Theaters remain vital to moviegoing

Several times this year, I’ve written about the decline of theaters and the rise of streaming, exacerbated through the effects of the pandemic. While there has been a recent theatrical comeback for big franchise properties, smaller budget indies haven’t enjoyed the same success. It’s harder than ever to find movies that aren’t a gigantic four-quadrant blockbuster on the big screen. For the exception of those fortunate enough to live in a film hub like New York or LA, moviegoing is a bifurcated experience: Marvel, James Bond, and other mega family-friendly IPs play at every cineplex around town, transitioning over time to heavily marketed streaming, VOD, and Blu-ray opportunities. Everything else gets quietly dumped off direct to VOD or streaming.

That void in theatrical availability is a lost opportunity that streaming can’t replicate. Powerful sound on a giant screen can give an enveloping, immersive quality to a film. In an increasingly distracted world where multi-tasking is the norm, theaters are a rare setting optimized for focus on a particular movie image. Audience reactions – laughter, clapping, gasps, cheers – provide a unique character.

While we often associate specific film genres like action and science fiction with the big screen, theaters can also enhance more intimate or offbeat films. I have a strong memory of watching Portrait of a Lady On Fire in a nearly empty Lowes multiplex back in February 2020, the last film I saw theatrically before the COVID-19 lockdown. Lady On Fire is the antithesis of the modern blockbuster, a slow burn drama with only three characters onscreen for most of the runtime. The film’s island setting — cliffs, beaches, waves — felt tactile projected thirty feet high. The size of the image also made subtle movements and reactions by each of the characters easier to follow. In addition, music played a pivotal role very late in the film; a booming symphony with different instruments discernible around me heightened the drama.

I’ve had many other memorable movie experiences from otherwise small movies in the right theater. A late night premiere of Ex Machina with an engrossed, silent audience. Having audible gasps break out during the climax of Hereditary. A sparsely attended showing of Mother! burst into giggles as the film’s final act swerved off the rails.

Admittedly, not all theater experiences are as great. Audience members can be as much a distraction from the film as a benefit: open chatting with friends, the bright screens of smartphones marring the view, phone and text notifications, and late arrivals blocking the view. Projection quality can be hit or miss, especially at large multiplex chains. Dim screens, in particular, have been a depressingly common occurrence. At least in a market like New York where $20 or higher is commonplace, the price can feel excessively high. Add to all these obstacles the time and cost to commute to the theater, and it’s understandable why many prefer to watch movies at home.

Film isn’t the only type of media with a “live” component that has such divergent pros and cons. Look at music. Going to a concert can provide an intense sensory experience, with vibrant sound quality and a crowd that feeds off the energy from the stage. The wrong show can also have distorted sound, rude partygoers, overpriced tickets, and watered down drinks. Granted, drawing parallels between your average multiplex theater and a packed musical live act isn’t an exact science: live performances often swap out instruments and arrangements to make the sound dramatically different from a studio recording. A film follows the same core look and structure regardless of the setting you watch it. But both live music and movie theaters undeniably change the character of the experience.

So imagine gatekeeping access to live music based on genre. For instance, only electronic music festivals get a green light moving forward while classical concerts disappear. Common sense would dismiss the idea as ridiculous. Yet on a practical level, we are applying similar logic to movie theaters. Fewer types of films are making it on the big screen. Movies that are too edgy, niche, or low budget inevitably first appear as a $6 rental on your streaming device of choice.

Getting more to experience a diverse set of movies in front of a giant screen transcends nostalgia, technological advances, and even the economics of mega budget movies from gigantic studios. We can do better.