The Death of Cinema–I Am Not Alone Here

I’ve been throwing up regular bits of evidence for the last few weeks now that, when taken together, provide a pretty big clue that something is going to have to change in the movie theatre industry, or the whole concept is doomed to failure.  Let’s take a quick rundown of the salient points:

1. DVD sales are in several cases outselling theatrical sales.  Most notable example: Will Ferrell’s Semi-Pro.

2. Prices continue to skyrocket on every facet of theatregoing–admissions, concessions, material to CONTAIN concessions, even reaching the theatre itself.

3. Home theatre technology is simultaneously going up in quality and down in price, allowing the theatre experience to be more and more convincingly replicated at home.

4. Several studios hang their entire profit-and-loss margins on DVD sales–case in point, Lions Gate, whose overall profit was down on the year but whose DVD sales climbed to huge new levels proving conclusively that the loss-leader was theatrical film.

The case is mounting, and the more the evidence shows, the worse it looks for the theatres.  It’s getting to be harder and harder for cash-strapped families and people in general to justify cranking up the car at four dollars a gallon, driving to the cineplex or multiplex or even just theatre to watch a movie at eight bucks a ticket and buying a Coke to go with it at something like EIGHT bucks a gallon.

And so, I shopped my concept around, that the theatres are a dying business model, to some industry figures to see what they thought.  And when they didn’t give a rat’s ass whether I lived or died as evidenced by the fact that they didn’t respond to email OR phone call even though I gave the bastards TWO WEEKS to respond (yeah, this sucker’s been in the works two whole weeks, can you believe it?)  I turned to the webcartoonists.

Who, actually, answered in a thoroughly rapid and cogent fashion.  I asked the same question of Multiplex’s Gordon McAlpin and Joe Loves Crappy Movies’ Joe Dunn: 

Is the theatre, as it sits, doomed?  Their answers will surprise you.

McAlpin is somewhat optimistic of the theatre’s chances, but throughout his remarks one central theme emerged–the theatre MUST change in order to survive. 

I think the movie theater as a whole is very… bloated right now: Too-huge budgets for movies with too-expensive actors playing in too-big multiplexes owned by too-huge chains selling too-expensive tickets. Some belt-tightening is definitely in order, as well as a bit of adaptation.

He gives several possible options for the theatres to explore, including exclusive content as sponsored by groups like Fathom Events, whom you’ll remember as being behind the Glenn Beck fiasco I recently discussed.  Also included in McAlpin’s vision of the cineplex is digital projection (recently a theme in his comic), smaller-run movies,  and the acceptance of vastly reduced profit.  Indeed, most of McAlpin’s remarks center around this common theme:

In other words, to butcher “Field of Dreams”: if you screen good movies, concerts, whatever — audiences do come.

Joe Dunn, meanwhile, is banking on the mob to make the movies continue to be special.  Indeed, he doesn’t deny, even embraces, the switch to home theatres. 

I have a Netflix account, I stop by Hulu at least 3 times a week to watch TV and movies…Technology is going to change the way we watch movies, it’s going to change the way movies are distributed. “Direct to DVD” doesn’t carry the same sting as it used to.

But Dunn believes, at the root of it all, that it’s the highly nebulous concept of a CINEMA EXPERIENCE that makes the cinema worth experiencing.

I still believe though that there will always be a place for the movie theater. As comfortable as you may be with your own digital projector, your own reasonably priced microwave pop corn on your own couch in your own underwear, it’ll never come close to capturing a true movie experience.

Theaters are definitely going to take a hit over the next decade, but laughter, fear, emotion and fun are all contagious and people will miss the crowds watching Iron Man 6 at home alone.

Indeed, there are many possibilities for the theatre to consider.  Some theatres are offering alcohol as part of their concessions roster, along with an increasingly varied array of snacks to supplement the eternal standbys of popcorn and jujubes.  Some theatres offer gourmet dining. And some theatres are even making it possible for moms and dads to catch a movie WITHOUT calling in a baby sitter first!  That’s right–on-premises childcare service.  Theatres are finding themselves becoming less about movies, and more about becoming EXPERIENCES.  And this is enough to justify firing up the car at four bucks a gallon.

In summation, yes, the theatre as it sits now is absolutely doomed.  Unless changes are made, the runaway gas prices and food prices and fuel prices will price the limited value of a movie experience right out of reach of more than enough Americans to drain profit right out of the system.  But with changes–with more events, with more unusual film choices, with more actual EXPERIENCE in the system, then people will ignore the gas prices in favor of something a bit more memorable than, say, Bloodrayne.

16 thoughts on “The Death of Cinema–I Am Not Alone Here

  1. Phil, you may not be an electrician, but you’re absolutely right and better yet, you’re not alone. Even legendary badass entertainment journalists like myself have to pause and consider before going to the movies, and we can take deductions. We’re being squeezed, Phil, and that squeeze is forcing us to look twice at “extras” like a night at the movies. And we’re seriously in deep if we’re considering something so small as a night at the movies an “extra”.

  2. Actually, higher gas prices are helping the movie industry. Ticket sales are up due to people traveling less. Instead of heading down the shore or to an amusement park on the weekend, a five minute drive to the nearest multiplex is a bargain in comparison. Not to mention it cuts down on a person’s energy bill when people go to the movies to escape the heat.

    The movie industry HAS already changed to compete with the home theater, which is why you are seeing more and more movies being released in 3D, something that can’t be achieved at home. I’m not talking about gimmicky 3D like Beuwolf or Superman Returns. I’m talking about real 3D that will require movie theaters to adopt the newer “Stereo” projectors coming out.
    Everyone is waiting on Avatar to come before jumping on the 3D bandwagon. Cameron has already screened his 3D footage causing Peter Jackson and Lucas to jump on board. 3D re-releases of LOTR and Star Wars are already in pre-production.

  3. as long as there’s a heat spell down south in the summer, the theaters and their free AC will make a killing.

  4. Samuel–I love second-run theatres. Gives me a chance to catch up on stuff I missed at a deep discount.

    Saurus–Sure, that’s fine NOW, but what happens come winter? Besides, central air’s always an option if you’ve got two and a half grand to spare on a unit that’ll last ten years minimum.

    Aphro–That might’ve been the case a year ago, or six months ago, but now, even the multiplex looks like a drive. Businesses are actually considering four-day workweeks in response to gas prices. And remember that it’s not just the drive–it’s the hike for the ticket and for the popcorn and soda and bag / bucket for the popcorn and cup for the soda. EVERYTHING’s going up from hiked fuel prices.

  5. I think the thing that has driven me away from the cinemas for so long is their insistance of buying their horrible food for extortionist prices.

    Lately, I’ve been going to the cinema a LOT, but have found ways of avoiding this cost, plus the cinema’s a reasonably cheap one (to make it cheaper, because I have a young family, I have a concession card for cheap tickets). But when I went to the concession stand last night, running low on time, I realised why their ickets were so cheap: for a drink, some mms and starburst, I was up for $17! I promptly allowed my stomach to grumble for a few minutes and watched the film hungry, and ate later.

  6. Linc–you said it, man! Congratulations on the young family, parenthetically–I know you know intimately how much I’m saying here is true.

    I was down at a theatre near me about to see just how bad The Happening was–oh, and it was–and I figured I’d have a drink. the MINIMUM price was three fifty. I can buy four liters on the street for what they’re charging for twenty ounces!

    Of course, it’s not ALL like that…another theatre near me runs a special coupon discount–pay a buck seventy-five for a bag of popcorn and get a free twenty ounce drink. I’ll tell you, that theatre gets the lion’s share of what theatre business I have now.

  7. On the ‘experience’ note, i’ve actually found the one drive-in that still exists in my city to be turning over a roaring trade! They’re offering sms-ordering for direct to car popcorn delivery, which is great for the stoners smoking in the back of their vans, and everyone seems to be getting into it.

    I’m actually preferring it over the more traditional cinemas (which, in australia, haven’t really changed all that much).

  8. I actually see the inflated concession prices as a plus. I eat before I go, drink from the water fountain, and let everyone else subsidize my movie trip by buying popcorn on a 10x markup. Plus laying off the soda helps my tiny girlish bladder make it through the movie.

  9. Matt–the thing is, you shouldn’t HAVE to do that. Considering that you can pop your own corn for pennies on the dollar less than what the theatres charge and buy your own soda for the same elsewhere, why should you have to pay overinflated theatre prices?

    For crying out loud, you could get dinner at Wendy’s or something similar for popcorn and soda! Why?

  10. I work at a theatre mini-chain in Texas called The Alamo Drafthouse. Basically the idea is that they bought an old Cinemark cineplex that had shut down due to loss of profits. They took out every other row and put a table there. We offer a full menu, waiters, and a good wine and beer selection. We show your regular major motion pictures, but at the same time we show independent films, live Rocky Horror shows, the old classics (film-maker retrospectives, “Musical Mondays”, etc.) and recorded concerts. Not to mention special events for new releases (turning the entire lobby into “what if the joker took over The Drafthouse” for Dark Night, like that viral trailer that’s circulating). We show popular TV shows (Lost, etc.) on the big screen for every new show. Our tickets are still at about 5 bucks a head, and the food is reasonably priced (when’s the last time you saw $3 sodas at a movie theatre?).

    Bragging and advertising aside, my point is, the crowds love it! We sell out just about every show (we’re still selling out Kung Fu Panda every night… thats been out for almost a month now). Entertainment Magazine called it “The Best Movie Theatre In the Country”. And other places are starting to catch on. Here in Houston alone, there are two or three other full-menu movie theaters that do really well for themselves. I think that’s the future of the cinema. Where you go to the movies to (god forbid) have a good time, and not just to watch a movie, the way it was when they built the first theaters.

    I’ve loved going to the movies for since I was very little. I sincerely hope we don’t start losing them. I hope we don’t have to start building coffins for these old timers, especially when all they need is a good facelift!

  11. See, yeah–Michael, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. That kind of experience might be just what the rest of the lollygaggers need. It’s those old-timers who WILL be getting the coffins. Smart young go-getters like the Alamo Drafthouse, meanwhile, have already seen the problem coming and made the adjustments.

  12. As much as I love Joe, I think I have to disagree with his central premise just a tad.

    I can certainly agree that there is something to be said of the EXPERIENCE of movie-going (the popcorn smells, the massive screen, the collective of people all laughing or crying or enjoying the movie together, etc). Doubly so for those of us who grew up before home theaters and whose childhood consisted of seeing classic movies in that environment (one of my earliest movie memories is seeing the entire Star Wars trilogy at my local cinema right after Jedi came out). But ultimately, the experience itself can actually be a turn-off as well.

    Who hasn’t gotten annoyed when someone two rows ahead just won’t shut up? Or when you’re packed in tight and the guy next to you sort of smells? Annoying cel phone guy? Overly loud laugher? Crying baby? Annoying teenagers having a Milk Dud fight across 7 rows (and to anyone who was trying to watch Arachnophobia that day, I humbly apologize for my friends)? Trying to get everyone organized and ready so you don’t miss the movie? Waiting on line for tickets? Having to go to the bathroom in the middle of the movie and missing some crucial plot point?

    While there is certainly an allure to the moviegoing experience that home theater just can’t match (especially for us nostalgic old-timers), there’s also a host of annoying aspects that home theater eliminates entirely. ARE the pros of the experience worth the cons in the eyes of the average audience member?

    One interesting question to ask is this – if movies were simultaneously released to both theaters and pay-per-view cable or DVD, how many people would opt to go to the theater over watching it at home? This isn’t unthinkable – studios are already considering shortening DVD release time (down to a matter of weeks rather than months), and Sony’s talking about streaming video feed parallel to theater release. Many people now are more willing to wait for the DVD rather than struggle to see a movie as soon as it’s released – how many more would be willing to avoid the theater if theaters lose that first-run must-see value?

    I’m hesitant to say that theaters are doomed to die, but I don’t believe they can even remotely survive in their current state. We may even reach a point where “money” cinema (mainstream blockbusters and popular movies) are released directly to homes, with theaters limited to art films, smaller independent works, or even “theme” films or festivals (like the “experience” Rocky Horror fans enjoy).

  13. Paranoid–not so paranoid obsessive on that point, that’s for sure. We’re very much in agreement on that point that something needs to change lest it take the theatres down with it. And that was most of the thrust of the article–back in OUR day, theatres were the only place to see the biggest movies on the biggest screens with the biggest sound. It couldn’t remotely compare to home, where home video was just beginning and it was little more than a glorified TV show. The theatre was the place to see huge explosions and blood splatter and romances writ large in our hearts and before our eyes. But that’s not the case any more, where a couple thousand dollars will net you sound and screen at least on par with the local multiplex, and without the attendant hassles like scheduling and lack of interactivity. And just to show I know where you’re coming from, one of MY earliest movie memories was going with my dad to see Robocop 2 in the local movie house, coming home well after dark, and not telling mom. :D The concept isn’t dead yet, but without significant and sweeping changes in short order, it might well be someday sooner than we’d like.

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