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Film Exhibition: Are Movie Theaters in Danger?

Technology is revolutionizing many things in the filmic world right now. In this post I examine how it is affecting the magic of the big screen.

Theatrical exhibition continually sees increasing competition from other emerging platforms, and innovations in technology are fueling this trend. These platforms include home theaters, video on ipad.jpegdemand, personal computers, and most recently mobile devices like the iPod, iPad (pictured right), and the future Google tablet. What is more, consumers can purchase and rent movies off of iTunes, stream video on Netflix Watch Instantly, and download illegally thanks to bit torrent protocol and foreign servers that often escape lawsuits from the Motion Picture Association of America. This move towards networked, digital media (played or downloaded by a client device off of a main server) instead of physical media (DVD, tape, and film) is convenient, and in many cases, economical. But is the viewer experience the same? Apparently not, for even with these trends, and despite tough financial times, moviegoers flocked to the theaters in 2009 and set several box office records. Based on this and other evidence I argue while technological innovations will absolutely play a huge role in the next few years in terms of how we view our media, theatrical exhibition will and should remain the premiere way to experience feature films.

The first factor that makes theaters more conducive to movies is screen size. With each new mobile device on the market, it seems the they get smaller and more portable: but for viewing films, in my opinion, the bigger the screen the better. The reason is twofold: first, it is easier to appreciate nuances in the art with more surface area (after all it is a visual medium), and secondly, large screens offer an immersive experience. For example, in any given shot there is an abundance of information to process. The production design, props, costumes, color palette, who or what the lens is focused on, lighting, an actor's eyes, the emotion in his or her face, and so on. An example of such a busy cinematic sequence is the opening to Saving Private Ryan, (which can be viewed on YouTube here). If that frame is compressed to a 3.5-inch iPod screen, many of the details are bound to get lost. Furthermore, an immersive experience is desirable. When in a movie theater with the house lights off, and a 110-foot screen surrounding the audience, it is possible to feel as though one is inside the story, instead of a mere spectator, removed from the material. On a small screen, even that of a personal computer, it is easy to be aware of one's surroundings, which is a distraction from the art at hand. In the Next Generation Online article "Is the Future of Film Really Online? The Debate", Timon Singh backs this, arguing against Netflix: "It's not a few tracks of music that can help you kill a 20 minute bus ride, it's a two hour-story. You especially can't appreciate that on a tiny phone or PSP screen." The sensation of IMAX takes immersion to an even greater level, mimicking human peripheral vision in attempts to completely make the audience feel as if they are in the movie. These two qualities of nuance and immersion in the viewing experience are severely truncated on small-screened devices.

AudienceParticipation-GatefoldLeft.jpgGoing to the theater is a social endeavor with a sense of community, whereas streaming movies online on a personal computer or mobile device is individual. Part of what makes cinema special as a form of mass media is its ability to speak universally and connect people. Some films even become cult phenomena, such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show (pictured left), and more recently Paranormal Activity and The Room, causing groups of moviegoers to dress up in costume or reenact various plot points at theatrical destinations. Consequentially, people are united in a common experience. Also, one's perception of a film can vary depending on who one is with. For example, a teenager might find the contemporary comedy Wedding Crashers hilarious with friends, and awkward with his or her parents. Unfortunately, most of the alternative viewing platforms available (with the exception of home theaters) are not designed for a community experience, and thus this added dimension of reciprocal audience reactions is lost.

There are some benefits to the new media conduits, however. The server-client model of networked content allows for flexibility and portability. Deepak Kataria of LSI Corporation writes in his article The Future of Video-on-Demand that, "Because the technology makes content effortlessly accessible, customers have come to expect anywhere, anytime delivery of very high-quality video and other rich media types to both wired and mobile devices." What is more, there is often no need to waste physical material on optical discs for each film to rent or buy, because users can store the film digitally as bits and bytes. All that is required for playback is the hardware. This is both environmentally and economically efficient. Often times these devices offer access to films not in theaters, such as independent films without a full distribution deal, as well as the old classics that have long since been out of theaters. But for a first-time viewing of a current film, I am very skeptical that computer and handheld devices could or should cut into the movie going tradition. I believe there is a difference between pure entertainment and escapism. Watching a movie on an arbitrary device can pass the time, and even be enjoyable and worthwhile, but going to the theater to see a film on the big screen, with professional picture and audio, is an experience and an escape into the world of cinema that cannot be replicated.

1 Comment


Hi Nick,
I definitely agree that it is important for movies to be experienced in theaters for the reasons you suggest. The entire event of going to a theater is soothing, knowing that for the next two hours or so, the outside world has dissolved and one can be completely immersed in another reality. Even in difficult economic times, the movie theater business is booming as going out to see a movie is relatively cheap entertainment. It seems unlikely that alternative viewing platforms, like personal computers or iPods, will replace the theater experience, which is a comforting ritual to so many people. While the actual viewing experience is diminished, small portable devices allow people to watch movies they may otherwise never have seen. I know I tend to watch movies I didn’t care enough to see in theaters on my laptop during long plane rides, and since I was never incredibly inclined to see the film in a better medium I am fine with the lower quality.

Your argument was focused and well developed. I liked that while you argue for movies to be seen in theaters, you recognize some of the advantages that portable media offer. There are some obvious benefits, including as you mention environmental and cost efficiency and access to previously released films. These are alluring points and may make people watch more films in general if there is a more convenient way to do it. Although it would be better for people to see movies in a theater setting, do you believe it is better for people to see movies on a small screen rather than not viewing them at all? I am also wondering if there is any data collected about whether movie watching on personal media devices has actually made any dent in theater going. I will be interested to see what effect new technology for easy movie watching will have on the fate of theaters in the future.