THE FUTURE OF MOVIE THEATERS:  Your local cinema is scrambling to keep up by John Francis

Your local cinema is scrambling to keep up

Imagine this scenario in the near future: a giant wraparound movie screen streaming the latest blockbuster in hi-def; deep and comfy rocking armchairs; individual stereo headphones with volume control; the air the perfect temperature; and you, cocktail in one hand, futuristic remote control in the other, and a plate of nachos and pizza slices in front of you.

Wow, you may be thinking, the home theater experience really has come a long way. But you’d be on the wrong track. The scenario above, instead, would be a theater in your friendly neighborhood Cineplex, sharing mall space with the Starbucks, Macy’s, Forever 21 and that trendy Mexican-Japanese sushi and tequila bar, Carlos Yamaguchi’s, that just opened.

And that giant screen you’re watching? Samsung. The armchair? La-Z-Boy. The cocktail would have come from the trendy bar in the theater lobby and the food from Chili’s and Pizza Hut, also in the lobby, and delivered to your seat by that handy remote control.

Remember the days (not too long ago) when the emphasis was on making your living room at home more like a theater with big hi-def TVs, surround sound and relatively recent movies and TV shows streaming on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu?

That led to fewer people going to the movies, video stores like Blockbuster throwing in the towel and retailers like Target and Best Buy going all-out with bigger and more fanciful “smart” TVs and sound systems specifically made for televisions.

It made sense. Why put up with the traffic, parking hassles, long lines, expensive concession food, crying babies and obnoxious texters and talkers, and that guy with the giant head who decides to sit in front of you, completely blocking your view of a screen the size of an office building?

Well, now it’s the movie theaters’ turn to draw you out of your beds and living rooms and back out into the multiplexes. They more or less are being forced to. In 2015, the number of people attending movie theaters took a disturbing drop, the biggest in 20 years.

Of course, Hollywood claims box office numbers are at their highest level, perhaps in an effort to assuage theater owners and distributors, who are truly fearful that the trend will continue and eventually put them out of business.

But like that noisy blockbuster playing at the Cineplex, it’s a lot of smoke, mirrors and special effects. The box office numbers are higher, of course, because they are charging higher prices to see that latest “Star Wars” film, plus higher ticket prices for such extravagances as 3D and IMAX.

It used to be you had to go to a special stand-alone theater to see an IMAX film, which back then, was usually glorified travelogues and extreme sports films. But now they’re showing the latest blockbusters, mostly action films, and are in almost every Cineplex, at least the new ones. And 3D used to be a jokey gimmick to amp up mediocre films, but now feature the top films.

But that still doesn’t solve the problem of declining attendance and audience indifference. The next big franchise blockbusters — this year think “Guardians of the Galaxy, Part 2,” a reboot of “The Mummy,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” “War for the Planet of the Apes,” “Alien: Covenant,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” and on an on — will fill the coffers in the summer, but what about the rest of the year and on weeknights? Audiences didn’t come out in droves for “Manchester by the Sea” or “Moonlight,” despite their pedigree, and you definitely didn’t see them on IMAX or 3D.

So theater owners are reaching a point of “put up or shut up,” to deal with the drain on their attendance from home viewing. In essence they’re fighting back, because their survival depends on it.

Some theater chains are already making big efforts to draw people back. Take the Mexico-based Cinepolis chain, which has 56 screens in Southern California and 23 screens in Florida and plans to expand into other areas of the country. It’s already the fourth largest movie theater exhibitor in the world.

What makes them so special? Cinepolis offers an “enhanced” and “luxury” cinema-going experience with plush, overstuffed chairs (even chaise lounge-style chairs one can stretch out in), smaller, more intimate theaters and alcohol and food service.

Now they’re even offering what they call 4DX, a “fully immersive cinematic experience” with chairs equipped with motion simulators programmed to the film, and environmental effects such as wind, bubbles, and scent. They even offer reserved seating such as at concerts or stage theaters.

Food and alcohol service and comfier chairs are just the beginning. Theater owners want to make the movie-going “experience” more exciting, immersive and unique. That includes bigger (yes, really) and more screens, such as Barco Escape, which features three screens that (sort of) wrap around the viewer; private screening rooms for private parties (invite your family and friends!); more-immersive viewing, such as Nagi, a movie system that combines a new film format and projection technology and virtual reality; and lobbies that are more like fancy bars and restaurants than theater lobbies, where you can lounge in couches and overstuffed chairs while quaffing a craft beer or “curated cocktail” and munch on an array of tapas.

Some lobbies will become more like the retail stores in other areas of that same mall, offering T-shirts, hats, posters, action figures and CDs and DVDs, all from the film you just watched. The lobby may also be decorated like the flight deck of the Starship Enterprise to add to the immersive experience.

Other ideas that have been floated include subscription memberships, where you pay a monthly fee to watch unlimited movies, much like Netflix and Amazon; crowd-funded movie screenings like Ourscreen and Tugg, where you can vote for a particular movie online, then join like-minded movie-goers for a more-or-less private screening; and theme theaters, where you can sit in a hot tub or sit on an actual sand beach to watch a film.

The bottom line is, theater owners will try anything to get folks back. No one could have predicted that streaming service would not only cut into movie attendance, but also put Blockbuster out of business. So, at this point it’s anything goes. The trick is finding something that will stick.

But as exciting and immersive as all these new efforts are, you really won’t be seeing a theater of the future with no screens, not even any seats, but holograms and virtual reality for the truly immersive experience, anytime soon.

Why not? People are social creatures and movie-going is a shared social experience. There’s just something warm and comforting — even nostalgic, like record players and bookstores — about sitting in a theater full of people, the aroma of popcorn and laughing or gasping along with everyone else. There’s a good reason why vintage art deco theaters are experiencing a revival. Nothing at home can compare.

“This bleak future is the direction the industry is pointed in, but even if it arrives it will not last. Once movies can no longer be defined by technology, you unmask powerful fundamentals — the timelessness, the otherworldliness, the shared experience of these narratives,” wrote director Christopher Nolan of “Dark Knight” and “Inception” fame, in the Wall Street Journal. “The public will lay down their money to those studios, theaters and filmmakers who value the theatrical experience and create a new distinction from home entertainment that will enthrall.”

Ain’t that the truth?

Films of the Future Will Still Draw People to Theaters
Christopher Nolan – Wall Street Journal commentary

All books are available at Click on title for more information.
The Movie Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained)
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The Great Movies IV
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The American Film Institute Desk Reference: The Complete Guide to Everything You Need to Know about the Movies
by Melinda Corey

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