Sunday, July 27, 2008

Watching Movies is a Lonely Business

Movies, or "films," have been around since the late 1800s. In the early days of the Lumiere brothers, films was in its infancy. This famous team of film makers produced hits about "quitting time at work," and train arrivals. The technology was new to the public - and difficult to get to the public. There were no film theaters, so the films can to go to the viewers. Or, folks could visit a Kinetoscopes - a machine that the viewer peered into and watched the film. This was a lonely form of film watching, and usually required standing to look into the viewer.

It didn't take long for the inventive Thomas Edison to find a means of delivering the entertainment. Not only did he improve camera technology (putting those tiny track feeds on the side to keep the film steady), but he also created the Vitascope. The Vitascope projected the film onto a large screen so many people could view at once. This increased profit per showing, and increased the market for films.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the film industry grew (moving from New York City to Hollywood Land). And the theater grew as well. Vast movie palaces were built, with multi-screen theaters, restaurants, entertainment, and quite a few other things (such as roller rinks and child care facilities). All seemed well. By the 1940s, film had peaked with box office sales. In fact, even with the large numbers produced by blockbuster films today, theaters have never seen the level of viewers in a theater since the 1940s. Yes, the price has gone up, and the money earned has increased, but the total number of people visiting the theater has continued to drop.

Some blame television. Why go to the theater when you can stay at home, watch a film and eat a "television dinner" on a tray in front of the 12 inch screen?

Well, to skip ahead, around the 1980s the film industry seemed like it was on a comeback. After countless inventions such as 3-d, sense-o-vision (which included odors, fragrant scents, vibrating chairs, and other oddities that went with the film), people returned to the theaters. The industry flourished. And new movie palaces were built - this time called "multiplexes." I wondered at the time if that was a wise choice. Had the golden age of film viewership returned, or was it simply a wish?

Then something changed again. The VCR gave theaters a run for their money. The theaters won for the most part. But that didn't last, as the DVD came into existence. In the 1990s, theaters started to see declines in attendance. Multiplexes were still being built, and were starting to go out of business. People were renting DVDs and watching them on 27 inch screens, or even larger projection screens.

This time the film industry embraced the change, and lowered the price of DVDs. The joke of a "straight to DVD" release started to lose its meaning as many studios bypassed theaters, cable, and television, taking a straight to DVD path for a larger profit. The DVD industry boomed, and theaters fell behind. Attempting to compete with this market, cable companies start providing On Demand films. Then a decline in DVD sales, renting, and profits occurred.

Now we add in the Internet and home theaters into the fray. Film studios have been looking for a means of cutting out the added material costs of films. Digital sounded like the answer, but digital theaters are costly, and still compete with the vast array of film available directly to consumers. Mailing DVDs is helpful for those in rural areas, and organized people who return them :), but it still didn't pep up the industry. As with Edison's Vitascope, several companies have come to the rescue. Except, rather than producing a technology that allows people to gather together and watch a film, now they can stay at home. TiVo is capable of downloading movies from and other sites, allowing "on demand" watching, without having to drive to the video store, or to wait a day or more for a DVD to be mailed. Apple has also jumped into the arena. Well, they already were with the new generation iPods. However, Apple TV promises consumers much more than the hand-held devices. The list of similar devices are countless. I'm just referencing the two that seem to be dominating the market. And of course, a personal computer can do the very same thing.

I wonder if this will be the "hook" that studios have been looking for. And are viewers happier with it? Sure, there is no large audience to share in the enjoyment, but then "blockbuster" films and classics are readily available (if you have a good Internet connection). In a way, we've come full circle, returning to the Kinetoscopes.


Charles Gramlich said...

Trying to post and the system isn't letting me. I was saying I haven't been to a theater release this year. And probably to only one a year in the last couple of years.

Now, I hope this posts.

Jeff Edwards said...

I remember some debates over the past year or two between directors about what is lost when audiences don't share the communal experience of watching a film together in the theater.

Unfortunately, over the past several years, I have found the theater-going experience to be unpleasant 4 times out of every 5. Audience members are so rude today with ringing cell phones, cell phone conversations, talking during previews and even during the film, leaving the theater in groups multiple times and then returning, et cetera, that I gladly sacrifice screen size and Dolby surround sound in order to enjoy a movie in the peace and quiet of my own home.


William Jones said...

Charles - I think Blogger was having some problems yesterday. It seemed to be down for a while.

And I'm a bit like you. This year I've probably been to the theater more than previous years, and I believe I've only made it two or three times.

Jeff - I remember that debate as well. I know I do enjoy some films with an audience, while other times the audience might be too loud or disruptive. It certainly works both way. And the number of films made with the "large screen" in mind are decreasing. Many directors know the profit comes from DVD sales, so they tend not to take advantage of "grand shots."

Heather said...

I've been living at the theater this year, but I go when it is empty. This has been a great year for movies. Even though I saw them already I can't wait for them to come out on DVD.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I'm with Heather. Nothing beats the experience of seeing a film in a theater with a great audience. I went to see The Dark Knight on the Friday it opened. I would have gone to the Thursday midnight show, but just couldn't swing it. An audience is a marvelous thing.

On a side note. I recall going to the opening night performance of Return of the Jedi. At the height of the lightsaber battle between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, the projector died. The audience wasn't so much fun at that time.

John Goodrich said...

While a great audience enhances the viewing, I've had FAR more bad experiences in theaters than memorably good ones. The guy who wanted to start a fight with me during Fellowship of the Ring? Really enhanced my enjoyment of the film.

But that same theater also played the Star Trek: The Next Generation theme on a Wurlitzer organ. What are you going to do? You rolls the dice, and you takes your chance.

William Jones said...

Without theaters, there are quite a few films that probably wouldn't have caught on - Rocky Horror Picture Show being one. I agree with the posts, sometimes the theater adds to the experience, sometimes it detracts. I fear we don't have much say as theater profits will determine the future of theaters.