Saturday, April 30, 2005

The Competition

Home Theater of the Absurd?
go to original article ... or email me for article text
"There was a time, children, when you watched movies at home by unspooling VHS tapes in a VCR. You listened to the dialogue and music on the two little speakers built into the television. Yes, the TV, which was, if you were lucky, all of 27 inches big.

These days . . . well, chances are the last time you saw a 27-inch TV screen it most likely was mounted in the back seat of an SUV. In the last few years home entertainment has taken on new dimensions, all of them immense."

Admittedly, I'm at a place in my life right now where hearing the word "competition" makes me a little squeamish. Too many documentaries about the degeneration of free markets. Whatever it is, I can't stop thinking about how framing the wrong kinds of situations as competitions causes all kinds of problems.

But it's the first thing that came to mind.

It's not possible to have a conversation about the future of movie theaters without considering the increasingly popular phenomenon of home theaters. At least, I know that I need to address it. I feel like at least 10% of the articles I come across while doing my regular research are about home theaters. (Although 20% of the articles are about elderly or teen-aged people committing acts of violence against each other and I haven't written a post about that).

Home theaters are an interesting business to consider alongside traditional film exhibition. The rapid advancements in high fidelity film reproduction that modern home theaters have been able to make allows them to challenge the role of movie theaters in peoples' lives. Home Theaters look and sound f'in amazing! And the obvious question goes something like, "if a movie looks better in the comfort of your own home than it does at the multiplex down the street, why do we need movie theaters"

But the reality is, people who ask those questions are getting ahead of themselves. Even the fact that with enough money and time you can create a viewing experience that beats going to the movies doesn't mean home theaters are a threat to the exhibitors.

1.) Most people don't have that kind of money
2.) Most people don't have that kind of time
3.) It's just not worth it for most people to put in the time and money for the number of movies they watch. (Even if they watch a lot of movies)

Right now the average person is still going to turn to their local multipliex for the highest fidelity movie experience. But there are some other reasons that movie theaters and home theaters will continue a peaceful coexistence. Many of these are examined in an article cited in a previous post.

So what, then? Does the fact that people (like the journalists) see home theaters spelling the demise of traditional theaters say something about the identity that movie theaters have assumed? About their role as the average person understands it? Or are people just getting swept up by the romantic notions of phat tvs and stereos all for themselves.

To me, this signals that movie theaters (as an industry) should take a break from figuring out new things to do with their spaces (showing ads, streaming concerts, converting them to digital) and assess exactly what their collective identity is.

And then they should push it.

For home theaters not to be a threat to movie theaters, movie theaters can't only be about delivering the best sounding effects and best looking pictures. That has always been an integral part of what they do, and previously, no one could touch that, but now it's time to remind people of the rest of the good stuff that is wrapped up in going to the movies.

But piecing together an identity out of such a multifaceted activity that means so many things to so many different people is as complex as it sounds. I would say the role of the theater has evolved into the following

-A place where one can see movies the way they were meant to be seen. This means a baseline quality of picture, and sound that is current with today's standards. Not necessarily better or the best, but definitely big, definitely immersive and at minimum able to deliver the film maker's' visions
-A place where people can come to watch first run films. Where every showing is effectively a premiere, showing the world something for the first time.
-A collective social experience. Where people's experience can be amplified or counteracted by the fact that there is a room full of human beings experiencing the film as well. The theater should do everything in it's power to optimize this.
-A space where people who understand the world and express things in terms of cinema can come together do all the things that a group of people who share a common interest like to do. Find out about new films, talk to people about current films, learn about related events that are interesting to film-lovers. Like a local bookstore for movies.
-A partner with the surrounding businesses. A multiplex can be the hub of a bunch of great commerce. It can also provide the space for the purveyors of goods and services that compliment film watching (food service, movie rental, etc).

Some of these are things that Brad Bird touched on in his address to the San Francisco International Film Festival, which just goes to show how great minds think alike :)

The things that comprise its identity should be the reason a theater stays in business. The increased quality of home theaters doesn't compromise any of them, so it follows that movie theaters have little to worry about. It's worth noting, however, that most concession driven theaters don't operate the way I think they should...

But getting back to the home theaters themselves. Isn't it possible that movie theaters could benefit from the increased popularity of home theaters? Firstly, their platform is the same. Both home theaters and multiplexes share the common goal of bringing people and movies together in an optimal fashion. One group need not eat up the other's sales. What will happen is that their combined efforts will raise the overall interest in films, and should increase the performance of both businesses. Furthermore, increased popularity of their "home theater" components makes high fidelity sound and pictures cheaper. Movie theaters aren't excluded from being able to use this technology. Maybe a new model of venue could use lower cost equipment that is optimal in a smaller environment for smaller venues or higher quantity of screens. Lastly, consumer home theater products need a showcase to demonstrate their full range of capabilities. What better showcase than the movies and experiences that people will want to bring home with them? Wouldn't it just make entirely too much sense for a theater to partner with a bunch of home theater equipment providers to showcase their systems and allow people to try them out in their exact use case scenario. Doesn't that make more sense than those showrooms at best buy? As long as there's some way to control the partnerships such that they avoid being unwarranted product placement or too in your face, I think this is something everyone would want to see.

Long live the movie theater!


Post a Comment

<< Home