Thursday, December 08, 2005


Will Movie Theaters Die?

My short answer is: No. But there are qualifiers to that answer. Independent movie theaters started dying a while ago, and now are all but gone. Sony's move, a few years back, to recreate vertical control over content distribution by purchasing Loews Theaters was also a bust. And yes, in this age of iPod and computer downloads (not to mention illegal DVD copies of theatrical films available on street corners), the threat to movie theaters seems great. Still, here's why I believe theaters (in one form or another) will be around for years and years to come. Movies have always been, from the start, a communal experience. And they have been about size. That's why we call it the big screen. And while we live today in a time of instant gratification, the opportunity to see an "event" film on opening night, on the big screen, with hundreds of others is still strong. King Kong, The Chronicles of Narnia, Star Wars: Episode III, Harry Potter and War of the Worlds, this year, are just some of the examples. In recent years, other Star Wars sequels, Lord of the Rings films and Harry Potter films have also drawn people to theaters in droves. What can we make of this? Well, as I have said before on here, prior to the age of VHS, I could have seen a new low budget horror film every week at some theater, somewhere. Homevideo took that away, and with it, slowly went the independent theaters that could make a buck off of such films. Blockbuster, in turn, eroded the neighborhood video store. With homevideo options, audiences, over the years, stayed away from overpriced movie theaters, arguing, sensibly, that they could "wait for that to come out on video." With the independent movie theaters gone, with them went the individual character of that venue. Like the homevideo market (with Blockbuster), soon the multiplex homogenized the movie-going experience as well. Independents. Foreign films. Off-beat efforts. All had less of a chance of exposure in such an environment. Enter the Internet. Suddenly, this new and accessible outlet gave smaller films a chance to be seen. (With the proper bandwidth, of course.) What evolved from there was the notion that seeing a film was something that could be done with no wait. But waiting is something that still attracts people to the theater. Granted, this seems to be the case more and more, for the so called "event" film. But as I said, that type of film brings audiences in droves. So. what does all this mean? Is the independent theater all but dead? Yes. Will more people see films on one-inch iPods screens and computers? Yes. (Although, I will never understand why.) However, will event films -- which still bring in upwards of $1 billion in boxoffice revenue -- keep larger chains of theaters alive. Yes. And as the industry shifts to more and more of those films filling the theaters, we will see a shift in viewing habits, that's true. But theaters are here to stay for a long, long while.

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