Yes, Virginia, Movie Theaters Are Going Away

I choose to accept and embrace the idea that theatrical will be entirely irrelevant for studio films within 10 years

With all the talk about how technology is changing everything in media and entertainment, there’s a line that no one seems willing to cross. It’s a line that begins and ends at the movie house. If I had a nickel for every time in the past couple of years I’ve heard some insider say “movie theaters are never going away,” I bet I’d have close to 50 bucks. Hey, I’ve said it myself. It’s one of those knee-jerk things where the words are out of your mouth before you know what’s happened.

Well, I’m ready to cross that line. Movie theaters are going to go away.

I’m guessing none of us were going to movies in the days of the great movie palaces. Even the not-so-great movie palaces make today’s multiplex seem like a rat trap. My heart skips a beat when I think of what it must have felt like in the ‘20s and ‘30s, stepping off the sidewalk and into one of those dreamscapes.

When’s the last time your heart skipped a beat walking into a movie theater? (What happens to your heart when the A Train rumbles underneath your butt at the Angelika in NYC doesn’t count.) The closest I’ve come was maybe 20 or 25 years ago when I caught a new print of “Lawrence of Arabia” at the first show of a limited run in a sold out Radio City Music Hall. But that kind of experience is once in a lifetime vs. what folks experienced once or twice a week or more back in the day.

The regulars at the Roxy in New York City and the Paramount in Seattle would have laughed in your face if you told them they had to watch “Little Caesar” or “Wuthering Heights” or “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in a 300-seat auditorium at some 15-screen mall complex. Ninety percent (I’ll be kind) of the screens in America today are cold, boxy, sticky and unwelcoming. There are, of course, a handful of renovated movie palaces still around but they’re little more than curiosities.

The reason folks can’t wrap their brain around the imminent collapse of the modern movie theater is because the transformation of moviegoing from the ‘30s until now – no less extreme than the changes we’re about to see occur – took 50 or 60 years, whereas this new transformation will take less than 10. Technology is moving so quickly now that most of us just can’t see it. But we can feel it. And that makes it seem like a threat so it seems only natural that our gut reaction is either fight or flight.

But there’s a third option: glee.

I choose to accept and embrace the idea that theatrical will be entirely irrelevant for studio films within 10 years. Especially for blockbusters. With no less speed and much greater impact than 3D, the coming metamorphosis will not only provide a superior and untethered AV experience, it will enhance the communal aspect of "moviegoing" to an almost unimaginable level.

Yes. It will. Of course, for independents, theatrical is already largely irrelevant and little more than a mind f— and a money pit. The community will benefit tremendously from the technological scenario just described, but the more immediate need has much less to do with technology than with vision. More on that in a future post. (Pun intended.)

So when Michael Moore plunks down as much as a million dollars on a project meant to hold on tight to the final, fleeting embers of yesterday’s massive bonfire; and when Mike Baldwin blogs at the Seattle PI plaintively encouraging folks to go en masse to the cineplex in a desperate attempt to stave off theatrical extinction; and when influential Hollywood hotshots make headlines by publicly railing against what will have turned out to be an ephemeral 3D “revolution,” I have to giggle. None of this will matter in a few short years and not long afterwards, the idea of spending $50 or $60 plus gas and (possibly) parking to haul the family down to the mall to see a movie (preceded by 10 or 15 minutes of commercials) at a time certain, in a box, on a relatively small screen marred with spitballs – and it might be sold out! – will be laughable. No one will miss it and they’ll wonder how in hell they survived such an antiquated experience for as long as they did.

There are currently about 6,000 theaters in the U.S. containing nearly 40,000 screens. In 10 years there will be under 1,000 and in 15, under 100. And we won’t miss them.

Light a fire for the future!