Will Movie Theaters Survive the Technological Explosion?

With the rise of any technology there also comes drastic changes to the landscape of contemporary culture. Nowhere has this trend been proven and reproven more than in motion pictures and the movie theater. When radio gave way to television, movie theaters took a hit in attendance and thus movies and movie theaters changed, losing their all-encompassing news/cartoon/entertainment angle and focusing more on single- or double-serving movie experiences. The advent of cable television and videotape also altered the landscape considerably, changing once more the model of how films were distributed, from long, slow release patterns with re-releases to large, wide releases over short periods of time. DVD then tightened that model again, shortening the time a movie would spend between theater and home release while changing renters into buyers.

One thing that hasn't changed, however, is the speculation over whether or not movie theaters can survive the technological innovations or whether it will become a relic of the past. This time, though, it seems like there might be some cause for concern. And while I don't think theaters will vanish completely, there is a very real threat that the experience might become more of a novelty experience rather than a staple of entertainment. What's causing the trouble? The home theater.

You see, as home projectors get better and cheaper and larger, more intricate sound systems become available (like the 7.1 Channel Surround), and the need to go out to see a large, beautiful image becomes based upon the size of your living room rather than available technology. I've seen an HD-DVD projected onto a movie theater screen and it looked like a film -- and that was at 1080i, not Blu-ray's 1080p -- so there isn't the old problem of image density and clarity. So you can have a movie theater image with movie theater sound on more comfortable chairs (usually a couch) and total control of your environment.

One of the problems with the changing theatrical landscape (and really, the landscape of American retail as a whole) is that we have become entitled as consumers. The idea that the customer is always right, especially when he is wrong, has led to a slide in manners. People feel that since they have multiple choices in commerce, that those choices owe them for their patronage above and beyond what is usually expected. Many patrons feel that since they paid to see a movie, they have every right to talk through it if they want to -- other patrons be damned. And since the new creed of businesses is to allow this, the notion of the home theater becomes infinitely more attractive.

Alamo Draft HouseHell, just last week a good friend of mine and theater owner Tim League (owner of the Alamo Drafthouse here in Austin) was followed to his car, screamed at, and had his car vandalized by an angry patron. Why was the patron upset? Because he was shushed by a Drafthouse server as is the theater's policy (stated boldly in an announcement before the film: the Alamo is a NO TALKING ZONE during movies). It turns out it was League who notified the server, per the standard procedure available to everyone. League was locally celebrated on the news, in the papers, and in blogs. The patron was not. The patron insisted he would never come back (psst, he doesn't have a choice, he's been banned and can be charged with vandalism, assault and making terrorist threats). So with jerks like this frequenting every theater BUT the Drafthouse, why wouldn't you want to stay home?

Until recently, it would have been the availability of movies, being that the theaters have exclusive content not available anywhere else. But again technology has the foil. The looming threat of piracy is making it much harder to justify going out. After all, if it is in a movie theater, it is available illegally somewhere online. For free. The only drawback here is usually quality, with a majority of early bootleg recordings from video cameras. But many leaks are beginning to come from studio masters, award screeners, and DVD test discs, so sometimes even that last stumbling block is removed, leaving only an ethical conscience and an iron stomach for dealing with unruly crowds proving to keep many returning week after week.

James Cameron is hoping that 3-D combats almost all of these issues, especially the piracy. You can't record a 3-D image. And there are no home 3-D players. But it remains to be seen whether or not this can save multiplexes from oblivion. Personally, unless movie theaters evolve once again and end the current cattle car mentality of service, I don't foresee most theater chains weathering the next 10 years. The home theater system plus the developing video on demand technology is set to crush cable television and mortally wound movie theaters. The only survivors will be those theaters that create an experience -- a night out, a real reason to leave your home and see a movie on someone else's screen. But I think there's a good chance that this itself will become a niche entertainment endeavor.