These days, it is all too common for people to skip out on the experience of watching a film in theatres for the more comfortable and convenient vantage point of their couch. The ability to see the latest films from one’s television is more and more ubiquitous, made possible by the presence of various video-streaming services (as well as the rise of Redbox), the increasingly shorter time span between a film’s release and its availability on these services, and the understandable sticker shock that comes with buying a ticket to the movies, often leading people to ‘wait until it’s on DVD.’
These trends mean that fewer people are going to the movies frequently (only 13% of the American population goes at least once per month), but it doesn’t always mean that going to the movies is a waste of time or money. Film, first and foremost, is meant to be a storytelling device, offering a shared experience. Watching a movie from the confines of one’s living room is very different to watching it in a packed theatre.
When alone, a person only has his or her own reaction. They may not find something funny or scary. They may get distracted or break from the experience by pausing or stopping altogether. They may miss a point that another’s response might illuminate. Being a part of an audience completely alters the viewing experience. Other people’s reactions can often alter ones own reactions, drawing more laughter, tears, suspense or fun. The inability to hit pause allows for the story to progress in the way it was meant to.
A film has a certain rhythm and trajectory that, when altered, impacts the emotional response. It is often building up to something or making connections that may be missed if the rhythm is inhibited. Also, the (hopefully adhered to) rule of no cell phones allows for one’s attention and concentration to focus entirely on the film that may not hold true in one’s living room.
Of course, beyond the experience of being a part of an audience, theatres offer the advantage of movies on big screens with big sounds. Some films demand to be seen in such a format. Gravity is a very different experience when watched on a laptop instead of on a huge IMAX screen with speakers blaring from all sides. Studios understand this advantage, and have acted accordingly.
To put it simply, movies have gotten bigger; bigger stories with bigger explosions and bigger characters, screened on bigger screens with bigger sounds. More and more often, these films have taken the identity of superhero or monster movies or sci-fi fare or action films. While not as widespread as previously assumed, 3D is alive and well and still seen as a way to bring people to the theater. IMAX is being championed as the future of film, or at least a viable option, and its use is slowly spreading.