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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The death of the American movie theater, or, Lady, quit kicking my goddamn chair!

Hollywood types and general gadabouts (like me) have been pondering and/or fretting the apparent demise of the movie industry – specifically, the practice of actually going to a movie theater to watch a film.

2005, it turns out, represents a tremendous financial slump year in cinema, even with summer “blockbusters” like Star Wars Episode 3 and Batman Begins in theaters - the word “blockbuster” referring to those bygone days when a popular movie would actually have people lining up around the block to see a film.

Many blame the slump to the rise of “home theaters” and DVD sales; some cite the spiraling costs of going to the theater; while others point to the worthless chum being spewed out by studios, mixed liberally with 30 minutes of advertising before the show. Each of these perspectives has merit.

I for one can confirm all of these impulses: I have seen 3 first-run movies this year: Million Dollar Baby (eh), Star Wars Episode 3 (double eh), and Batman Begins (pretty good). I plan to purchase the DVD releases for two of these (the latter two). So in this respect, Hollywood has gotten their dollar out of me – probably $25 for the movie tickets themselves, with another $35 or $40 on the DVD sales.

However, I can name many other recent movies that I did not see in the theater, and am waiting for the DVD release: The Life Aquatic (which I recently purchased on DVD) and Sin City. Also in the recent past are: The Royal Tenenbaums, LOTR: The Two Towers, Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions, among a plethora of others. In fact, the only reason I saw the movies I did in the theater was in the case of Million Dollar Baby, idle boredom, and the latter two, actual excitement to see the films, which couldn’t wait for the DVD release.

What was my thinking? Quite frankly, my personal home theater provides a highly enjoyable and immersive movie experience, and its benefits outweigh the flawed theater-going experience: while the theater screen is large and the sound is good, the floors are sticky, other patrons can be noisy and intrusive, and I am forced to watch 30 minutes of commercials before the film. I would rather pay $20 to own a movie I know I’ll enjoy and watch multiple times in a controlled environment than pay $9 to see it once, with commercials, with innumerable variables which can detract from my enjoyment.

What does home theater represent in terms of American life? I can confirm that it includes a sense of misanthropy and isolationism – While I’m sure you are a swell person and a fine citizen, I don’t want to sit next to you in a theater and listen to you chew your popcorn or make witty asides to your companion. People suck, and are generally worthy of both derision and avoidance. For instance, I saw the first LOTR movie in an IMAX theater. It is certainly an entertaining movie and was capably projected – however, the incessant pounding of a grown adult woman’s feet into the back of my chair for 3 straight fucking hours diminished my enjoyment just a smidgen.

Is something irretrievably lost by not going to the theater? Is there some communal aspect of film enjoyment that withers and pales alone at home? Bah, humbug, I say. If you’re the type than needs a laugh track to know when a TV comedy is funny, then perhaps here is something lost. Otherwise, you ought to know what is scary, what is funny, and what is thrilling on your own.

The notion that home theaters have come close to killing movie houses may be true - back when TV first appeared, movie-makers switched to 70mm "Cinemascope" and "Panavision" formats, in addition to 3D, in an attempt to prevent just this sort of audience loss to home theaters. In recent years, however, no similar strategy has been undertaken to prevent the stay-at-home mentality.

So is there anything theaters can do to combat this trend? Let us ask it this way – if prime-time first-run movies cost $3 or $4 a pop instead of $7 to $10, would attendance increase? I for one can say that my attendance sure would. I think theaters need to start trying to create a “Netflix” type business model – a flat fee for a month of movie patronage – perhaps $19.99 for 4 movies a month (Or, perhaps 10 movie tickets over 6 months for $49.99). You go when you want, you see what you want, you just have to reserve the ticket online or by phone. The theaters will make more on people who only use 80% of their reserved tickets than they would have made with prices at $9 a pop for a single showing, which keeps people away.

The only other solution would be some form of Clockwork Orange-style behavior control to curtail rudeness in theaters… but alas I dream too much…


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