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Are Movie Theaters Doomed?

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When I was in high school, struggling through Latin, I assumed that what brought down the Roman Empire was the lack of movie theaters.

Movies are not only mass entertainment -- they're also communal. Sure, the Christian vs. carnivore acts at the Coliseum were communal too. But Rome had only one Coliseum, and the shows were costly and long. Throughput was pitiful, and the societal workings of these spectacles -- involving the citizenry in a shared (if low-brow) experience -- didn't adequately unite a diverse group of people with cultural cement. A few hundred Roman multiplexes would have done better.

That was my theory, anyway.

In my mind, America had been united as much by its movies as by the Constitution. At the turn of the 20th century, movies became the preeminent culture of the immigrant classes. For the tsunami of people who endured a week in steerage to reach the U.S., opera was unaffordable. Vaudeville, which required a command of colloquial English, was enigmatic. In contrast, the silent movies of the time were cheap and comprehensible. And unlike the elaborate Coliseum entertainments of two millennia earlier, movie dramas could be rapidly duplicated and distributed, and shown to audiences in a spare room using a simple machine.

I figured that any society comprised of individuals who had spent a thousand hours of their youth sitting next to strangers in the dark, sharing the same emotion-laced stories thrown on a wall, could never be at odds with itself.

Furthermore, it seemed to me that movie theaters were here forever. For more than a century, the cinema had withstood assault from all manner of competitive diversions, including those afforded by increasingly easy travel and communication. And, of course, it had toughed out a half-century siege by its perennial arch enemy, television. I was convinced that the local cinema was as much a fixture of the American landscape as the Rockies.

But now I'm not so sure. There's been a dismaying drop in per-capita theater attendance during the last decade, and my guess is that it's because new technology is changing the game in a way that early television never did.

High definition technology and the advent of flat-screen displays has narrowed the image quality gap between theaters and living rooms. A 72-inch screen seen from 10 feet (a nominal couch-to-TV distance) subtends a diagonal angle of 33 degrees, which happens to be about the same as watching a 50-foot movie screen from a seat in the middle of the theater. In other words, the visual experience at home needn't be much different than at the cinema, and the price of admission (not to mention the cost of the popcorn) favors the living room.

The movie industry could fight back by doing what it has always done: upping the ante. When, in the early 1950s, television savaged America's weekly habit of going to the movies (irrespective of what was playing), Tinseltown responded by offering a pictorial experience that -- on technical grounds -- was far beyond the boob tube. The public was barraged with Cinemascope, Cinerama, Todd AO, Surround Sound and 3-D, among other technical flourishes. It was a finger in the dike.

Well, maybe Hollywood could try this tactic again, with a vastly improved "movie-going experience." Twenty years ago, I wrote a paper about a theoretical cinema system so good, it would match reality. In other words, a scene of a cowpoke loping across the Great Plains would look the same on the silver screen as seeing it in person. For anyone who cares, I reckoned this required one gigapixel (stereo) imagery, 17-bit pixels, and an uncompressed data rate of 750 Gbytes per second. I estimated that we could easily build this system sometime in the coming decade. Maybe such a quantum leap in visual quality would keep people streaming to the multiplex.

But I doubt it.

Why? Because the younger generation doesn't seem overly concerned about such niceties as pixel count, screen size, or color gamut. Many seem perfectly content to watch a film on a laptop, an iPad, or even a diminutive iPhone. To me, that's like listening to Tchaikovsky on a crystal set, but Gen Y would argue that the value is in the art, not the technology.

So given the fact that movies now fit in your pocket, and just about anyone can see what they want, when they want, is there any hope for your local cinema?

Yes, maybe there is. I'm not too old to recall that movie theaters serve a youthful need that goes beyond offering wide-screen thrills, chills, and spills. A function that transcends both the aesthetic and cultural benefits of carefully crafted storytelling by talented writers, actors and directors.

Namely, young people need a place where it's socially acceptable to sit in the dark for two hours on a Saturday night.

I don't know if that will keep the country united, but it's a comfort that the Romans didn't have.