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.