“The unknown future rolls toward us,” says Sarah Connor after narrowly averting a technological Judgment Day in Terminator 2. It’s a scary scenario, and one that parallels the bleak outlook for motion picture theaters. like music before it, the movie theater is battling for its very existence in a highly volatile environment comprised of advances in technology and rapidly changing consumer tastes.
Call it the Digital Revolution. The iPod Age. Whatever you like. A generation where everything is on-demand, portable and downloadable within minutes. YouTube, Netflix, MySpace, iTunes, Movielink, CinemaNow, Tivo, Vlog Central, etc.- they’re all changing the way films and video are distributed to audiences.
In its heyday, the movie theater represent- ed the traditional social outing: Dinner and a movie. But today, the theatrical is being replaced with convenience. The big-screen, high definition televisions with surround sound that many people have in their very own living rooms rival many neighborhood movie theaters. In addition, a virtual assort- ment of movies and television shows are available at the touch of a button, download- able to devices smaller than your palm- whenever you want, however you want.
With all the entertainment options and technologies vying for audience attention, today’s movie theaters are under attack. Even though box office receipts this year may show some promise, particularly with the number of slated summer sequels (Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End), this is merely a fa?ade, mask- ing immediate dangers.
Theatrical survival will depend upon how well these crucial battles are fought…
Theaters vs. Internet
While the main distribution hub for films has always been the theater, the Internet is leading this revolutionary charge. Laptops, home theater hard drives and por- table devices like iPods are all capable of playing movies-not to mention the assort- ment of new formats, like video phones and digital devices the size of a pen, that are arriving on the market in force.
Theaters vs. DVD
The gap between theatrical and DVD releases was once fixed at six months. But that gap is narrowing-down to four months or less in many cases. Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble hit theaters and DVD on the same day. The smaller the gap, the more likely audiences will forego the theater for the DVD. Add to that the huge decline in DVD prices, which are now equivalent to the cost of a single adult ticket on a Friday night. (We haven’t even mentioned the diluted effects of DVD piracy.)
Theaters vs. Television
As high definition television prices go down and the amount of high definition content goes up, fewer people need to go to the theater to experience high-quality entertainment. Additionally, with network and cable stations producing more cinematic content, original movies and series like “The Sopranos” and “Lost,” the “uniqueness” of motion pictures dissipates.
Theaters vs. Other Entertainment
Video games, online communities, por- table music, home theaters and other forms of entertainment are taking audiences away from the theater. Although last year movie attendance was up 3.3 percent, it has been steadily declining. In 2006 video game sales one again surpassed the movie industry’s, $12.5 billion to $9.49 billion.
So what does all this mean for movie the- aters? Are they about to say “Hasta la vista, baby?” Or will they continue to thrive as a unique social experience?
In spite of all the doom and gloom, there is hope. Recognizing that it’s no longer a Field of Dreams situation (if you build it with stadium seating, audiences will come), the theater industry must get creative and take more chances to stay in business.
In an all-out effort to preserve the future of the theater experience, here’s how some moviemakers, theater owners and industry entrepreneurs are shaking things up.
The most obvious change, of course, is in the area of digital projectors and digital libraries (known as d-cinema). The addition of digital projectors results in better resolu- tion and a higher quality image. In conjunc- tion with high-speed technology and stor- age devices, theaters will be able to request and receive “virtual prints” in a matter of minutes, increase their programming flex- ibility, encrypt the prints and help prevent the threat of piracy and save on transporta- tion fees without the risk of damage.
The roll-out has officially begun. It’s a slow and onerous one, however, due to lack of standards, varying technologies competing with one another in an attempt to meet DCI specifications and, most significantly, the high cost associated with the upgrade. An old projector might set you back $30,000, but it will last 30 years; the cost for a digital projector is $120,000 to $500,000-and there’s no telling how long such emerging technology will last.
Currently, a little over 1,500 screens operate with digital projectors. According to John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), the transition to digital for the nearly 40,000 screens in the United States may take approximately 10 years.
Cinema with a Twist
if you live in Massachusetts or the surrounding area, you’re probably already aware of the cinematic experience known as “Cinema de Lux.” One of the most cutting- edge cinematic experiences today is derived from National Amusements, a world leader in cinema with over 1,500 screens in the U.S., U.K., Latin America and Russia. With Egyptian or 1950s themes, its theaters pro- vide a unique and glamorous atmosphere for watching movies, live entertainment and upscale dining.
Says spokesperson Wanda Whitson, National Amusements is “focused on put- ting the ‘wow’ back into the movie-going experience… [making our] theaters a com- munity entertainment destination.”
The sixth largest exhibitor nationwide is always exploring new options-a baby grand piano greets patrons in the lobby, ushers lead moviegoers to reserved, leather seats in the Director’s Hall and a bartender serves up wine and cocktails from the movie lounge, replete with plasma televisions and sporting events.
Recognizing the power of video games, Enrique Martinez has created the concept of Cinegames, a small theater at the Yelmo Cineplex in Madrid that has transformed computer game play into a community event.
A hybrid movie theater with HD projec- tors, vibrating seats, game pads, laser and black lights, smoke and dozens of 17-inch screens attached to individual chairs, this theater shows movies while also providing audiences with games and entertainment. Such games as the futuristic “Battlefield 2142” and realistic and arcade driving games such as “GTR2” and “Trackmania United” are all available on the big screen.
Recognizing the need for theatrical change, moviemakers are putting the “theater” back into the movie theater. Director Guy Maddin, whose recent Brand Upon the Brain! represents a throwback to the silent movie era, incorporates a live orchestra, five-person sound effects team, castrato and celebrity narrator a la Isabella Rossellini, Alanis Morissette or Crispin Glover. Says Maddin, “Anything can go wrong with these crazy elements; every performance is always different.”
A black-and-white teen detective serial with a smashing debut at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, Brand Upon the Brain! is slated for more live per- formances this summer at The Music Box in Chicago, The Village East in New York and The Egyptian Theatre in Los Angeles. If it catches on, it may captivate and energize audiences in the same way midnight show- ings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show have in the past.
More recently, theaters are adapting to the widely popular innovations that 3-D and IMAX technologies provide for the presentation of films. Unlike anything you could replicate in your home theater, the IMAX experience boasts the largest of screens (up to eight stories high) and some of the most crystal clear images and crisp digital surround sounds you’ll ever hear or see.
The growth is phenomenal, as moviegoers seem to be flocking to these large screens in record numbers. Take, for instance, The Polar Express, which grossed $121 million on 3,500 2-D screens while the IMAX 3-D experience grossed $40 million on just 68 screens! Obviously, moviemakers must use IMAX cameras and theaters must have IMAX projectors, screens, sound and DMR. But many of the year’s biggest blockbusters are expected to have an IMAX print. Recent films such as Night at the Museum, 300 and Spider-Man 3 have been shown in this large format, to be followed this summer by Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
Like IMAX, many auteurs such as James Cameron are innovating and pushing the technical boundaries of the static cinematic experience. Combining IMAX technology and using stereoscopic digital 3-D, Cameron is stretching the limits of moviemaking and performance capture with his own 3-D HD cameras. “I’ve made the decision to shoot all the movies I direct in the future [in 3-D],” said Cameron at NAB 2006. Such technol- ogy will be on display soon, with the upcom- ing releases of Avatar and Battle Angel.
Along those same lines, if you’ve ever experienced R.L. Stine’s “Haunted Light- house 4-D” at SeaWorld, Universal Orlando’s “Shrek 4-D” or Disney-MGM Studios’ “Muppet Vision 4-D,” you may have witnessed one future of motion picture cinemas, one closer to a lively amusement park ride than a static experience. Replete with water shots, rapid bursts of air and varying smells to tickle the senses, these 4-D amusements are highly interactive and could easily land in your neighborhood the- ater with just the right technology.
So what is the future of the theatrical experience? Will theaters succumb to ever- changing technology, the Internet, DVDs, home theaters and the endless stream of film distribution capabilities? Or will they adapt and change, evolving into something extraordinary?
The key to survival is understanding the theater’s primary purpose: To provide a communal experience that cannot be repli- cated at home, like watching the latest com- edy with a packed house of raucous viewers rolling in the aisles or a scary movie with strangers jumping at the sound of a creak. Ponders Maddin, “What activity, other than a shooter-drinking contest, is a better first date than going to the movies?”
Innovations such as these may help usher in the theatrical experience of the future. But only if theaters adapt and change with the times. If they do, they just might avoid Judgment Day-the day when technology terminates the movie house. MM