bottomless pocketbook to try and turn it off”. I know a place where none of these annoyances or people are allowed. And it’s called ‘my living room’.