Today, young movie-watchers look increasingly like Molly O'Connor. A junior at the University of Dallas, she still goes to the cinema occasionally, but is often just as happy to hunker down with friends to watch a downloaded movie on a laptop perched on a 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 this is an industry that withstood the arrival of television, videotapes, and DVDs.
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The reason? An ability to continually remake themselves and generate new revenue.
Now, they're doing it again.
Step into some modern cinemas these days, and you'll see enticements aimed at keeping the lucrative youth market, even as online video becomes more accessible on sites such as YouTube, Netflix or Hulu.
These upgraded offerings begin with the super-comfortable seating, even lounge chairs in some auditoriums. Add the 3-D 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 screens. 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 moviegoing experience, as Charles Acland, professor of communications studies at Concordia University in Montreal, calls it.
“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.”
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 U.S., 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.
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.
More theaters are focusing on movies with monster special effects that don't show well on a computer screen or on in-home theater. They also are all but impossible for movie pirates to steal – and why major filmmakers such as Jeffrey Katzenberg and James Cameron are banking on 3-D and IMAX technology as the future of cinema. (Panasonic Corp. also announced they will start selling 3-D televisions next year.)
Theaters also would be wise to offer young theater-goers more chance to interact, for instance, letting them vote on which previews are shown or which movies stay at a theater longer than another, says Chris Haack, a Chicago-based senior analyst with Mintel International, a market research firm that monitors the theater industry.
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 and movies online, compared with just over a third of all Internet users.
Overall, online video traffic has skyrocketed more than 80percent, from 10.8 billion viewed in June 2008 to nearly 19.5 billion in June of this year, according to tracking firm comScore.