The Evolution of the Movie Theatre.

The slow death of the movie theatre has been greatly exaggerated. And streaming services are being falsely accused of its murder.

Movie theatres have been in existence for over 100 years. In that time, they’ve evolved in size and scope, with visuals, sound, and overall experience improving and ever changing. Movie theatres have bars and they have arcade games. Some theatres serve a meal right to your seat; others provide chairs so large and relaxing that you can roll onto your side and fall asleep. Now we have available enhanced audio (AVX), massive screens (IMAX), immersive visuals (3D), and you can even sometimes feel a breeze and be tossed around (4DX, DBOX). ScreenX is now offered too, which features a 270-degree screen that wraps around you. Not bad.

What’s more, cinemas have survived various golden ages of TV; they’ve survived the globalization and easy access of sports media. They’ve survived the advent of gaming consoles and later the explosions of multiplayer online worlds and Esports. High definition television began in the 90s and 4K came along in the 21st century. Now you can get an 8K television that spans 80 inches. 

There has been a growing fear that movie theatres will die because streaming services have become so prevalent and popular, mirroring the rise of quality TVs that make watching at home a cinematic experience. And while it’s true that you can get incredible visuals and sounds at home, it doesn’t directly affect theatres. It’s a supplemental entertainment experience, not an adversarial one. Movie theatres need not worry about the alternative; they just need to continue to improve their experience.

Firstly, there tends to be too much panic when looking at the short term. While the 2017 box office hit a three-year low, it was also the third successful box office year ever. 2018 boomed up and set a new record. Last year, in 2019, box office proceeds went down, but still managed to place second of all time. This fluctuation may seem large when considered from year to year, but it isn’t when looked at within the bigger picture.

The quality of films is paramount. If you make better movies, you will get more eyes; this is mostly true, most of the time. Of course there are exceptions, but the biggest box office draws tend to be movies that are rated highly by both critics and audiences alike. Last year, Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, and Toy Story 4 made up the top three, with Frozen II and Captain Marvel following behind. Now, aside from the fact that they are all Disney films as well as sequels or remakes, they were all rated fairly well by critics, or at least come from franchises with very high-water marks.

Of the top ten, only Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and The Joker were polarizing among fans and critics. But they were absolutely worth talking about. So along with making a quality film, you can also make an interesting one to get people to the theatre. That’s because people want to see big, important, culturally significant movies. Watching Avengers: Endgame in a huge, sold out theatre for the first time is a pretty exhilarating experience for any Marvel fan. There is no home viewing space that can come close to recreating that. It’s really hard to replace that big a screen, all-encompassing audio, and a room packed with eager, energetic fans. 

The Joker, meanwhile, was so talked about on the festival circuit that more people flocked to the theatre to join the conversation. A lot of people just wanted to know what the big deal was. (Spoiler alert: there was no deal. In this writer’s opinion, it’s pretty generic).

There are other films worth seeing in theatres—provided the theatres get them right. Quentin Tarantino has often feuded with theaters about how his films are shown. He shoots them in a very specific way for a specific reason. The technicalities don’t matter—why wouldn’t you show a film exactly how a director wants it to be viewed? Theatres need to make sure they are viewing the films in the best possible way; if the sound is faulty or the picture generic, then it’s not worth going.

While massive tentpole films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe and other action and sci-fi oriented franchises will always be big draws, so too are films made with an eye towards visuals and the theatre experience. 1917, a war movie featuring one long take, is certainly best viewed in a theatre, in particular because of its award-winning cinematography by Roger Deakins. Some movies are simply more creative and visually stunning, a phrase that’s too often thrown around by critics but sometimes very accurate. The remake of The Lion King is another visually inventive and unprecedented display of technology best seen on a big screen. These kinds of movies aren’t going away.

And what of the indie films or quiet dramas? Steven Spielberg suggested years ago theatres offer tiered pricing for smaller, less popular films compared to massive franchises, and that seems to make sense. Encourage more people to come out to see something special and unique they might not otherwise encounter (his notion that ‘movie’ has a very specific definition is arguably silly though; a movie has no set parameters. Some are really long; others don’t even have sound!)

There are little other small and perhaps clever ideas to tinker with. Theatres have cozy V.I.P experiences and discounted nights; they have days catering to families and others to dates. They show live orchestral performances, sports events, and some even aired the last season of Game of Thrones. Maybe some people will pay more if there are no ads. Maybe some people want to go when there aren’t kids. There are surely some smart people playing with the theatre experience, but what’s important is that filmmakers and creatives are looking to improve it as well. The popularity of streaming services and explosion of content aren’t the reasons theatres will die; they’re the reasons they will become better.

Anthony Marcusa
Anthony Marcusa is a Toronto-based freelance journalist whose writing dabbles in film, TV, music, sports, and relationships – though not necessarily in that order. He’s simultaneously youthfully idealistic and curmudgeonly cynical. But he’s always curious.