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September 8, 2009

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Turning cinema into carnival

TODAY, young movie-watchers look increasingly like Molly O'Connor. A junior at the University of Dallas, Texas, she still goes to the cinema occasionally, but is often just as happy to hunker down on a bed or a couch with friends to watch a downloaded movie on a laptop that's perched on a nearby desk or a chair.

"Sometimes, it's nice to have a wider screen, but I don't think I gain that much by going to a movie theater anymore," the 20-year-old student says. "Now, it's more about convenience."

Or as 26-year-old Michael Brody puts it: "I watch movies the way many people listen to music - anytime, anywhere, any way."

A freelance writer in New York who blogs about film, he used to go to the movie theater every week. Now he's there once or twice a month, partly to save money and also because he doesn't think most movies are worth the effort.

Sounds like bad news for movie theaters. But we're talking about an industry that not only survived, but ended up thriving amid the arrival of television in the 1950s, videotapes in the 1980s, and DVDs in the 1990s.

The reason? An ability to continually remake themselves and find new ways to generate revenue, by introducing everything from the multiplex and more elaborate concessions to lengthy pre-show advertising.

Now they're doing it again.

Step into some of the more modern cinemas these days, and you'll see increasingly common enticements aimed at keeping the lucrative youth market, even as online video becomes more accessible on sites such as YouTube, Netflix or Hulu - or from movie pirates who steal and distribute movies illegally.

These upgraded theaters' offerings begin with the super-comfortable seating, even lounge chairs and bean bags in some auditoriums. Add 3D effects and larger-than-life IMAX blockbusters, made possible by new digital projectors. And then come the midnight movie premieres and opening-night parties.

To boost revenues and appeal, many theaters also are broadcasting live sporting events, operas and symphony performances and hosting in-theater video game competitions on the big screen. Still others are opening in-house restaurants and bars for those old enough to drink alcohol.

It is this century's answer to the movie palace of old - or the "Broadway-ification" of the movie-going experience, according to Charles Acland, professor of communications studies at Concordia University in Montreal.

"In a nutshell, what you're going to see is cinema-going aimed at people who go less frequently," says Acland, author of "Screen Traffic: Movies, Megaplexes and Global Culture."

"It might cost a bit more, he says. "But it will be much more of a special event. People will expect some sort of an experience that you can't get anywhere else," he says.

In Europe, cinemas are taking it a step farther by remaking themselves as entertainment destinations - with bowling alleys, karaoke bars, comedy clubs and children's play areas. Expect that in the United States too, as well as interior design schemes that appeal to the 18-to-24 set, and that might "dismay" the older crowd, says Toronto-based theater architect David Mesbur.

He says lobbies of the newer theaters in his city - ones he didn't design - are often mostly black with a few splashes of color, flashing lights and loud music. Video games, often tucked away in theaters of old, also are scattered around in plain view.

"Those are the theaters that I never go to," Mesbur says, chuckling.

Still, experts who track the movie industry say that, so far, all these kinds of efforts appear to be paying off, even in a recession.

Though domestic movie admissions had flattened or dipped slightly in the past couple of years, ticket sales this year are up, whether some of the most popular movies have been Academy Award material or not.

"A bad or poorly received film can go down a bit easier if one is sitting in a comfortable reclining seat and has the chance to occasionally stretch their legs. In this sense, cinema-going has as much to do today with the hospitality industry as it does with the film industry, per se," says Jeffrey Klenotic, associate professor of communication arts at the University of New Hampshire.

That's a disheartening view to Ron Leone, a film and media studies professor at Stonehill College in Massachusetts. He looks around the audiences at the "uncomfortable, but nice" independent movie theaters he regularly attends, and sees few young faces.

"Apparently, watching the cat flushing the toilet in an online video is more satisfying than going to a movie theater," he says, chuckling as he pokes fun at young people's growing appetite for online videos. Those videos include anything from kitschy amateur pieces to the growing array of short and full-length films found online.

That's why more theaters are focusing on movies with monster special effects that don't show well on a computer screen or in-home theater and that are all but impossible for movie pirates to steal - and why major film makers such as Jeffrey Katzenberg and James Cameron are banking on 3D and IMAX technology as the future of cinema. (Panasonic Corp also announced that they're going to start selling 3D televisions next year.)

So far, moviegoers have been more than willing to pay more to see movies in these special formats.

Earlier this month, IMAX Corp, maker of large-screen movie-theater technology, reported a second-quarter profit with revenues nearly doubled.

The company credited its growing cinema network, which includes about 250 theaters equipped to play Hollywood feature films in IMAX format, using digital technology to give what some call a notably richer visual experience, including 3D.

Those movies range from "Transformers," "Pirates of the Caribbean" to the "Harry Potter" films, all aimed at younger audiences. And when IMAX announced a special preview of the upcoming Cameron film "Avatar," "our Website got more traffic than you can imagine," says Greg Foster, chairman and president of IMAX Filmed Entertainment.

Combining movie and video game themes is a savvy move, says Chris Haack, a Chicago-based senior analyst with Mintel International, a market research firm that regularly monitors the movie theater industry.

He says theaters also would be wise to offer young theatergoers more chance to interact, for instance, letting them vote on which previews are shown or which movies stay at a theater longer than another.

The goal is to keep the attention of the 18-to-24 age bracket - "the most important part of the market," Haack says - and the most likely to watch video online.

A recent survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 62 percent of Internet users, age 18 to 24, said they watch TV shows and movies online, compared with just over a third of all Internet users.


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