Written by Mark Mayfield.
The demise of cinema has been predicted since its inception. In 1895, Louis Lumière said that cinema is “an invention without a future”. 125 years later, that future continues to evolve and even thrive, as cinema continues to redefine itself. The movie theatre, as a place to experience cinema, also continues to evolve and adapt, becoming an entertainment destination – that also happens to show movies.
Despite (or possibly due to) perceived threats such as television, VCR, DVD, and now streaming, the cinema industry remains alive and well. There’s something compellingly human about experiencing larger than life images and sound in a darkened room with a group of people. The experience simply cannot be replicated at home. Sure, you can access the same content, either on Blu-ray disc, cable or satellite TV or via streaming. And, if you have the resources, you could build a large room with luxury recliner seats. You might even have a popcorn machine to add to the full sensory experience. But it won’t be the same as going out to your local Cineplex and communally experiencing that same content with a roomful of like-minded moviegoers. Content may be King, but content alone is not enough. The resilience of theatrical exhibition as an entertainment option is in large part due to the venue itself.
Like any mature industry, there is a cyclical nature to cinema’s moderately steady growth. In the early part of the 20th century, cinema was the undisputed king. In 1930, about 80 million people in the US (or about 65 per cent of the population) visited movie theatres per week. In the modern era of cinema, admissions have fluctuated periodically, but have generally been on a steady rise. In recent years, with so many more entertainment options, that number now hovers around 25 million per week. Still, movie theatres regularly draw more than twice as many people as all theme parks and major US sports combined, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.
Catalysts for new peaks in attendance tend to be driven by the quality of films, technology breakthroughs (such as sound-on-film, widescreen formats, digital sound, digital projection, 3D), or socio-economic factors. As AV professionals, we can only influence the technologies. Even more fundamentally, AV professionals have the expertise to influence the environment itself. And it’s not rocket science: the basic details of room acoustics, sightlines, and picture quality are well defined by cinema industry best practices established by organisations like SMPTE, Dolby, and standards programmes such as THX, IMAX, and QSC’s Certified Theatre Programme.
Although reliable statistics on box office admissions in countries other than the US are difficult to find, it’s clear that cinema is truly a global industry. For example, more movies are produced in India than any other country in the world, and box office admissions are often double that of the US. Theatrical exhibition, too, has become a global business, with theatre chains based in one country, for example, owning movie theatres in many different ones.
So are the doomsayers, right? Is this global industry at risk of extinction at the hands of newer technologies like streaming? Far from an actual threat, streaming may instead be the next technology catalyst for another resurgence in cinema attendance. Streaming is, after all, just another method of delivering content in the digital era. Frequent moviegoers are doing it already. A recent study by the National Association of Theatre Owners and Ernst & Young found that people who stream a lot at home also attend the movies in the cinema more often than those who stream less or not at all. In other words, people who consume content do so across multiple platforms.
It doesn’t matter whether endpoint is a television in someone’s home or a media server in a digital projector at the local cinema. And most movie theatres are already streaming on a daily basis. In fact, streaming technology is opening doors to new revenue streams for movie theatre operators. Event Cinema, using the cinema as a venue to deliver live theatre, music, and sports events, is a growing trend, especially in the UK and Europe. Renting a cinema for groups for business or worship gatherings is becoming more commonplace, as cinemas explore ways to maximise their investment in sound and image technology.
As this trend grows, so too do opportunities for pro audio manufacturers. Almost 40 years ago, cinema owners began to adopt QSC power amplifiers. Over the last 35 years, the QSC cinema catalogue has expanded beyond cinema amplifiers, and now includes a wide range of cinema signal processors, loudspeakers, accessibility products, and most recently, cinema media servers. As cinemas are evolving beyond just places to see movies, QSC cinema now includes the Q-SYS Ecosystem, which provides cinema operators with limitless possibilities for audio, video, and control of many types of systems within a cinema complex.
Paraphrasing Mark Twain, “the report of Cinema’s death has been grossly exaggerated”. In fact, the opposite may be true. We could be looking at the next upcycle in the long history of the world’s most popular form of entertainment. But it depends on the careful guidance of knowledgeable professionals who understand AV technologies and how to properly apply them to create the ultimate movie-going experience.