June 4th, 2011 by Mike Fulton

I’ve been a big movie fan most of my life.  I can remember sitting with my dad on Sunday afternoons when I was a little kid, watching whatever the special movie presentation of the day might be.  It wasn’t a regular thing, but it was a way to spend time with my dad, and I didn’t get to see him that much during the week.  He’d typically get home from work right before dinner was served and would be off to bed fairly soon afterwards.

The first memories I have of going out to see a movie in a theatre are from when my family spent summers at Lake Mead, in Nevada.  Initially we had a big mobile home on the southwest shore of the lake, pretty much as close to Las Vegas as it gets.  But the spring following my 8th birthday, my parents bought a house up on the northern arm of the lake.  Stewart’s Point was pretty isolated.  Nothing but houses, mostly widely spaced on plots of half an acre to an acre or so.  No stores.  No gas stations.  There were a few retirees who lived there year-round, but most of the houses were owned by people who were only there for the occasional weekend.  In the 8 years we owned that house, I think we saw our closest neighbor perhaps 4 or 5 times.

Las Vegas was now a good 75 mile drive away, so our closest taste of civilization was 15 miles away at the small town of Overton.  It was just past the northernmost tip of the lake, at the south end of Moapa Valley, a small green spot in the desert filled with farms and ranches.

During the summer, we would go into Overton once or twice a week, mostly in order to buy groceries.  There were really only a few places we’d go regularily, but each trip was still a treat.  We’d go to the Ace Hardware store occasionally.  That’s where I’d buy ammo for target shooting with my .22 rifle.  We’d go to the drugstore, where my mom would buy us comic books that had the covers torn off because it was past the cover date.  The store got credit for returning unsold magazines by just sending back the front cover, so they always had a big shopping cart full of comics & magazines, minus the cover, for a nickle each!  Reading those comics was the beginning of my comic book obsession.  The “super” market wasn’t really all that super, but it was a standard stop.  Once in a great while we’d get lunch at the hamburger place across the street from the drugstore.  And once in awhile, we’d go to the Pioneer Theatre to see a movie.

I just took a trip through Overton on Google Street View.  As you might expect, things have changed tremendously from what I remember as a kid.  Many of the buildings are gone, and of those that remain, most are home to some other kind of business.  When I was a kid, the only sort of national-level businesses were the Western Hardware and a small Sears catalog office, but the town even has a McDonald’s now!  As I stepped through town, I was amazed to see that the Pioneer Theatre was still there, in the same place, and even looking pretty much the same as it had 35 years ago.

I have to admit, in my memory, it’s bigger.  I would have sworn it was two stories tall.  But since I was probably about 12 years old the last time I went there, that’s really no surprise.

It’s not a big theatre, as you would expect in a small community of just a few thousand people, but to a kid without a lot of movie-going experience, it was still quite magical.

I could not tell you if they normally played first run movies or not, but once or twice a month they would have some sort of “family” movie and my sister and I would try pretty hard to talk our mom into taking us to see it. Usually it would be a Disney movie of some kind. I remember seeing The Aristocats and Bedknobs & Broomsticks. My first movie crush was Kim Richards in Escape To Witch Mountain.

The thing I remember most about going to the movies here was the ambiance of the theatre and just the magic of the moviegoing experience.  Even though it’s essentially the same activity as watching TV in most respects, it’s just not the same, you know?

Why The Trip Down Memory Lane?

Recently, there’s been some talk about a proposal whereby DirecTV would offer a new service called Home Premiere, which is essentially a special $30 pay-per-view for movies just about two months after their original release date.

Considering most movies don’t come out on DVD or BluRay or whatever for at least 5-6 months, this is a big change, and it’s got theatre owners and many moviemakers up in arms.  Directors like Jon Favreau, M. Knight Shyamalan, Christopher Nolan, and Quentin Tarantino are making the argument that this will cause a lot of people to skip seeing the movie in theatres, thus hastening the end of the “moviegoing experience”.

I can see where they’re coming from, but the problem is, I’m not quite sure it’s not already too late.

There are basically two sets of reality here… there’s the home-video reality, and the movie-going reality.  They are coming from opposite sides and are on a collision course.  Or maybe they’ve already passed each other by.  Anyway, the whole thing has me thinking about what “the moviegoing experience” means to me.

The Reality Of Home Video

The current home-video reality is that watching movies at home today is an experience that is simply light years ahead of where it was even just a few years ago.  When my mom took us to the tiny little Pioneer Theatre in Overton, Nevada, the concept of home video was science fiction.  Even a few years later when Sony released the Betamax and VHS players hit the market, watching a video tape on your 19″ or 25″ standard-definition TV was still a pale imitation of seeing a movie in a theatre.

Today, however, it’s a different story. If you have a 50″ or 60″ high-definition television and a BluRay player, you’re probably seeing image quality that is far superior to what you get in a typical movie theatre.  The picture will probably be much sharper, the colors are going to be brighter, the blacks blacker.  And the image isn’t not going to be contaminated by whatever random light sources may be around.  And depending on how close you sit to the screen in either case, the relative screen size may not even be any smaller.

As regards sound quality, the theatre probably still has the advantage.  But if you’ve got a modern surround-sound setup in your home theatre setup, maybe not. But what you probably DON’T have at home is a random selection of crying babies, people coughing their heads off, carrying on conversations, supplying their own dialogue, etc.  Or maybe you do, but at least at home you might have some control over it. Not to mention, you have control over the volume level.

The Reality Of Moviegoing

The movie-going reality is that the experience of going to see a movie isn’t what it used to be.  Remember when a big blockbuster movie like Raiders Of The Lost Ark or Terminator 2 came out and you had to make sure you saw it in 70mm because that was going to be best picture you could get?

Do you remember that it didn’t cost any more to see it in 70mm?

Today, instead of 70mm we have the IMAX Digital Theatre System, which is a 4 megapixel digital projection method offering significantly lower resolution than a 70mm movie print.  Seeing a movie in IMAX Digital typically adds 30-40% more to the ticket price at the box office.  That doesn’t strike me as an improvement.

Oddly, there are other 4 megapixel digital projection systems out there, and it doesn’t cost any more for a ticket when those are being used.  Maybe that’s because the IMAX setup is actually using two separate 2-megapixel projectors that are aligned to provide an integrated image.  I don’t know why they do it that way but maybe it works better for 3D?  Anyway, it’s undoubtedly more expensive even if the projectors are individually lower resolution.

Theatres have been looking to 3D movies to bring in crowds and improved revenue, but there are huge problems with the image quality with some theatres.  And if you’ve got a 3D-capable television and BluRay player, the home 3D experience is MUCH better than what you see in a theatre.  How many 3D movies have you seen in the theatre where the image was dim, dull, unsaturated, and often bordering on soft-focus?   Those problems generally don’t exist with 3D television setups, and while the image is certainly dimmer when you’re wearing 3D glasses, the television image is that much brighter in the first place.

And what about the recent news stories we’ve heard about theatres where they don’t bother removing the 3D adapter lens from the projector when showing 2D movies, even though it reduces the image brightness by over 80%?  As soon as I read about that, I realized it probably explained the crappy image quality I’d seen on several occasions at the movies.

What about the rest of the moviegoing experience? When I was a kid, a trip to the snackbar didn’t require a second mortgage. Today, it’s getting close. The only place you see comparable prices are the refreshment stands at a tradeshow.

At my local theatre, a large soda costs me $5.75. That’s 385% more than the equivalent size costs at most convenience stores, or what I’d spend on a 2-liter bottle at the supermarket. A hot dog costs me $4.50, also much, much more than the non-movie snack bar equivalent. It’s not a bad hot dog, assuming you don’t mind being limited to ketchup, mustard, and maybe relish as toppings. However, I have to admit, one hot dog isn’t going to cut it. I’m either going to need two or three, or maybe some popcorn or candy. By the time I’m out of there, I’ve spent $15-$20.

And that’s just for me! What about a young couple out on date night? Going to the movies used to be a cheap date, but now you could easily spend $25 on tickets and $20-$40 at the snack bar. Not quite so cheap any more.

And what about parents taking their kids to the movie?  Can you imagine what you’d spend taking 5 or 6 people to the movies?

I have to admit, when I first heard about DirecTV’s Home Premiere idea, I thought it was kind of pricey.  And it is, compared to traditional home video rentals or buying your own DVD or BluRay.  But compared to a trip to the theatre, as long as you’ve got at least two people watching, it starts to be competitive.  For a family with 2-3 kids, it’s far, far cheaper.

Out Of Touch With The Moviegoing Reality Of The Rest Of Us?

Moviemakers like Jon Favreau, M. Knight Shyamalan, Christopher Nolan, and Quentin Tarantino say they want to preserve the moviegoing experience, but do they really have the same experience as the rest of us? They probably see most of their movies in studio screening rooms, or at big premieres where they’ve taken meticulous care to ensure everything goes just right.  And do these guys worry about spending $20 at the snackbar for $3.00 worth of food?  Not so much.

If these guys really want to preserve the moviegoing experience, they need to start by fixing what’s broken.  The biggest threat to the moviegoing experience is not home video.

Fixing Theatres

A lot of the issues regarding pricing and costs are going to be really hard to address.  One of the big reasons why theatres charge so freakin’ much at the snack bar is because movie studios have taken increasingly bigger cuts from the box office take, so the theatre has to make things up somewhere else.  Realistically, I don’t see that changing.

Theatre operators can change things in other areas that will improve the customer experience and hopefully improve their own profitability in the bargain.

I would suggest they make the individual theatres smaller.  The switch to digital projection over the last few years has provided a lot of advantages, but the one big disadvantage is that most digital projectors are somewhat less bright than the film projectors they replaced.  Shrinking the theatre size would increase the screen brightness and image quality.

Since digital projection means you don’t have a physical print to shuffle around, having two or three smaller theatres showing a movie, instead of one big one, means you can stagger starting times better, offering your customers more flexibility and less reason to select another theatre on the basis of showtimes.  It probably also helps spread out traffic at the snack bar and box office.  It also means that you can more easily expand well-performing movies into more theatres and push less-performing ones into fewer.

Smaller theatres would also make it easier to do things like hosting private events.  Renting out a 400 seat theatre for a birthday party would be out of reach of most people, but suppose there were some 60 or 100 seat theatres available?

And whatever happened to midnight movies?  When I was younger, there were always theatres showing midnight shows of Rocky Horror Picture Show, or Wizards, Heavy Metal, or some other off-beat film that appealed to younger audiences.  These days it seems those are pretty rare.

Maybe it’s a by-product of the corporate environment behind most movie theatres these days, but it seems like there’s just not much imagination at play with regards to theatres trying to improve their business.  A lot of shiny marketing, but not much imagination. We need more imagination.  Don’t be so afraid to fail that you never try something new.

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