There’s a lot of hand-wringing and unfair apples-to-oranges work in this New York Times piece about declining movie theater attendance — David Chen called it “intellectually vacuous” — but it’s most interesting for what it doesn’t discuss. Yes, theater attendance in 2011 was the lowest since 1995, and yes, we’re living in a golden age of TV drama and comedy that complicates our viewing choices, and yes, the home video release window is shrinking every year. But it’s not totally fair to compare the economic of movies (which want to earn your dollars with a ticket and, later, a DVD or Blu-ray purchase) and television (which comes as part of a paid bundle mostly supported by advertisers). In addition, AFI founder George Stevens Jr. is off-base when he says that the growing popularity of mobile viewing is hindering the scale or ambition of films: technology didn’t keep Avatar or Inception from being made or finding success.
Ultimately, though, the piece is remiss for not dealing with the biggest problem of going to the movies: the actual experience. Ticket prices continue to rise, yet the theaters aren’t becoming nicer or more welcoming. You’re bombarded with pre-show ads for at least 20 minutes, then previews for coming attractions. Some patrons don’t silence their phones, others silence them but continue to use them throughout the film, and still others regularly talk to each other or back to the screen, repeating bits of dialogue or attempting to guess what will happen next. At the same time, prices for quality home viewing experiences are going down: you can get an HDTV larger than 40″ for a few hundred dollars, about what you’d have paid a few years ago for a smaller CRT set, and a decent Blu-ray player will run maybe another hundred. When you can create such a pristine viewing experience in your own home, without having to deal with the selfish people who forget how to behave properly in public, why would you bother going to the theater every week?
It’s great, and important, to talk about what kinds of movies are coming out and what they might say about us as a culture. But it’s foolishness to look at declining theater attendance and think that people have decided en masse that film is no longer culturally relevant when all they really want is to watch a movie in peace, at home.