again ahead of the curve

So Speaking of movies, I thought this NY Times article was rather fascinating. I found it funny, because the box office slump they are talking about started around the same time I stopped going to the movies very often. Back through the 90's I went to the movies almost weekly, no matter what showing. I had a group of movie buff friends who (as Joss put it) go see anything that had a spaceship in it. And if it stunk, we would have a great time in the parking lot afterwards ripping it apart. Now I go to the movies maybe 5 or 6 times a year- and then only to see something I am really interested in.

Now it is not like movies have changed, there are still lots of really good work out there. But TV is about watching things while relaxing in your pajamas. Movies are a social spectacular experience. And somehow they have become much less entertaining in that respect.

Part of it is relative. Over the last 8 years, video game nights have emerged as a similar social experience. It is the social equivalent of having the guys over to watch the big game. Also people, (not me) are able to put together a home theater system that can create a spectacular experience approaching that of the movies. And certainly there are a lot of convenient things about being able to pause a DVD.

But on the other hand, movies have gotten even more expensive- not a small factor in this economy. But also while it is a social experience, they now hit you with 20 minutes of TV style commercials before the previews. Commercials you can't mute while you try to talk to your friends. The attitude seems to be "sit down, shut up and watch" as soon as you enter the theater.

Basically the movie's competitive advantage has been eroding due to technology enabling real alternatives; at the same time that they have undermined aspects of the reason people love them. No wonder they are in trouble.

Yet I still love going to the movies. I have a kitchen and I love to cook, but I still enjoy the whole experience of going to a nice restaurant. And even if I get a 75 inch plasma HDTV with Digital 7.1 sound, I am still going to go to the movies.

But the solution is not that hard. I think that the studios and the theater chains need to recognize the quintessential ideal movie experience, and then think of ways to play to their strengths. Sort of the Nordstrom’s solution- it’s not about the prices, its about the shopping.

Imagine a deluxe theater that treated you with the same level of service as you get going to the Opera. Imagine if the studios gave you a free copy if the movie on DVD at the end of the show- a version to show your friends. Imagine a theater set up line dinner theater, with a wait staff. Imagine a nice coffee shop style lounge to sit in before or after the movie. Would these things be more expensive? Sure. But one way is to play up the experience of going to the movies as a nice night out. There was a time when taking someone to the pictures was considered a nice date- now it is considered a cop-out date.

The situation is similar to back in the 1920s, when film was competing with Vaudeville, musical Theater, as well as all the other performances and activities that were available. That was when they built the movie palaces, and turned movie theaters into the dominate entertainment venue. They were selling an experience, and competing with other entertainment experiences.

By the 1950s, when television began to cut into this position of leadership, you saw the beginnings of the auteur movement. Basically at that point the content of the films became the draw, since movies could be more edgier and more explicit then the more tightly controlled TV programming. At the same time, you had people being better educated, and more interested in discussing film- they increasingly began relying on word of mouth, and seeking out Film reviews, rather then relying on Movie posters or commercials. Also since film looked richer then TV, so there was a push to richer colors, and wider screens, to maximize their advantage over television. The focus was to improve what was on the screen, (story, visual quality, F/X) and at the expense of the rest of the experience. Seats got smaller, theaters got more packed, the old movie palaces closed to be replaced with lobbies that are little more then food courts and video arcades.

With the appearance of the VCR, suddenly the aftermarket became increasingly important as part of the business model. Movies became products as well as being staged experiences. Studios became more focused on managing their IPs, and suddenly you see more sequels then original films.

Today Studios and theaters have gotten into this hole because they did not recognize that the advent of Cable TV, the internet, and advances in home entertainment. People can find any and all of the content they want in many different venues. The 'Product' the studio is selling no longer is that special. In fact the situation today has much more in common with the 1920s then anytime since.

Maybe it is time for them to bring the movie palaces back.