Why Do We Still Go To Movie Theaters?
Due to a stroke of extraordinary luck, I recently saw Hamilton, and I can say that the Broadway play is every bit as good as has been described. Nearly every second of the musical was overflowing with fantastic choreography, brilliant lyrics, and an incredible array of musicians adding an impeccable backdrop to the drama. There was a sense of awe that this play imposed on its audience. While watching it, you struggle to believe that the performance is possible to achieve, let alone in one take. Throughout the production, I truly felt as though I was experiencing something that I could not have gone through in the comforts of my own home. The beauty of live performances is that they are momentary: they exist only for a second, and you were one of the lucky few who were able to see them. There is something beautiful about being in the room where it happened (no pun intended).
Even though, for obvious economic reasons, plays have become afterthoughts compared to cinema in the eyes of the public, their existence still makes sense in the twenty first century. They offer something that is unattainable anywhere else. This brings up an important question: why do we pay to enter a theater, when nearly all of us have a theater in our own home? I can see why we still go to plays, but why do we still go to movie theaters?
In order to answer this question, we need to take a trip back in time. On June 19, 1905, the first American movie theater, the Nickelodeon, opened in Pittsburg. The concept of a film had been made possible by revolutionary technology. Films are essentially one massive illusion (click here to learn more) in which images are relayed so quickly that the brain assumes the images are events taking place. Once photographers and scientists were able to capture long segments, these films were distributed to audiences across the world.
Unlike a book, there was no realistic way to deliver a cinematic experience in anyone’s home, so movie theaters were established. At the time it was required that audiences go somewhere in order to view a film. It made as much sense of going somewhere to see a play. That all changed with the invention of the television. Although television did not become truly commercial in the United States until the 1950’s, as the century pushed onwards they became more and more common. Today, nearly everyone has at least one television in their home, and many have multiple. In fact. The New York Times reported that 96.7% of Americans owned a television in 2011.
With the introduction of the television, audiences could indulge in television, and eventually feature length films in their own homes.
Once this happened, there was no logical need for movie theaters to continue. Looking back at the history of mass consumption reveals that the most convenient method almost always wins out. Blockbuster was brought to its knees by Netflix, Borders was taken over by Amazon, and arcades were stamped out by video game consoles.
Unlike live performances, there was no need for the consumer to exit their homes and head elsewhere for books and video games, so they stopped going. With all of this in mind, why have theaters survived the digital age?
Some speculate that it is due to the nature of a “shared experience”, but I completely disagree. There isn’t always a shared experience when playing a video game console, as there is in an arcade, but consumers decided they weren’t willing to pay money every time they wanted to play a game. Instead, they elected to have the experience in their own homes. There isn’t a shared experience when shopping on Amazon, but people still decided to flock online rather than drive out to a bookstore. There is no required “shared experience” when browsing through Netflix, yet people bought subscriptions to that website instead of renting from Blockbuster.
I agree that elements of “escapism” and “community” are easier to achieve in a theater than they are on a couch, but again, this has not stopped the death of other similar industries.
The video game industry has moved from the communal experience of arcades, to home consoles with couch multiplayer (meaning that people in the same room are playing the same game simultaneously), to online multiplayer, where people from across the world play the same game at the same time, with only voice chat connecting them (if they have it at all).
We see trends like this in nearly every other industry. And yet, theater chains have still lagged on.
The era in which theaters were born is a major reason for their persistence. When film first appeared, television had not been invented yet, and so by the time TV had become a staple of American life, theaters had already been in existence for twice as long. They to, had become a staple of American life.
But now, as entertainment becomes easier to consume and increasingly competitive, I believe it is time for the film industry to move beyond these antiquated businesses.
Many, including myself, feel a strong sense of nostalgia when entering a theater. Many of my favorite moments from childhood were spent watching larger than life heroes in front of a towering screen, with a few of my friends at my side. I can recall the first time I fell in love with a film, I can recall the first time I jumped in my seat after witnessing my first jump scare, and I can even recall the first time I heard an audience applaud at the end of a screening.
Several film lovers have praised the theater going experience, and as I read others’ opinions while preparing to state my own, I found a common trend: the sense of nostalgia that a movie theater creates is very strong. So strong, that many are willing to overlook the flaws of modern day theaters.
Upon researching for this editorial, I found an article from CNN, written by Jeff Yang, that praised the movie theater as “a womb with a view: Walking back out into the daylight after seeing a brilliant film amidst a crowd of fellow fans feels like a collective rebirth into a subtly changed reality, in which one’s life is placed in an exhilaratingly fresh context. It will never get old.”
And while I understand and relate to the sentiment written here, I ultimately disagree
We now live in an age where anyone can watch hours of content on a small device they can carry in their pocket. We live in a world where the vast majority of Americans have their own theater system in the comfort of their own home. No, it is not as grand as what one might find in the cinema, but it isn’t as crowded either.
It isn’t ridden with people talking and texting on their phones, it isn’t populated with overpriced food, and it isn’t deprived of a pause button. When I watch a film in my home, I can stretch out my feet across a soft couch, and eat whatever I want for a fraction of what it would have cost at the theater. I can invite my friends and we can enjoy the film in whatever capacity we chose. We can discuss it while we watch it, or we can remain in complete silence, but either way, we aren’t being a burden to anyone else. And, no one is being a burden to us.
I love the theater going experienced, but in my opinion, it has been dramatically romanticized and is in need of swift improvement. To be honest, I do not know what that improvement is, but that might be because there is no fundamental improvement to make.
Movie theaters are a relic of a much simpler past, and they have hung on for more than a century. But I believe it is time for them to fade into memory, and be replaced with faster, and more modern options.
For every moment of pure bliss and happiness I have experienced in theaters, like the first time I saw The Avengers, or how the crowds cheered during the premiere of The Force Awakens, I can recall an equally annoying time.
I remember how many times I have had to go to the restroom, and missed important scenes. I can recall how many times people have been on their phones next to me, or haven’t been able to keep quiet. And to be honest, I remember all the times I have failed to live up to the standards I hold other audience members to.
This is why I believe movie theaters should end. They are old, overpriced, and inconvenient. The film industry must take advantage of the new technologies at its disposal, because if it doesn’t, it may find itself outpaced by other, newer forms of entertainment.