A few weeks ago, I asked our HomeTheaterEquipment.com forum members a simple question: when was the last time you went out to a movie theater? I expected some answers dating back to the invention of the Kinetoscope, but even I was surprised by the results. The most recent reported visit was six months ago. Not too bad. The most distant trip? Over 15 years ago. On average, it seemed like people who owned their own home theater went out to a movie about once a year – maybe for a special occasion or a movie they just couldn't wait to see, or maybe because the theater offered something special (like The Hobbit in 48fps) that they couldn't reproduce at home.
So what keeps us at home versus venturing out for a night at the movies? Has the home theater made all of us theater owners who show what we want when we want, with no need to go out for a movie anymore? Is the home theater experience better? There are pros and cons to both, some of which may carry more weight for each of us. As someone who owns a home theater and still goes to the cinema regularly, I think I can break things down and examine the benefits each setting has to offer.
Downsides to the Cinema
When I was younger, I remember trying to sneak past ushers into R-rated movies every chance I could get. I got caught more than once and dragged out of the theater in shame. It was hard back then, as there were ticket takers at the entrance to every single theater. Now, there's just one person taking tickets for the whole multiplex. So go ahead, kids: buy a ticket for Despicable Me 2 and walk right in to A Million Ways to Die in the West. This is my personal pet peeve. Kids in R-rated movies who shouldn't be there, distracting everyone else because they can't handle the nudity and violence overload. Yet theaters no longer employ ushers to walk the aisles and check for this kind of thing.
That ties in with another big complaint I hear: texting/talking on cell phones. It's so distracting. Without ushers to monitor the room, your only option is to confront the annoying texter yourself or leave the theater to get a manager and miss part of the movie. Fun. I find it hard to believe that theaters are so strapped for cash they can't hire a high school kid for 10 bucks an hour to shine a flashlight up and down the aisle every twenty minutes.
Another issue is that the big-name new releases often sell out, so it's wise to buy your tickets in advance. What happens if you buy your ticket but can't make the show? Say goodbye to $19.50, as most theaters only allow you to change or refund your ticket one hour before show time. In addition, if you want a good seat, you had better show up early and claim it. Unless of course the theater has reserved seating. No good seats left? Too bad. Enjoy your 40-degree off-angle view from the side of theater.
There is some good news if you are habitually late to things. Being 15, even 20 minutes late to a movie these days is no matter because there are 15 to 20 minutes of commercials and trailers before the film. The National Association of Theater Owners (yes, NATO) has been lobbying for shorter trailers (they want two-minute trailers instead of two-and-a-half minute ones) so that the movie start time isn't so delayed and less of a film is spoiled by the trailer. (Fun fact: NATO did a survey and found that 19 percent of people didn't go see a movie they wanted to see because they felt the trailer spoiled it for them.)
Of course, I would be remiss not to mention the sticky floors (but come on, it's a movie theater, not the Vatican), crying babies (babies =/= movies, ever), smelly jalapeño/nacho/pretzel/hot dogs wafting through the air (gross), and that guy next to you fighting over the armrest and just ever-so-slightly touching your arm, hoping you'll move (not gonna happen). These are things you can't control. Sometimes you get a civil crowd with no texters or laser pointers, and sometimes you get a bunch of high school kids yammering away the whole time. You just never know until you get there and get settled in, at which point you are pretty much stuck.
And I haven't even gotten to the biggest issue: cost. Going to the movies isn't cheap these days. Back in the days of E.T. and Gremlins, my family would often wait for a movie to hit the dollar cinema at our local strip mall and see a movie for $4 for the whole family. Sure, the bulb in the projector was dim, and the seats were beat up, but I didn't care...I was a kid, and I was the movies!
Fast forward to today...The last movie I saw was Godzilla in 3D at the swanky ArcLight in Hollywood. As theaters go, it's one of the better ones in the country, but it comes with a cost:
• Ticket: $19.50
• Soda (medium): $5.00
• Pretzel: $5.00
• Parking: $9.00
Yikes! Almost forty dollars to see one movie. Thank God that I'm single. If you're on a date, you can double that number (minus the parking). Taking the wife and kids? Plan to drop over a hundred bucks. Want to do it once a week for a year? That's well over six grand. In one year. On movies . . . ouch.
Upsides to the Movie Theater Experience
Okay, we've discussed the horrors of having to sit still in a room full of strangers for 90 minutes, but what about the positives? Chances are, unless you are Steven Spielberg, your home theater does not come close to matching the theater experience, no matter how top-of-the-line it is.
The most obvious example is simply the size. Cinemas have huge screens, and IMAX has even more grandiose screens. In either format, the screens dwarf the viewer and are a sight to behold. A six-foot projection screen is pretty big for a home theater, but a 60-foot screen at the cinema is a much more engrossing experience. Thanks to the Digital Cinema Initiative, 4K is fast becoming the standard for digital projection. And while it's true you can buy a 4K TV or projector for home use, you can't watch much on it at this point. So, you get a bigger, more colorful and resolute picture at the theater than you would at home.
Furthermore, good luck getting a 64-speaker Dolby Atmos speaker system installed at home unless you have a really large room (and budget). It is rumored that Dolby is going to introduce a 9.1 or 11.1 "home version" of Atmos this fall. The sonic cacophony that Dolby Atmos produced during the last Die Hard movie was nothing like my home theater had ever produced in 5.1. It was almost too much, but it was cool – something special I couldn't reproduce at home even if I had an extra $25,000 burning a hole in my pocket.
What about all of that expensive candy? Theaters need to make money, and concessions are the main way that they do it. That's why the somewhat high prices don't bother me to much. If theaters didn't have concessions, there wouldn't be any theaters; it's an all-or-nothing deal, and I accept that. Baseball stadiums have $9 beers and $5 peanuts; it's just part of the equation. Theaters make their money on concessions, not ticket sales, so remember that next time you sneak a $1 box of SnoCaps from Walgreens inside.
What about those annoying teenagers, those texting tweens, those chatty couples? Oftentimes, when the lights go down, people actually shut up and watch the movie. Everyone laughs at the same moment and "Oooohhhs" and "Aaaaaahhs" at the same time, and suddenly it feels like you're at an event instead of just watching a movie. When I saw Independence Day on Independence Day at a packed theater in Westwood (near UCLA in West Los Angeles), it was the most psyched-up crowd I had ever been in. When that alien mothership blew up, we all cheered like we had saved the world ourselves. I doubt I would have felt the same way had I been watching the movie at home, alone, with my cat on my lap.
Click on over to Page 2 for the Downside and Upside of home theaters, and the Middle Ground . . .
The Downside to the Home Theater
If you're reading this, then you're probably already a "home theater person." But imagine if you weren't, or what you were like before you decided to build a home theater. It can be daunting. There are a lot of technical considerations; and, if you plan on doing it yourself; you are going to have to learn how to hook up, test, diagnose, and operate some complicated pieces of gear. If you are paying someone else to do it, expect to pay a premium for their expertise, and you'll always need them on call if any issues arise.
First, you likely need to dedicate a room in your home. This may be easy if you're a bachelor in a two-bedroom apartment; but, if you're a family man with four kids, then it may take some convincing to get everyone on board with your "this room is for movies only" plan. You will also need to shell out some cash, which we'll get to in more detail in a moment. Fortunately, you can scale the quality of your theater to fit your budget, and these days the price of gear is lower than ever (think: $700 1080p projectors).
Still, unless you're a one-percenter with a Gulfstream, chances are the theater you build isn't going to come close to the quality you would find at a good Cineplex. Don't get me wrong, you can build a really solid home theater system on a pretty modest budget, but it's not going to compete with Mann's Chinese Theater, much less an IMAX cinema. Even though I love my home system, when I go to the theater I'm reminded that's it's just not the same. My sub rumbles nicely, but at the cinema the whole theater shakes. The theater experience is visceral. My rear channels surprise me every now and again, but in an Atmos-equipped cinema I'm in aural awe at how the whole theater is wrapped in sound.
Also, it's not like once you get your own theater built, the content comes with it. You still need to pay for the movies you watch, one way or another. Of course, you won't be watching any new theatrical releases. You'll have to wait about four months until they hit Blu-ray, and they'll cost you around $25. Or you can hit up your local RedBox to rent a film, but good luck getting any new releases because that box is only so big. You can rent or purchase films for download from iTunes or Vudu, or wait even longer to watch them through a streaming service like Netflix. Streaming has its own issues, though, as the quality is still not on par with Blu-ray and, if your ISP goes down, so does your entertainment source.
Remember that awesome audience-fueled experience I got watching Independence Day? You can forget about that at home. It's just you and maybe some friends and family. It's great to watch movies in an intimate setting, especially dramas or romances; but, for the city-leveling blockbusters we have today, it's just fun to watch them with a big crowd. I like laughing along with a hundred people at a good comedy and hearing everyone gasp when the killer of a good murder-mystery is revealed. At home you have your privacy, but you lose the social aspect. You wouldn't go watch your favorite band play if you were the only person in the audience, would you?
The Upside to the Home Theater
No people! No texting! No crying babies! No arguing spouses! No standing in line! No fighting for parking! No $5 sodas! No scratched 3D glasses! No hassles!
Want soda and popcorn? With a six-pack of Coke going for $1.99, you can make yourself a theater-sized 24-ouncer for 66 cents, instead of five dollars. A box of candy at Walgreens will run you a buck, and they have a much bigger selection. Enjoy some microwave popcorn without the 500 percent markup. Or order a pizza. Hell, it's your house. While you're at it, throw on your pajamas and get comfy.
When it's your personal home theater, you are in control. Hate trailers? You can usually skip past them on a Blu-ray disc. Hate commercials? None to be found. Want to skip the three minutes of credits before the movie actually starts? Go for it. Need to stop for a bathroom break? Pause the movie. Cell phone ringing? Answer it if you want; there's no one around to shush you. Like it dark? Kill all the lights. Cold? Grab a blanket. Getting tired? Go to sleep and pick up where you left off tomorrow. Smoke a corncob pipe if you want. And make yourself a drink while you're at it...you can't get a Jack and Coke at most multiplexes, but you can pour yourself three fingers of Macallan 18 at home.
Like your surround sound? Crank those side and rear channels. Is the sub too loud? Turn it down. While you're cranking the volume and ignoring the neighbor's cries for sanity during a Transformers marathon, about the only thing you have to worry about is some sort of equipment failure. Barring that, having a home theater can come in pretty handy.
If you purchase a Blu-ray disc, you can watch it as many times as you want, not just once. The same is true of streaming services with unlimited access. No more $100-plus nights out at the theater for a movie that everyone hated. Start a college fund for your kids instead . . . or a yacht fund for yourself.
Of course, home theaters aren't free. But these days you can put together an entry-level system for around $2,500. With flat-screen prices as low as they've ever been and 1080p projectors now starting at $700, all you need is a Blu-ray player and a 5.1 system, and you're good to go. If you take our approximate cost of $120 for a family of four to go to a movie at the theater, you could go to the movies 22 times, or you could buy your own home theater. Keeping in mind that $2,600 is not going to get you a top-of-the-line theater but a decent starter one, what's the better value? It may sting to drop all that cash in one shot, but in the long run it will definitely end up saving you, assuming you watch movies regularly.
Where Is the Middle Ground?
The theater industry is well aware of some of the issues I listed earlier regarding the sub-par experience of going out to the movies. In a move to remedy this, there has been an increase of "dine-in" theaters. AMC has several locations that only allow ages 18 and over except in the "cinema suites," which are 21-and-over and feature private areas and leather recliners. The Alamo Drafthouse is a whole "dine-in" chain with 14 locations around the country that have an 18-and-up age policy. Other major chains like Landmark Theatres have similar types of adult-oriented "dine-in" locations. The common thread is that they are adults only, they serve (real) food and alcohol, and they have zero-tolerance talking and texting policies. They are also generally cleaner and more well-appointed than your standard theater. In short, they address most of the issues people cite as reasons to not go out to the movies, and they still cost about the same as a regular theater.
So, now what's your excuse? Well, when you start adding in the cost of alcoholic drinks, actual dinner entrée items, and real desserts (my ex-girlfriend says Sour Patch Kids do not qualify as dessert), the "dine-in" theaters can get pricey. Then again, you are essentially combining dinner and a movie in one shot, so it may actually end up saving you money.
Just Start the Movie Already
Having laid out all the preceding points, I can only come to one conclusion: home theaters are great to own and perfect for some situations, but the theater experience can't be beat. I'll watch Wimbledon on my home theater this summer, but I'll catch the midnight premiere of Transformers 4 at a local cinema. I'll re-watch Nightmare on Elm Street at home but go see Dumb and Dumber Too with some friends to laugh along with. Heck, I've even gone to repertory houses like the Aereo Theatre in Santa Monica to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark on the big screen, then gone home and topped it off with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade on Blu-ray. Just because I own them on Blu-ray doesn't mean I have to watch them at home.
The point is, there's room for both. Just because you own a kickass home theater doesn't mean you need to become an IMDB-obsessed movie-watching hermit. On the flipside, you don't have to spend every cent in the theater to see all the films you want to watch, if you're willing to put a little time and effort into assembling a modest system. Spread it out. Take the wife to the latest rom-com in the theater instead of waiting for Redbox. Or make her a nice dinner and watch her favorite rom-com at home. Both are good options, and that's the beauty of having your own home theater. You decide which movies are worth the hassle and expense of venturing out into the real world and which ones you'd rather stream or rent.