Why It's Still Necessary to Go to Theaters (Sometimes)

January 12, 2004
A thought by James Berardinelli

When I line up the pros and cons of getting in my car and driving to a theater, I occasionally ask myself why I bother. The main reason (aside from my being a film critic, which, admittedly, is a huge factor) is impatience. And I'm not the only one afflicted with this characteristic - that's why the box office tally is usually the highest on opening weekend. The idea of waiting six months for a movie in which I have some interest to show up on DVD is painful. If I really want to see it, I'm willing to undergo all sorts of indignities. That attitude, more than any other, will keep movie theaters thriving for the foreseeable future.

As appealing as it may be at times to watch something in a home theater, there are disadvantages, because, unless you spend six figures on your A/V equipment, you're not matching (theoretical) multiplex quality. Plasma screens and rear-screen projection TVs are nice, but even 65" falls far short of the smallest screen at the most mediocre theater. And, until HDTV becomes an everyday reality and HD DVDs are widely available, there is a video drop-off. Plus, on a fundamental, technical level, the way a home video display works is different from how a theater projector works (frames versus pixels - I'm not going to give a primer here, at least not now). You may not think it's noticeable, but the way your eye and brain process it is different, and, since video requires more "work," it more easily leads to subconscious fatigue.

Despite all the griping I have done (and will continue to do) about theaters, they are still my primary locale of choice for seeing a movie. However, although impatience usually trumps convenience, there are exceptions. There have been instances in the last two years, usually with small films, when I have eschewed the lengthy drive and theater experience to wait for a film to arrive on DVD. And this is where the lure of home theater is the strongest - not with the technically superior Hollywood blockbusters (as bad as some of these are, they almost have to be seen in the biggest venue available), but with smaller movies that do not rely as much on enormous screens and superior sound. Watching an obscure French film or cheaply made indie on a home system can be better than seeing it in an art house (when one considers the drawbacks of the latter). That's where the gap is narrowing, and most distributors of smaller films recognize this.

Although the home market is still not Hollywood's primary market, it is no longer the tertiary one it used to be. In another ten years, when the landscape has changed, it may well be seen as the co-equal of theaters for first-run material. Theaters will eventually go away, except as a novelty, once home video has caught up and once projection has gone digital. These things will happen - it's just a question of "when." My best guess is that this will take at least two decades. Even cutting edge technology isn't where it needs to be yet (the best digital projection can't match the quality of film), and marketing is always years behind the innovation curve. If you're a young adult, it's likely that your still-unborn children will be going to the movies. As for your grandchildren... that's another story. For movie houses to stay alive long-term, someone is going to have to come up with a reason for people to attend beyond what's there today. Perhaps they will evolve into pseudo theme parks, with movies that are more like rides than passive experiences. Perhaps they will become service-oriented, with an environment where clients are pampered and catered to. (For $50, you can sit back in an exceedingly comfortable chair, enjoy a glass of fine wine, and watch a movie projected at 48 frames per second with crystal-clear sound and no interruptions...)

The cold, hard truth is that the lack of quality control by many multiplex chains is hastening the demise of theatrical movie viewing. Most people crave the home alternative. Movie theaters are currently viewed by many adults as teen hangouts, so viewers over the age of 30 are increasingly staying away. The industry needs a wake-up call, although it may already be too late. The death of the movie complex may still be beyond the horizon, but, like the sun at midnight, it's out there, and its inexorable approach cannot be stopped.