How We'll Watch Movies in 10 Years Without Theaters

Saying that movie theaters are going away elicited strong responses. Here's more details on what the future holds.

Holy shitstorm Batman!

The online reactions to my post last week about the coming demise of the modern movie house have been intense and 99 percent damning. Even though the original post addressed each of the basic objections that have been raised over the past few days, I left way too much to the imagination; an ability that far too few of us exercise very much if ever based on the comments I’ve read.

No doubt the visceral reaction to the post also has something to do with the basic anxiety and anger that hangs like a threatening storm cloud over much of America and the world at present. For some, any opportunity to strike out and relieve some pain is a good one, especially online where anonymity rules and every yahoo with a keyboard feels empowered to act out without fear or conscience. But that too shall pass. (Through better, smarter implementations of technology.)

In the meantime, I’ll ignore the rabble and respond to the essential complaints.

1) Movies were made to be seen on a big screen.

No, they weren’t. The first projections of movies were played to one person at a time through what was essentially a peephole. In fact Edison, the inventor of the earliest movie technology, believed that projecting to groups of viewers at once was not financially viable. He was, of course, proven wrong, but that was the beginning of an evolutionary process that will very soon – within 10 years – see the most dramatic changes and positive improvements in the 120-year history of moving pictures.
What am I talking about? Keep reading.

2) Moviegoing is a communal experience.

Yes, for most people it is. And once the intensely increasing speed of technology has rendered movie theaters virtually extinct, moviegoers will have the option of communing over movies anywhere they want with as many people as they want – friends and strangers alike. "Going to the movies" will take on an entirely new meaning and the thought of sitting in a dark, uncomfortable theater will seem as cornball as attending an oldies show at the local Indian casino. (Please, I love Indian casinos.)

How? Keep reading.

An aside: It’s so interesting that some of my most vociferous critics concede that they themselves go to movie theaters far less frequently than they used to. They even point out some of the many reasons that bricks and mortar has, outside of any intrusion by new technology, lost much of its appeal and become more and more a hassle. Nonetheless, they feel a responsibility to defend the movie-theater-going experience to the death. Strange but true.

3) There’s been little or no drop-off in theater attendance and some specialty cinemas are having record years.

OK, but what’s your point? I’m not saying that movie-going – the social experience – is going to end. In fact, the superior viewing experience of the coming technology and its mind-expanding ability for enabling almost unlimited socialization will guarantee that content creators – especially the studios – will increase their audience dramatically and their revenues beyond their wildest dreams. And what part of “In 10 years there will be under 1,000 and in 15, under a hundred” don’t you understand? Why there will be any left is that some (including Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum for instance) will remain because they have a mission to serve the moviegoing public in a myriad of innovative ways and they love cinema – not just the limiting experience of watching it as it exists today.

4) The end of movie theaters will mean increased isolation. The only alternative to watching movies in movie theaters is watching movies at home in the living room.

No, the opposite will be true. While many people will choose to watch films in their homes, many more will still go out to the movies. But they won’t be going to the restrictive environment of a movie theater. The coming revolution will un-tether movie watchers to such an extent that they will have the ability to take the experience with them wherever they wish, with whomever they wish and never have their seat kicked or their feet stick to the floor or endure a crying baby or be forced to arrive at a given location at a given time only to discover, perhaps, that the movie is sold out.

How is that possible? Keep reading.

5) Mark hates movie theaters.

No, he doesn’t. He still likes going to movie theaters and he’ll continue to go, if only occasionally, as the new movie-watching technology ramps up and rolls out over the next several years. But once the stew is nearly fully cooked, I’ll be out. It’s not that I hate movie theaters, it’s that what’s coming will blow movie theaters away. Literally.

Really, Mark? Yes. Keep reading.

6) Nothing compares with seeing a movie on a big screen.

True today, but not tomorrow.

OK, pencils down. Thinking caps on. Imaginations engaged.

Please keep in mind that I’m about to describe something that will be real and fully functioning within 10 years. Not today, not tomorrow, not in two years or five. Parts of it will certainly be in use in less than 10 and many underlying technologies are certainly in development today. And it’s likely to be the gaming industry rather than the film industry that drives it. For the purpose of this exercise, though, please think 10. I can’t stress this point enough. I know because as much as I stressed it in the original post, no one seemed to pay it much attention. So are we clear? Good.

Ten years hence…

…we will all carry our movie-watching device with us. You know, like we carry our multifunctional communications devices with us today. Now, I can’t tell you exactly what these devices will look like, but I think I can come pretty close. Think eyeglasses.

So you want to see a movie. There isn’t a movie theater within a hundred miles. What to do? Sit home and watch it by yourself or with your partner in the living room with the kids screaming and the house-cleaning robot fluttering around? No. Instead, you can…

1) go to the park, lay out a blanket and have a picnic dinner with wine under the moonlight while you lie on your backs, put on your movie-watching devices, and click "start." (You’ve prepaid and pre-ordered your film although you also could have completed the process right there in the park. Nearly instantly, the latest  Hollywood chick-flick begins. (Come on, it’s date night.) Your full field of vision – rather than the limited field of vision even a huge screen experience can provide – is filled with an immersive visual treat that’s equaled by the awesome audio. You hold hands and enjoy the show.

(By the way, you’ve turned on your perimeter netting to alert you to any potential danger lurking in the shadows and/or you’ve established a peripheral setting that slightly decreases the immersion and allows for extreme left-right vision.)

2) You check your social network for friends who have plans to watch the same film you’re interested in and determine which location suits your mood for the evening. You go to that bar or restaurant or other social gathering place (and some might be specifically designed for the purpose of movie-going, aka the new "movie theater."

3) You don’t have kids or a partner and you just want to stay home and watch the latest independent film but you don’t want to watch alone. So you put on your movie-watching device and click the settings button. The settings dialogue projects onto the kitchen table or coffee table or wherever and you set socialization to "on," you highlight your mom who lives in Portland, your brother who’s backpacking in Argentina and 16 of your favorite cousins and invite them to watch the film with you.

(Of course, you could also have set this up hours or days in advance by logging into one of several movie-watching hubs and making arrangements via your preferred communication device.)

You’ve also dialed your Comm setting to Open Full. In other words, conversation allowed across all viewing parties. You could have set that to Comm Off or allowed conversation only between you and your cousin Vinny.

4) You *do* want to watch alone in your living room, you choose the State Theater, Cleveland, Ohio, as your environment including virtual ticket purchase and walk to seat and enjoy a fully immersive experience better than any you could have had in the finest movie theater.

The only loser in the scenario I’m describing is the national theater circuits (including Landmark) whose extinction is inevitable. Content creators, especially the studios, will reap benefits never before dreamed with the elimination of the theater as middleman. No longer will they be forced to share an exorbitant percentage of revenue with an exhibition "partner" nor will they ever have to go to sleep crying in their pillows about all that popcorn revenue that the circuits keep all to themselves on the back of the studios production and marketing skills.

And the revenue will go instantly into their bank accounts eliminating the need to kiss the circuit’s ass in order to a) get films booked in accordance with the content producer’s best marketing plan; b) ‘settle’ engagements with the hope of getting the circuit to agree to pay the content producer based on the original terms agreed to; and c) actually get them to cut a check.

I realize that moviegoers of a certain age (let’s call it 30+ to be generous) have romantic and/or nostalgic notion about theater-going. Not so for younger folks or anyone born today and forever after. Instead, those folks will embrace the coming sea-change with abandon. They’ll barely have a thought that movie theaters even existed outside the few that remain for museum exhibitions or weekend trips down memory lane.

This is not an apocalyptic view or one born from anger or any lack of understanding of the history or psychology of moviegoing. It’s one that pairs 30 years of hands-on experience in the entertainment industry with a deep understanding of the power and present speed of technological innovation and an ability to allow myself the freedom to imagine what can be and what might be without fear.

It’s a view that, for me, is filled with great excitement and hopefulness.

That’s a fire worth lighting, don’t you think?