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 . . .