Christopher Campbell's The Moviegoer - Cinemapocalypse
by Christopher Campbell
November 17, 2008
What are you going to do when all the movie theaters are gone? I know, you'll probably take the money you would have spent on tickets and save up for a really nice home theater. And you'll still enjoy watching movies, only on a smaller scale. No big deal. Well, not me. I'm really not that into DVD, VOD and streaming video as permanent alternatives to moviegoing. They're fine as supplemental viewing options, but if they were the only things available, I probably wouldn't be as much of a cinephile as I am. If all the movie theaters disappeared, I might have to get back into live music or take up recreational sports.
Why all the doom and gloom? Why am I imagining a dystopia not unlike the one in Reign of Fire, with its lack of cinema clearly evident in its characters' dramatic staging of Star Wars (never mind the dragons - I'm more afraid of a world without movies theaters)? Because if National Amusements is having financial troubles, then I don't see much hope left for the rest of the exhibition industry. The cinema chain, my old employer, has been one of the strongest bedrocks of the business for many decades. And six, seven years ago, when many of the big chains were declaring bankruptcy due to the optimistic overbuilding of multiplexes, National Amusements continued to be in great shape. But now, with reports that the company is struggling to either partially pay off or restructure a $1.6 billion debt, it seems that even the best-run theater chains are no longer immune to economic woes.
Chairman and CEO Sumner Redstone stated recently that his company is working with banks better than has been reported and his daughter, National Amusements president Shari Redstone, will do everything she can to avoid selling theaters, despite speculation that the chain will be forced to do so. So it's possible the chain isn't in too much trouble. But the whole ordeal is still an omen that the end of movie theaters is nigh. Exhibitors have already been experiencing low profits before the financial crisis began. And since then, moviegoing hasn't necessarily been down but concession consumption is reportedly in a terrible state.
Certainly theatrical movie exhibition won't die out completely, at least not right away. I see it being somewhat like what happened to video games. When most of the arcades that populated suburbs in the '80s closed down, gamers were fine staying home with their Nintendos and PlayStations. But for people like me, who never got into playing video games on a TV, there were eventually two options: overpriced attraction-based arcades like Dave & Busters or a favorite Brooklyn watering hole featuring more than 20 coin-operated machines appropriately called Barcade.
Two similar directions are already visible in the business of movie theaters. On the one side are the overpriced "high-end" cinemas, such as National Amusements' own Cinema De Lux theaters, which offer fancy menu items, cocktails and concierge service, and Village Roadshow's new Gold Class Cinemas, tickets for which will cost $35. Also in this bracket are the movies-as-attraction cinemas that will primarily show spectacles in IMAX and 3-D, although not too many of those exist just yet. On the other side of the spectrum will be bar-cinema hybrids, whether they're like the Alamo Drafthouse and Speakeasy Theaters brand varieties or simply neighborhood bars that project movies on a wall.
The cinemas that fall between these two options are likely to disappear. Say goodbye to the average local multiplexes with their decreasing attendance and near-bankrupt popcorn stands. Moviegoing in general will be a more spread-out pastime, both in terms of how often we go and how far it is to the nearest luxury theater. It will truly be an event then, like going to an concert, football game or amusement park. More convenient and casual, though, will be the pub cinemas and other indie stalwarts, which may resemble the art houses of way back when. They, too, may be spread out, though primarily in metropolitan areas.
If you're like me and prefer all your movies to be on the big screen, you'll probably need to move to the city sometime in the next few years. But if you're not like me, and instead you're completely content with the home-viewing experience, and you're fine with the occasional trek to the nearest cultural center for a once-in-a-while treat, you likely won't even notice when the majority of movie theaters are gone.