When will home theaters kill the multiplex?

Alameda Movie Theater at Night

Year by year, the gap between home theaters and the local multiplex narrows. You can buy an impressive big-screen TV and a kick-ass speaker system for less than $2000. Even an entry-level system (i.e. <$1000) compares favorably to your local cinema. Toss in a comfy couch or a few recliners, and you’ve essentially duplicated an evening at the marquee.

Now, many theater operators contend that “authentic” movie-watching can’t happen at home:

There’s something magical (we’re told) about the “shared experience” of the movie theater. This is bunk. We don’t like “sharing the experience” with strangers. We sit as far as possible from each other. We don’t interact with our neighbors, unless we’re giving them the stink-eye for whispering or texting. We’d gladly forgo this communal “experience” in favor of some peace and quiet.

Or theater-owners will gush about their superior technology. Sure, your local multiplex has 3D, but who really likes the crummy effect or its irritating glasses? It’s the same story with surround sound, rumbling seats, smell-o-vision, and the like. Technological gimmicks don’t significantly improve the experience over your own living room. Even the cinema’s huge, “immersive” screen falls short. At home, you sit closer to the display; your HDTV seems plenty big, relative to your field of view.

Plus, there are other perks to staying home. There, you sit in your own favorite chair—which has never been soaked in Diet Cherry Coke or toddler urine. Your feet won’t stick to the floors, and you won’t find chewed gum under your armrest. At home, you can pause the film any time you like—to take a bathroom break or to explain the plot to your husband. Your pantry’s snacks don’t come with a 300% mark-up, and you can stock your favorite guilty pleasures. There’s no thirty-minute ad loop pre-roll. Finally, those noisy, mallrat teenagers who spoil the show? They’re not allowed inside your living room (well, unless they’re your noisy mallrats).

If the home viewing experience already beats the multiplex, why do we keep going? Three words: artificial release dates. Theaters have exclusive rights over the big tentpole movies for months, and we’re too impatient to wait for the Blu-Ray release.

But how long can this release date cycle last, in an on-demand media world? Netflix already debuts entire TV seasons, all at once (e.g. House of Cards, Arrested Development). Why not release feature-length, big-budget films, directly to consumers?[1] The documentary industry already operates this way. Is it really that far-fetched to imagine other genres going the same route? How long can the film industry refuse to give us what we want: a night “at the movies”—at home?

UPDATE: Disney just made its hit animated feature Frozen available via iTunes. This, less than three months after the film’s box office debut—and before the movie even leaves the theaters. Signs of progress?

  1. What if new releases cost more to rent? The studios could charge $50 or $100 to stream a blockbuster at home. Invite a few friends over and ask them to chip in. It wouldn’t take many guests to beat the multiplex’s per-ticket price.  ↩