Forty years ago families would pile into their station wagons and headed for a large parking lot with a giant white screen in it. There they’d watch movies with dozens of other families after the sun went down. It was relatively cheap and a fun way to watch the latest movies. Drive-In movie theaters thrived through the 1960s and 1970s. The 1980s saw most of them slowly close down; the American movie watching habits were shifting towards the “multi-plex” model.
Families flocked to buildings with more and more movie screens, offering a much wider variety of films. Now Drive-In theaters feel antiquated, a relic of a bygone age that’s fun to visit, but not quite the most spectacular way to watch a movie. The economic times we live in, coupled with major advances in home video and audio technology are keeping more and more people at home on their couches. With a broadband Internet connection and a service like Netflix, perhaps the era of giant movie houses is coming to an end. It may not happen overnight, but the winds of change are blowing.
The “Theater” Experience: It’s Just Not the Same Anymore
If you’ve been in a movie theater in the last decade you’ve seen it. Little flashes of bright light coming up from the seats around you. Maybe you’ve even done it; just a quick check of the time (no one wears a watch any more), or of your text messages. Cell phones have been equipped with bigger and brighter displays, and nothing snaps away the attention of audience member like a beacon of light flashing up in the middle of the auditorium.
Then of course there’s the “talkers.” People who think that their voices are so quiet and dulcet-toned that no one will mind them asking questions about the movie, or whatever else is on their mind at the time, in the middle of the movie. For some reason, no matter how loud the movie theater’s sound system is, you still can hear the conversations of the teenagers behind you, or the couple who isn’t sure who the star of the film is and they’ve seen her in recently.
The point of course is that so many people are now conditioned to the home theater experience that it has carried itself right into the actual movie theaters. Some might argue this is a case of society just becoming more rude and less concerned with anything other than their own comfort; but I’m not one to make arguments like this, not being a slippery-slope kind of person. Yet for whatever the reason is, the movie theater experience-being in a dark room with a great sound system watching an amazing movie just is not the same as it was twenty years ago.
An Arm, or a Leg?
Setting aside the behavior or movie goers ruining the experience, perhaps the most glaring fault with seeing in a movie in a theater is ticket prices. My brother recently went to see “Thor” in 3D with his three kids and it cost him almost $100 for tickets, some popcorn and two sodas. That $100 could buy a very well equipped BluRay player. For just a few hundred more a 46″ 1080p TV can be purchased, or he could go watch two or three other movies this summer.
Forget the BluRay player for a moment. A Netflix streaming only account is only about $8 a month. Movies stream now in full HD quality video and sound. For a family of four, you can watch an entire year’s worth of content at home for less than one night at a movie theater. The math just doesn’t add up for movie theaters. Unfortunately it’s not necessarily the theater owners’ faults for the rising prices. The percentage they get from the box office is quite small, forcing them to gouge you at the concession stand and when you buy your tickets. The studios themselves are helping to kill movie theaters.
The Special Occasion Niche
My wife and I have two young children and live on a modest budget. This means going to an actual movie theater has been relegated to special events; movies that we just really want to see on the big screen first. The “Harry Potter” franchise is a prime example of this. We’ve seen every film in the series since “The Goblet of Fire” either on its release date or shortly thereafter, in the theater. It’s a tradition we have.
Ultimately though, these sometimes being one of perhaps a handful of films we see together during a year. More and more of our friends are telling us they use the theater in the same way. There are certainly some films that really are best enjoyed in the cinema. Films like the “Lord of the Rings” franchise, for example, are great at home, but are spectacular in the theater.
The question of course is can Hollywood start producing content that compels audiences to pay the exorbitant prices at the box office and concession stand? It’s hard to imagine paying $15 to see a movie that will in all likelihood end up having to be released to DVD and BluRay less than three months later, as many films now seem to do. Consumers in an economy such as we have now are especially attuned to the quality of the products they are buying.
The cause of and solution to the movie theater dilemma rests squarely on those who are producing movies. Undoubtedly if they can manage to give the populace stories with impact, and blockbusters that aren’t just packaged to have big opening weekends and fizzle out quickly, the tide could be turned. However, it is possible that the tide has already pushed much to far out to sea and the theaters will be left adrift while movie lovers settle in on their couches to watch their movies.