THE EVOLUTION OF THE CINEMATIC EXPERIENCE…

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FROM THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Today, young movie watchers look increasingly like Molly O’Connor.

A junior at the University of Dallas, she still goes to the cinema occasionally. But she’s often just as happy to hunker down on a bed or a couch with friends to watch a downloaded movie on a laptop that’s perched on a nearby desk or a chair.

“Sometimes it’s nice to have a wider screen. But I don’t think I gain that much by going to a movie theatre any more,” she stated.

“Now it’s more about convenience.”

Or as Michael Brody put it: “I watch movies the way many people listen to music – any time, anywhere, any way.”

A freelance writer in New York who blogs about film, he used to go to the cinema every week. Now he’s there once or twice a month, partly to save money and also because he doesn’t think most movies are worth the effort.

Sounds like bad news for movie theatres.

But we’re talking about an industry that not only survived, but ended up thriving amidst the arrival of television in the 50s, videotapes in the 80s and DVDs in the 90s.

The reason? An ability to continually remake themselves and find new ways to generate revenue, by introducing everything from the multiplex and more elaborate concessions to lengthy preshow advertising.

Now they’re doing it again.

Step into some of the more modern cinemas these days, and you’ll see increasingly common enticements aimed at keeping the lucrative youth market, even as online video becomes more accessible on sites such as YouTube, Netflix or Hulu – or from movie pirates who steal and distribute movies illegally.

These upgraded theatres’ offerings begin with the super comfortable seating. Even lounge chairs and bean bags in some auditoriums. Add 3D effects and larger than life IMAX blockbusters made possible by new digital projectors.

Then comes the midnight movie premieres and opening night parties.

To boost revenue and appeal, many theatres also are broadcasting live sporting events, operas and symphony performances and hosting in theatre video game competitions on the big screen. Still others are opening in house restaurants and bars for those old enough to drink alcohol.

It is this century’s answer to the movie palace of old – or the Broadwayification of the moviegoing experience, as Charles Acland, professor of communications studies at Concordia University, calls it.

“In a nutshell, what you’re going to see is cinema going aimed at people who go less frequently,” commented Mr. Acland, author of SCREEN TRAFFIC: MOVIES, MEGAPLEXES & GLOBAL CULTURE.

It might cost a bit more, he said. “But it will be much more of a special event. People will expect some sort of an experience that you can’t get anywhere else.”

In Europe, cinemas are taking it a step further by remaking themselves as entertainment destinations – with bowling alleys, karaoke bars, comedy clubs and childrens’ play areas. Expect that here, too, as well as interior design schemes that appeal to the 18 to 24 set, and that might dismay the older crowd, stated Toronto based theatre architect David Mesbur.

He said lobbies of the newer theatres in his city – ones he didn’t design – are often mostly black with a few splashes of colour, flashing lights and loud music. Video games, often tucked away in theatres of old, also are scattered around in plain view.

“Those are the theatres that I never go to,” Mr. Mesbur asserted.

Still, experts who track the movie industry say that, so far, all of these efforts appear to be paying off, even in a recession.

Though domestic movie admissions had flattened or dipped slightly in the past couple of years, ticket sales this year are up, whether some of the most popular movies have been ACADEMY AWARD material or not.

“A bad or poorly received film can go down a bit easier if one is sitting in a comfortable reclining seat and has the chance to occasionally stretch their legs. In this sense, cinema going has as much to do today with the hospitality industry as it does with the film industry, per se,” commented Jeffrey Klenotic, associate professor of communication arts at the University of New Hampshire.

That’s a disheartening view to Ron Leone, a film and media studies professor at Stonehill College in Massachusetts. He looks around the audiences at the “uncomfortable, but nice” independent movie theatres he regularly attends and sees few young faces.

“Apparently, watching the cat flushing the toilet is more satisfying,” he said, laughing as he poked fun at young people’s growing appetite for on line videos. Those videos include anything from kitschy amateur pieces to the growing array of short and full length films found on line.

That’s why more theatres are focusing on movies with monster special effects that don’t show well on a computer screen or in home theatre and that are all but impossible for movie pirates to steal – and why major filmmakers such as Jeffrey Katzenberg and James Cameron are banking on 3D and IMAX technology as the future of cinema.

(Panasonic also announced that they’re going to start selling 3D televisions next year.)

So far, movie goers have been more than willing to pay more to see movies in these special formats.

Earlier this month, Canadian based IMAX Corporation, maker of large screen movie theatre technology, reported a second quarter profit with revenues nearly doubled. The company credited its growing cinema network, which includes about 250 theatres equipped to play Hollywood feature films in IMAX format, which uses digital technology to give what some call a notably richer visual experience, including 3D.

Those motion pictures range from PIRATES OF THE CARIBEAN to the HARRY POTTER films, all aimed at younger audiences. And when IMAX announced a special preview of the upcoming James Cameron film AVATAR, “our site got more traffic than you can imagine,” said Greg Foster, chair and president of IMAX Filmed Entertainment.

Combining movie and video game themes is a savvy move, stated Chris Haack, a Chicago based senior analyst with Mintel International, a market research firm that regularly monitors the movie theatre industry.

He explained that cinemas also would be wise to offer young theatre goers more chance to interact, for instance, letting them vote on which previews are shown or which movies stay at a theatre longer than another.

The goal is to keep the attention of the 18 to 24 age bracket – “the most important part of the market,” – and the most likely to watch video on line.

Over all, on line video traffic has skyrocketed more than 80 per cent, from 10.8 billion videos viewed in June 2008 to nearly 19.5 billion in June of this year, according to tracking firm comScore.

Charles Acland predicts that that will translate to more blockbuster action films geared toward the theatres, while character driven films might open at theatres to create buzz but ultimately get more play on line.

Greg Foster agreed and envisions fewer midrange films, those with some action but weaker plots or little character depth. “I think those movies are going by the wayside.”

Of course, there will always be those surprise hit that end up doing well at the box office.

Even when a movie is leaked on line, that doesn’t necessarily stop movie goers from seeing it at the theatre. That was the case when X MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE brought in $87 million at the box office its opening weekend last spring, even though a version of it had been making the rounds on the internet.

Still, there’s no doubt the landscape is shifting.

Some filmmakers – MICHAEL MOORE and WAYNE WANG among them – have taken some of their work directly to the internet on YouTube and elsewhere.

More films also are being released in theatres at the same time they’ve played on cable or on line.

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