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10 Ways Our Moviegoing Experience Will Change

To compete with the easy availability of streaming entertainment at home and in the pockets of consumers, theaters will need to find new ways to engage audiences. ©Dario Lo Presti/iStockphoto
To compete with the easy availability of streaming entertainment at home and in the pockets of consumers, theaters will need to find new ways to engage audiences. ©Dario Lo Presti/iStockphoto

The digital revolution is transforming the entertainment industry in fantastic and agonizing ways. For consumers, there's probably never been a better time to explore all sorts of music and shows. For the businesses that rely on consistent patronage to stay afloat — such as movie theaters — the flooded marketplace is a finicky and frightening place.

It's not that movie tickets sales are plummeting in a panicky way. Ticket statistics actually show that movies still draw crowds, as box office numbers increased by about 4 percent in 2013 [Source: MPAA]. Part of the increase is due to rising ticket prices (as any movie fanatic will groan about), but the fact remains that fewer people are buying fewer tickets, particularly in America [Source: LA Times].

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Theater owners feel the pressure of competing with a fractured audience. Streaming media is an enormous challenge to theaters. In years gone by, the movie theater was the place to be on weekends. Nowadays, consumers have personal control of on-demand movies and TV shows right in their own homes.

And other industry observers are sounding a death knell of sorts for traditional in-theater movie experiences. They say rude, cell-phone obsessed people, the dubious appeal of 3-D movies, wallet-scorching concession prices and a flaccid economy are likely to keep people at home for the foreseeable future.

The smartest theater owners aren't waiting to see if their audiences will stick around. Instead, they're thinking ahead for the newest ways to draw in viewers and keep them coming back. Some of their ideas might be frivolous; others are fantastic and weird and wonderful. Keep reading and you'll see why movie going might never again be the same.

The level of service varies from fast food to fancier fare, but bypassing the line at the concessions counter is a big draw for some theater goers. © Randy Faris/Corbis
The level of service varies from fast food to fancier fare, but bypassing the line at the concessions counter is a big draw for some theater goers. © Randy Faris/Corbis

One of the challenges of movie going has always been timing a snack run. You wait for a lull in the action and then walk briskly to the snack counter, grab your popcorn and then sprint back to your seat, hoping that you didn't miss any of the fun.

Some theaters are taking the guesswork out of snack dashes by bringing the food to you instead. Just press a button and a server will magically (and discreetly) appear to take your order, and then deliver your food when it's ready. In the over-21 version of the same concept, that same server delivers alcoholic beverages of your choice, so that you can dull your senses during a particularly disappointing flick.

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For people who want to shift the dinner-and-a-movie paradigm by combining the two elements, these kinds of theaters may fulfill a lifelong dream. Still, even this business model can't help you when you need a bathroom break during the best part of a film.

Augmented reality devices may one day make you feel like the action of a film is happening all around you in the real world.
Augmented reality devices may one day make you feel like the action of a film is happening all around you in the real world. ©eternalcreative/iStockphoto

If you've ever played an addictive video game on your smartphone or tablet, you know just how absorbing the experience can be. The people and places in the vicinity fade out and your attention falls completely within the artificial gaming universe in front of you. Now imagine that movies could become just as immersive.

Instead of going to a darkened box to watch a glowing screen, the world around you may become part of the cinema experience. With small, high-resolution handheld displays, head-mounted displays built into smart glasses and all sorts of control systems enabled by smart devices, wireless signals and high-bandwidth Internet access, clever programmers will make your neighborhood and city part of a story.

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The real-world locations you visit — a museum, zoo or even the supermarket — may all become elements of a quest that you seek to complete. This kind of system would not only blur the lines between movies and video games ... it could make the lines between reality and artificial life fuzzy, too.

Some tickets may automatically include your snacks and other goodies like posters and access to digital content. © Antonprado/iStockphoto
Some tickets may automatically include your snacks and other goodies like posters and access to digital content. © Antonprado/iStockphoto

Anyone can stream movies at home. It's convenient, but it's not special. But not everyone gets to see a hotly anticipated movie several days before its nationwide release. That's an exclusive experience. And theaters are finding ways to sell exclusivity to the right people.

In one limited experiment for the movie "World War Z," audience members paid $50 for a so-called Mega Ticket, which granted them access to an early screening, a digital copy of the movie, a poster, 3-D glasses, and of course, popcorn.

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It's not as if the theater and studio are raking mega bucks with promotions like Mega Tickets. But in providing a special experience — namely, one that the audience can't duplicate at home — there's a unique experience in the act of going to the movie in person. These kinds of special offers may be more common if studios and theaters find them useful for attracting more customers.

Virtual reality has been lurking in social consciousness for quite some time, but only recently has it begun to really be a viable technology for consumer release. ©Dmitri Korobtsov/Getty Images
Virtual reality has been lurking in social consciousness for quite some time, but only recently has it begun to really be a viable technology for consumer release. ©Dmitri Korobtsov/Getty Images

Head-mounted displays equipped with sharp video and high-fidelity sound are becoming more and more common. That's why devices like Oculus Rift may well enable the most convincing movie experiences ever, even if it all happens as you rest in your living room recliner.

Oculus Rift straps onto your head like an oversized pair of goggles. Inside is a display that nearly fills your entire field of view, making you feel like you've stepped right into a video game or movie. Thanks to carefully calibrated lenses and software, the view is in 3-D and thus, all the more convincing.

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This kind of so-called virtual reality headset has been in developers' minds for decades, but the technology has never been up to par. Now, tools like Rift have faster processors, better screens and smarter software that makes them comfortable to use and fully engrossing for the mind.

Facebook recently purchased Oculus Rift. With the financial back of the social media giant, and competitors like the Sony Playstation VR and HTC Vive stepping into the VR headset game, virtual reality may at long last become reality.

The CJ 4DPLEX system offers audiences a whole new level of entertainment immersion. © Gary Friedman/Getty Images
The CJ 4DPLEX system offers audiences a whole new level of entertainment immersion. © Gary Friedman/Getty Images

Forget the passive, gape-mouthed stares of an audience far removed from the on-screen action. In the theaters of tomorrow, you'll find yourself plopped into the middle of the story.

A South Korean company called CJ 4DPLEX offers what it calls a 4D movie experience. In 4DX theaters, the chairs tilt and bounce during car chases; mist falls and wind blows in the midst of an on-screen thunderstorm.

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Odor even plays a role, as smells are timed to reach your nostrils during relevant portions of the film. You may get a whiff of gunpowder during an intense gunfight or detect the aroma of freshly brewed coffee during a morning scene in a downtown café.

This kind of movie experience adds about $6 to the price of your ticket. That's cheap when you consider the capital investment on the part of the theater company — retrofitting a theater with this technology is a tremendous expenditure, on the order of roughly $700,000.

Not only can you have a cocktail brought to your seat, but the seat and area around it can more closely mimic your living room than a movie theater. © Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Not only can you have a cocktail brought to your seat, but the seat and area around it can more closely mimic your living room than a movie theater. © Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

When big-box multiplex theaters first appeared, they had a certain appeal, mostly in the variety of films they could carry. With so many screens, you could choose from a dozen movies on any given night. But the theaters themselves had none of the glamour or decadence of those in past decades. Instead, you were simply one of hundreds or thousands of people shuffled in and out of bleak gray boxes every two hours. The experience, then, didn't seem to deliver full value for the steep price of your ticket.

Some newer theaters offer a fancier, more upscale feel that honors the Hollywood mystique. Fine and artful décor graces the ceilings and walls.

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In addition, instead of scrambling for a seat, you can call ahead or order tickets online for the best seats in the house. Rather than a lumpy stadium seat, you'll sit back in a leather recliner, tuck a pillow under your head, and if the A/C is too aggressive, wrap yourself in a blanket. It's the comfort of your home theater in an upscale environment.

Atlanta, Georgia’s historic Fox Theater features an organ that’s often used to accompany sing along events that run with classic films.  © Bob Krist/Corbis
Atlanta, Georgia’s historic Fox Theater features an organ that’s often used to accompany sing along events that run with classic films. © Bob Krist/Corbis

Movies may eventually steal lines from another entertainment staple – Broadway. On the Great White Way, productions remain in theaters for months or even years.

Movie theaters that adopt this model sometimes make events out of running films that aren't necessarily the latest releases, with value-add elements like live accompaniment, shadow players that act right along with the characters on screen, or specially themed snacks and other souvenirs.

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The ticket prices are substantially higher for these sorts of events, of course, but many families make their own production out of seeing such shows. The on-screen entertainment becomes part of an occasional, memorable, communal ritual for even more elaborate, quality films instead of disposable and forgettable (or regrettable) weekly viewing of yet another superhero remake.

It’s unlikely that theater-goers would ever need to don a lattice of electrodes like those used in a lab study, but similar technology could deliver an entertainment experience that makes you feel like more of a participant than a viewer. © AMELIE-BENOIST / BSIP/BSIP/Corbis
It’s unlikely that theater-goers would ever need to don a lattice of electrodes like those used in a lab study, but similar technology could deliver an entertainment experience that makes you feel like more of a participant than a viewer. © AMELIE-BENOIST / BSIP/BSIP/Corbis

Interactive movies and high-tech theaters are one thing. But what if the movie theater of the future is simply in your mind?

Researchers are learning more about the brain every day, understanding how to trigger specific thoughts and desires by simply stimulating a specific section of brain tissue. It's no stretch to think that with the right set of tools, a scientist could pipe an imaginary experience directly into your noggin, and in ways that makes that experience seems as real as a memories of a summer bike ride or your first kiss.

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You could slip into these synthetic stories and slay medieval dragons, fight on a famous World War II battlefield or set off on adventure across the galaxy. All of it would seem incredibly real — to the point that you could potentially lose touch with reality. Then again, if you've ever watched someone playing "Flappy Bird" for days on end, you know that a lot of people already have.

ScreenX promises an immersive, visually stunning way to take in movies. © TheScreenX, used under the Creative Commons 3.0 license.
ScreenX promises an immersive, visually stunning way to take in movies. © TheScreenX, used under the Creative Commons 3.0 license.

Legacy movie screens are flat. And although modern 3-D technology provides the illusion of space, it's not real and it often fails to suspend disbelief in audiences. With ScreenX, however, two-thirds of the theater (the main screen and side walls) suddenly become part of the projection.

It's a bit like surround sound, but for your eyes. During wild car chases, the sides of the theater might blur as streets and buildings whiz by at a frenetic pace. Or if a character enters a dance club, the laser light and strobes could pulsate from all around, making you feel like you're actually part of the bumping and grinding crowd on the dance floor.

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The system is still in testing stages in South Korea. To dodge costly renovations, it relies mostly on adding two inexpensive projectors to each side of the primary projector, ultimately creating a 270-degree view for the audience.

Effectively utilizing the extra wall space places all sorts of new demands on lighting and camera equipment during film production. From a creative and psychological standpoint, it also adds degrees of difficulty to the director's job, as they learn to use that space for effective storytelling instead of just as a pointless special effect. But if and when ScreenX goes mainstream, it could pull viewers into the action in a whole new way.

If some of Hollywood’s heavy hitters have their way, the biggest change we can look forward to at the cinema is … better movies.  ©Zinkevych/iStockphoto
If some of Hollywood’s heavy hitters have their way, the biggest change we can look forward to at the cinema is … better movies. ©Zinkevych/iStockphoto

For years, Hollywood has banked ever more money, mostly on established movie franchises, unwilling or unable to bet on less certain ventures. The end result has been a predictable staple of 3-D action hero movies and sequels that draw the same crowds, season after season.

This dependence on blockbuster films to perpetuate a cycle could cause a film-making catastrophe. Famed director Steven Spielberg is on the record as saying that it's harder and harder for new ideas to make it through to studio production. And he thinks it's likely that a string of embarrassing and expensive flops will turn the entire industry upside down [source: Bond].

The end result might be better movies.

If and when Hollywood relearns that storytelling trumps special effects, movie theaters stand to benefit in all sorts of ways, and audiences do, too. People would suddenly have new reasons to return to a public theater instead of hunkering down at home, anti-social and alone, watching lower budget but better quality programming.

There's a psychological benefit to the act of gathering to witness films with other humans. Perhaps more than technological advances and gee-whiz gadgetry, it's solid storytelling amongst others in our tribe that makes films so magnetic.

Director James Cameron thinks that theaters will last for a thousand years, saying that people have a need to enjoy films in a group setting. But that's far more likely to happen if we don't have to suffer through 999 more years of sequels in the "Transformers" franchise.

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Author's Note: 10 Ways Our Movie-going Experience Will Change

I used to love going to the theater as a kid. Yet I stopped going to the movies years ago. Why? Two words: instant streaming. For the price of a single movie ticket, I have month-long access to a streaming service that provides hundreds of TV shows and movies at the click of a button, in HD quality, right in my home. There are no unruly children or sticky theater floors. No clueless strangers kicking the back of my seat. No etiquette-challenged phone users distracting everyone around them. Sure, I miss out on the event aspect of actually going to a theater, but the positives so far outweigh the negatives that there's no real competition. If theaters are going to appeal to off-the-grid people like me, they'll need to innovate far, far beyond simple 3-D and better sound. We'll see if they can pull it off.

Related Articles

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