I love the movies. We've all heard that Hollywood is hurting and movie theaters along with it. Here are my ideas for how to save them. (The movie theaters, that is).
First, the problem: HD television, flat screens, home theater systems, and on-demand viewing, all make for a cheaper, more convenient viewing experience. I still think nothing matches the big screen in terms of picture or sound quality, but if you've ever sat on a comfy leather couch in front of a 72" flat screen with Dolby 5.1 surround sound, you know it's more than close enough to make up for any shortcomings.
Theaters have responded by trying to move upmarket and provide a more premium experience. Imax and 3d movies command higher ticket prices. Theaters are installing comfier seats and improving their food offerings. Some theaters are even adding bars.
The premium experience is nice, but I think the strategy neglects the theater's one true advantage over home viewing: the theater's physical presence provides an opportunity for a collective experience that is unavailable anywhere else.
We all want to find our tribe and belong. People didn't just go to see the latest Avengers movie on opening night because they were excited for it. They went to the theater to be with other Avengers fans. They could be with people who would gasp and cheer at the right points and when they walked out of the theater, would excitedly talk about what they think will happen in the next movie installment. They went wearing costumes for the fun of dressing up and to show off to their peers. Where else in everyday life can they geek out like that?
So what should movie theaters do? Rather than asking how to provide a better viewing experience (which isn't needed), they should ask, "How can we provide an opportunity for viewers to spend more time with their tribe?"
Viewed in that light, a new strategy emerges. Rather than pushing more of the same, what if theaters provided something that nobody else could: an opportunity to collectively experience the shows and movies you love, with other people that love them, too? It could be a place to find connection with complete strangers; a way to be part of something bigger than yourself and to know you're not alone.
As TV has become more cinematic, maybe it's time for theaters to embrace TV. The internet is ablaze with discussion after every new episode of Game of Thrones and bars are organizing viewing parties. (And it's a great way for Netflix and HBO to advertise their online subscriptions.)
Imagine a theater selling a $10 ticket each week for a full season of GoT, or locking a customer in with a season pass. That beats the hell out of gambling on a blockbuster. Imagine discussion groups, fan clubs, and theme parties after each show. And GoT isn't the only show this could work for. Wouldn't Downtown Abbey just be perfect for a club to gossip over and rehash?
What about mini-binges or revivals of TV shows with cult followings? My local theater in Harvard Square ran midnight shows of the Rocky Horror picture show for years with great success. Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, both old shows with cult followings. Would fans come out once a week for a limited series run? I think so. What about live broadcast of football games on the big screen? Talk about a great alternative to the stadium experience. And everything is still life size!
Remember when people would have get togethers to watch the newest episode of "Friends"? That feeling of exciting and togetherness is what I'd want to recapture.
Fortunately, this is a very testable idea. It'd be simple to pick a single screen at a single theater to run with this.
Better yet, I see this implemented as another sort of "third place", like Starbucks, that's neither home, nor work. Perhaps, it'd be tested as a pop up venue, built out specifically for theater viewing, or some sort of retrofit bar. Maybe it's nothing but a small theater, rewrit as a large living room, with couches, coffee tables, and recliners. Instead of the usual popcorn and soda, maybe the concession stand sells homestyle 7 layer dips or small trays of rice crispy bars. Who knows.
Will this save the 2 hour blockbuster? Probably not. But is it a way to embrace the new Golden Age of Television and recast it as a golden age of collective culture, storytelling and media? Well, there are no guarantees, but I think it's worth trying.