The Movie Theater is Dead–Long Live the Movie Theater
I realize that’s a really obvious—even dopey—title, but how many chances do you get in a lifetime to write something like that and actually have it be true?
There’s been such a delicious, grisly irony to events as of late that it all has a premeditated, End Times kind of feel.
The most over-hyped director in Hollywood irresponsibly insists on having his film released in theaters—and it becomes possibly the biggest tentpole turkey of all time, causing the movie theaters, operating at a loss, to go sour on the other new
films waiting in the wings. In fact, Tenet tanked so badly that Warner Bros. finally blinked and opted to not send The Witches to theaters but straight to HBO Max instead.
Then, when MGM decided to hold the release of the next installment of the seemingly interminable Bond series for another six months, the owners of the Regal chain, sensing that the latest Wonder Woman dumbshow likely won’t be enough to sustain them until then—assuming it even makes it to theaters—decided it’s time to close their doors, maybe forever.
Like it was all that hard to see any of this coming. And like it wouldn’t have been a lot more responsible—and possibly profitable—for the studios to have sent their theatrical slates straight to the home market—like, to the place where people are actually watching movies instead of to the place where they wished they were watching them. (Disney made that work, big time, with Mulan—but why would they want to listen to Disney?)
You have to feel bad for any lower-echelon people who might be losing their jobs because of all this, but civilization did just fine in the wake of the arrival of the automated loom, and there’s no reason to think this will be any different. But you can’t feel bad for the owners of the theater chains. They had all done a lousy job for decades of making their properties suitable for actually watching movies. And when they finally woke up to the threat posed by radically improved home viewing, it was way, way, way too late. All the pandemic has done is accelerate the inevitable.
But I don’t want to dwell on that very steep downside because the future, oddly, couldn’t look brighter. That is, if you’re talking about the future of watching movies—and about the future of movie theaters, if you’re willing to call any home space that can match or exceed the experience of a commercial cinema a movie theater.
As I was writing up a review of The Shining to post later this week, I realized we’ve reached a tipping point with luxury home cinema. We’ve all sensed this coming for a while, and we’ve frequently documented the various developments here on the site. (Vide the sidebar to the immediate left for a sampling.) But the proliferation of big-screen displays capable of cinema-level performance, the 4K release of what would have normally been theatrical titles straight to the home market, and the rush to meet the increased demand for home viewing by upping catalog titles to 4K HDR has created a world where having a movie-theater-quality experience at home is shifting rapidly from being the exception to the rule.
As the rise of that market continues to accelerate, you can expect to see the number of older titles receiving the 4K HDR treatment accelerate as well. Sure, every new format has meant seeing the studios shine up their catalogs so they can trot them out yet one more time. But no previous format could match that movie theater experience. This one can. And that changes everything.
Both the gear and the playback have gotten to be so good that even putting together a basic system for a secondary room can result in performance that can at least match your local theater (when it’s open). And what you can achieve with a professionally engineered and calibrated system can blow any commercial theater out of the water.
We do need some commercial theaters, but only a few, and
only as revival houses and for savoring the occasional (increasingly rare) film that really deserves a big, big screen. As for chain theaters, who needs ‘em?
At a time when it can be damn hard to find an upside to anything, we can at least look forward to a flood of titles once meant for theaters heading straight to the home, and an increasing profusion of older titles looking better than they ever have. All of it to be enjoyed comfortably, on our own schedule, and on a personal system that puts any cineplex auditorium to shame. As a temporary refuge from the raging nuttiness of the outside world, I’ll take that any day.
Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review, Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtable, marketing, product design, some theater designs, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.