Moviegoers just aren’t going anymore. When adjusted for inflation, the numbers indicate that just one of the twenty-five top-grossing domestic releases of all time came out this century – “Avatar.” As for tickets purchased, no film has cracked the 100 million mark in nearly 20 years and only five have cleared the 75 million mark since the mid 80s. It’s easy to point to other burgeoning forms of entertainment – sports, television, and the internet – but the population of the United States has more than doubled since “Gone With The Wind” sold 225 million tickets in the late 30s and early 40s. Yes, some films used to play for years instead of months, but the fact remains that 110 million people watched the Super Bowl last January while only 60 million tickets were sold for “The Avengers” last summer – many of those purchased by repeat customers.

People crave entertainment now more than ever, but the great communal experience of moviegoing is dying. And it’s the movie theaters, not the moviegoers, that are killing it.

The film industry loves to sound its own horn about record-breaking numbers, but inflation is never part of the equation. Truth? Who needs the truth when you can feed people big numbers entirely devoid of context! The real broken record is the never-ending hum of Hollywood’s incessant spin. But blaming Hollywood is missing the point. The studio system is still churning out a dependable mix of great and terrible and mediocre material. It’s the middlemen who are letting everyone down. And no one is addressing the real problem.

Some folks have singled out talkers and texters as the bane of the theater-going experience in the 21st century. Others blame the advent of the home theater. Big screens, affordable surround sound systems, and increasing video quality. These are all part of the issue. But as theater owners add restaurants, 3D projection, ticket-buying apps, and top of the line seating to their properties, they’re completely neglecting the fundamentals – PICTURE AND SOUND!

The lack of attention paid to picture and sound quality in most theaters today borders on criminal. The idea of the projection booth as a sacrosanct place is all but dead. Yes, theaters in large cities usually have paid professionals overseeing each and every screening. Whenever I attend high-end theaters in Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York, the presentation is usually pristine. But those theaters have to be on their game. They serve industry folks and they can’t afford to lose their edge in such competitive markets. In mid-size markets or smaller? Film presentation is a total disaster. And it’s these markets that serve the majority of American filmgoers.

For example, I’m based out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Without naming any chains or specific theaters, I attend about six or seven local theaters on a regular basis and I’ve been to just about every theater in the metro area. At least two-thirds of the showings I attend are marred by some kind of sound or picture problem. Frequently, the sound is too low or the surround sound is entirely out of order. Other times, the picture is out of focus, framed incorrectly, or poorly lit. Not everyone is as sensitive to these problems as I am, but moviegoers know – consciously or subconsciously – when they’re having a subpar experience. And it’s happening far too frequently.

When I do complain to theater employees, which isn’t nearly as often as I should, I’m usually offered free passes or I’m sent a generic email from the manager. Once, I was called by a local manager from a large chain – one of the top three in the country – and he assured me that their sound technician was about to make his yearly visit. Even advance screenings, from which studios get their much-desired critical notices, aren’t immune to technical issues. You’d think these screenings would be a priority, wouldn’t you? They’re not. In fact, they’re often held in the most technologically inept theater in the entire multiplex. As a lover of film, I don’t want any more free passes. I want the problem fixed.

This is why high-end theaters and IMAX screens have become such a safe-haven for so many moviegoers. While IMAX theaters are often located in the same mismanaged multiplexes, they have to meet a much higher level of quality control, as mandated by the IMAX corporation. High-end movie houses (like ArcLight Cinemas in the Los Angeles area and the national iPic chain) base their entire business model on delivering – gasp! – a reliable moviegoing experience. And while the prices at most theaters continue to skyrocket, the ArcLights and iPics generally keep theirs steady, making the price difference negligible.

Unfortunately, most people don’t have the option of going to higher-end theaters. Too many markets are being smothered by theater owners who don’t have much competition and who don’t know or care who’s in charge of their projection booths. In lieu of that perfect moviegoing experience – and there’s no reason not to expect technical perfection at a movie theater – people are staying at home, fine-tuning their own TVs and sound systems. If I’m paying to see a movie on the big screen with a seat-rattling sound system and I’m getting the unfocused, dim, and overly quiet version of that film, why wouldn’t I wait to watch it at home? Of course I’d be better off watching it on my own TV, my computer, or God forbid, my iPhone.

It’s not about the high popcorn prices. It’s not about the ease of Netflix and Redbox. It’s not even about the inconsiderate jerks that talk through every movie. It’s about the basics. If you’re not getting the picture and sound right, why bother?

-J. Olson

Sources:
http://boxofficemojo.com/alltime/adjusted.htm
http://mrob.com/pub/film-video/topadj.html
http://www.multpl.com/united-states-population/table