Movie Theaters Just Shot Themselves in the Foot


Of course, not all of them are.  Let me explain this statement in a bit more detail…

My family and I were thinking of going to see the Hunger Games today, and being the obsessively old school person that I am, I was calling all the theaters to see if any of their screenings were on 35mm.  I’ve done this on occasion before, because I think the magic of the cinema is strongly rooted in the realm of film projection.  I love the grain, the hairs, the occasional scratch, the subtle flicker, and the cigarette burns that mark the end of each reel.  That is cinema to me…  It is an illusion, but it lets us know that it is.  Quentin Tarantino has said that the magic of cinema is that it is the illusion of motion.  All it is is a sequence of still frames, linked together in such a way that it tricks our eyes into thinking that it is living and breathing.  He went on to say that this illusion, this ‘magic of movies’ is connected to 35mm film.

Well I feel the same way.  But to many people it simply doesn’t matter.  But here’s the catch: people will only go to the theater to see something that they cannot get at home.  Maybe it is an anticipated movie that has not had a home release yet, or perhaps they simply love the social aspect of theater-going, or because they can get a bigger, crisper, picture than they can on their TV.  Either way, the theater goer has decided that it is worth paying more to get more out of the experience.

Theater chains have recently been spending a massive amount of money converting their projectors to digital systems.  Much of this has been because of Avatar’s push for digital 3D, and the huge sum of money that that film drew in.  A theater or studio would not be able to ignore that film’s success.  Not only did theater chains recognize 3D as a major interest of audiences, they also saw it as something that the home viewing market did not have.  Not only could they monopolize on the 3D cash cow, but they could also rebrand their theaters as being “new, all digital projection for the sharpest, most colorful images yet!”  This would potentially revitalize the theater-going crowd, who are seeking a new and exciting experience.

Now this sounds pretty smart of them, right?  Well, not entirely.  There are two major flaws in this:  1)  3D is now available at home.  2) The current digital theater projectors are hovering around 4K resolution (this is about six times the resolution of 1080p).  I have even seen theaters that only have 2K projectors (only slightly more resolution than 1080p).

In an all digital IMAX screen (about 4K resolution), I was sitting in the very back of the theater and could see the pixels.  Seriously.  I was in the very back.  I couldn’t go any farther back.  Similarly, on a 4K screen I could pretty easily distinguish the pixels when sitting a bit more than half way back in the theater.

In my opinion, 4K is not suited for theater use.  8K, the resolution that is roughly the same as that of 35mm, is much better suited for the theater.  However, theater chains have only just converted much of their projection systems to 4K.  With 8K projection just around the corner, I ask you: are the theaters really going to spend another massive amount of money so soon?  It could easily be 10-15 years before we see 8K dominating the theater market.  So if theaters aren’t going to switch anytime soon, let’s speculate about what might be happening in the home video market, shall we?  4K TV’s are being introduced this year and 4K discs and players introduced next year.  This stuff is just on the horizon.  Cinemas have practically just converted to 4K projection, and 4K home theater systems are already almost available.  Of course, with the advent of a new format, it invariably takes quite a while to catch on to the fullest extent, but suffice it to say that the home video market will have caught up to the theater experience before theaters finally make the jump to 8K.

Theaters will face an ultimatum: upgrade their 4K projectors to 8K, investing possibly double or triple the money compared to the conversion to 4K (and stepping once again into possibly unstable territory), or they can face the fact that movie theaters are a dying breed.  Because when the special experience of the theater becomes less than special, attendance will drop.  And with the advent of streaming technology, more studios will be pushing early releases to the home theater, rather than the movie theater.

“So whatever happened to the movie theater?” people will ask.  “Well,” I will say, “they died when they tried to convert from 35mm to 4K.”  Why do I say this?  Because 35mm was special.  We had 100 years of film history on the format.  Technological innovations pushed the format forward, beyond silence, beyond black and white, beyond the 4:3 aspect ratio, but didn’t push beyond the format.  It was a magical format that could evolve and get better, but still remain just the sameas we all remembered it.  It was illusion and memory and desire at 24 frames per second.  Every print was unique.  Every screening was different.  Sure, it was often out of focus, but that was just a quick trip to the nearest theater attendant.  Most importantly, 35mm was something FAR beyond the home theater.  It was quite unique to the theater-going experience.  AND WITHOUT 35MM PROJECTION, MOVIE THEATERS ARE NOTHING MORE THAN GLORIFIED TV SCREENS WITH A BUNCH OF TEENAGERS TEXTING AND KICKING THE BACK OF YOUR SEAT.

I will continue going to the glorious 35mm Landmark Theaters to see the movies that I care about.  Everything else, I will simply watch at home, thank you very much!


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