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Are Studios Dealing a Death Blow to Movie Theaters?

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I may be a tech enthusiast, but sometimes I like visiting the analog world. That might be why, despite the increasing availability of content — via broadcast, VHS and cable TV at first, then DVD, Blu-Ray and video-on-demand (VOD) — I still go out to a cinema house occasionally. I even went to a drive-in movie once.

Soon, however, people may start considering today’s movie houses like those old drive-ins — an outdated medium. In fact, the wheels are already in motion.

Online movie streaming and 3D televisions notwithstanding, one of the biggest things affecting movie theater owners these days is the announcement by Warner Bros, Sony, Universal and Fox that they are rolling out new premium VOD services via DirecTV next week. The plan, called Home Premiere, is to give subscribers faster access to newer films for a fee, and the timeline would be just two months after they bow out of theaters (which is a month shorter than for DVD release).

The National Association of Theater Owners is not pleased. In fact, they’re pretty angry about the decision, which they say will further cannibalize their already precarious business model — especially if others follow suit. (Looks like Comcast is already interested.) Meanwhile, some theaters have already threatened to boycott movie previews for related films.

Personally, I’m torn over this. I’m a big proponent of modern convenience — entertainment on demand is pretty much the gold standard, no? — whether that’s cable, satellite, streaming or otherwise. But I’m also disheartened at seeing what might be another nail in the coffin for movie theaters. I find it disturbing to think that our collective opportunities to have shared experiences are dwindling — like the old drive-ins of our parents and grandparents’ era.

Awhile back I found one that was still in operation, so I made it a point to go, just to see what it was like.

Not bad, I thought. Not bad at all. Sure, the projection wasn’t exactly 3D or hi-def, and the audio wasn’t surround sound, but this shared-yet-semi-private experience had its merits. I snuggled into my warm blanket and bucket seat, as the AM radio station piped the movie track in. And when I got munchy, I hit the concession stand and bonded with another viewer over a recent scene while a massive, five-story Samuel L. Jackson did his thing against the backdrop of a glorious, starry night sky.

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That drive-in, set in some empty acreage in Pennsylvania, closed a few months later. Eventually, I managed to recapture the magic in, of all places, New York City. After I moved there, I was thrilled to find outdoor showings of classic films in places such as Bryant Park and Hudson River Park. Bring a blanket, a few friends, some refreshments, and you’re all set.

Movie-going has undergone quite a renaissance. Drive-ins gave way to cinema houses, projection machines are being phased out in favor of digital, and 3D is the word on everyone’s lips, screens and goggles these days. And it’s all designed to immerse the viewer in a reality-bending experience, a senses-stimulating, saturated environment that puts the audience inside the action. And as much as I find old-fashioned outdoor screenings fun and nostalgic, I am also excited by these advancements. (When they figure out how to make VR cinema better than a lame, nausea-inducing proposition, I’ll be first in line to check it out.)

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Mostly, I love movie houses because they offer a way to get off the couch and away from the desk, and be around people. It’s a universal pastime. Even the negative aspects form a common denominator in our society: We all know what it’s like to suffer the chatter of others in a theater, not to mention theft concern over a purse or jacket, or the inconvenient bathroom break and its dreaded crawl to freedom, stepping on/over people in rows. There’s hardly anyone out there who can’t relate to that. But times are clearly changing.

What do you guys think? Are movie theaters heading for obsolescence? Are you saddened by this, as I am, or is it no big deal to you? Let me know what you think in the comments section below.


Adriana Lee

Adriana is the resident writer-slash-culture vulture who has written about everything from smartphones, tablets, apps, accessories, and small biz...

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