The big screen

by Eszter Hargittai on March 6, 2006

There seemed to be quite a bit of focus at the Oscars on the advantages of watching a movie on the big screen (that is, in a theater, not your big screen TV at home). There were several references to this point, including comments by the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the host of the Oscars. We got to see a clip illustrating the importance of the big screen. The clip had scenes from various big action movies such as The Ten Commandments (Moses parts the sea) and Star Wars (some starship scene).

I certainly understand the upside of seeing movies on the big screen (and not just from the profit-oriented point-of-view, but also from the viewer’s perspective). However, I don’t understand how it helps to make this argument in a situation where most of the people watching your clips are viewing them through their TV sets at home. Was the point to show us scenes that would look particularly unimpressive on the small screen, but remind us how impressive they would be on a big one? They were well-known scenes that we know are impressive so how is this supposed to get us to run out and watch movies in theaters?



smart shade of blue 03.06.06 at 9:13 am


Maybe the idea was to present a counterexample.

Just maybe…


Geoff Green 03.06.06 at 9:45 am

It’s akin to the ads for high-definition television sets shown on standard TV.


winna 03.06.06 at 10:15 am

If the movie theaters would make sure that their patrons weren’t gibbering throughout the movie on their cell phones as their children howled I would attend them more often. The movie may not be as impressive on my television at home but I consider that a fair trade for not being surrounded by screeching children and people explaining the movie over their phone.

It must have been nice to go to the movies when there were ushers to do audience control.


Cryptic Ned 03.06.06 at 10:15 am

I thought it was pretty dumb how the “You miss so much when you don’t see these movies on the big screen” montage was almost entirely movies from more than 40 years ago. Who can see “The Ten Commandments” on the big screen anymore?

Why not show us all the recent big-budget movies? (including clips from the upcoming Superman one) This was counterproductive.


Tony 03.06.06 at 10:25 am

I addressed this topic in the following manner on my site earlier today:

The Academy Awards: platform for desperation

I don’t recall having ever watched more than a snippet or two of previous Academy Awards shows. For some reason, though, I decided to watch most of last night’s edition, and what I found most striking about the production was the palpable desperation which permeated the efforts (some of which were half-hearted) of various hosts to remind the viewers that there is absolutely no substitute for the experience of seeing a film at a movie theater.

I was struck by those efforts for a couple of reasons. First, I couldn’t help but make a connection with a similar “up is down” marketing approach used by the current Administration. In other words, when a spokesperson for The Administration makes a strained point, the exact opposite is usually true. For example, when some general is trotted out to inform the public that things are going “very, very well” in Iraq (as was recently the case), any listener, even those who are not very well-informed, can reasonably infer that things are going very, very badly. And that is precisely the case in this instance. The fact that The Academy chose to force feed their over-the-top message to viewers last night underscores that the old model is already doomed!

Relatively speaking, no luxury item has ever been as accessible to Americans as wide screen, high definition televisions. They are already remarkably cheap, and, very much like computers, will continue to become cheaper, while the quality improves. So the idea that the public is going to return to movie theaters in droves because they are reminded of huge screens and multiple speakers is a greater fantasy than most of the stories which are illuminated on those screens: It ain’t going to happen.

What we apparently have, in essence, is an industry in denial. And rather than putting their energies toward creative solutions to their inexorably changing business model, they choose to flail on their marquee broadcast in a pathetic, and what will certainly be an unsuccessful attempt to reverse an irreversible trend.

I think I might just take a little extra pleasure in viewing a DVD at home this evening. A DVD of an interesting foreign film which is not accessible in any theaters; a DVD which arrived painlessly–and inexpensively–in my mailbox thanks to Netflix; and a DVD which I will enjoy in the comfort and quiet of my own home, on a system which is more than good enough to eliminate any pangs of theater envy which might once have been evident.


Jeremy 03.06.06 at 10:33 am

Hey, what’s up with you guys? It’s been days since you’ve fed the CT “base”. And it’s not as if there haven’t been opportunities out there — the Salman Rushdie manifesto, the Ilan Halimi story, Bush in India, the Guantanamo letters. The closest thing to a genuine CT post has been Hugh Hewitt’s pdf problems. I think that we can establish, as a rough rule, that any post that generates less than 75 comments, with none from Brendan or Abb1, just isn’t up to CT standards. (Oops, I forgot the Oceania/Eurasia dustup; there’s the exception that proves the rule. Anyway, that was 5 days ago.) Meanwhile we’re offered the Simpsons, blondes, Johnny Cash, Buddy Miller, Marx (just 28 comments!), the OECD, academic rankings, Linda Smith… You’re letting us down!

/sarcasm off

As for the post at hand… what David Tiley said. Hollywood may be venal, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be illogical. In any case, ever since vertical integration was outlawed, the relationship between the studios and the movie chains has never been entirely cosy. Last night’s promotion of the “big screen” was little more than a sop to the hurting megaplex operators.


FMguru 03.06.06 at 10:47 am

I dunno, I think Hollywood has an interest in keeping the big screens running and having a special place in peoples’ hearts. If everything shifts to peoples’ HDTVs, then $140M H’wood movies become just another media center option – they compete with Pokemon cartoons, TV episode boxsets, Playstation games, sporting events, and whatever’s showing on cable channel 752. Now, the big media conglomerates may not care (they have a piece of each of those streams and will make a buck no matter what viewers choose), but the members of AMPAS will lose out if movie screens go the same way as drive-ins and Saturday Matinees. So it makes sense for them to cheer for the big screens – they’re one of their few comparative advantages in an increasingly crowded media field.


soru 03.06.06 at 10:48 am

Have you seen the anti-DVD-piracy ads that are based on the principle that if you get a really really dodgy pirate DVD, it might just be as bad an experience as actually going to the cinema – people walking in front of the screen, screaming kids, etc?


Jon Moyer 03.06.06 at 11:09 am

Absent from all the big-screen hoopla was any mention of how multi-theater chains have shrunk movie screens over the years. I don’t think they make any 70-mm prints anymore because there are no places to show them.

It won’t be too long before the average home TV monitor isn’t all that much smaller than the 47 little screens at the mall.

David Lean, R.I.P.


Eszter 03.06.06 at 11:36 am

1. Just to clarify, I don’t have a problem with big screens, I like watching movies on big screens.

2. That said, I agree with Winna that going to the movies can be a very unpleasant experience these days.. people talking/texting on their phones can be very disturbing (texting matters, b/c some phones have crazy lights and in some cases sounds that are at times even more disturbing than having someone simply talking next to you).

3. Good point, Cryptic Ned, it was pretty silly to show mostly old examples. A commentator over on my personal blog noted that many of the movies they showcased are big TV events now so it was silly from that perspective as well.

4. Jon M is right, so many of the “big screens” aren’t even that big anymore, which doesn’t help their campaign.

To recap, I understand _why_ they want people to go to movie theaters. I just didn’t think this was a good way of getting them there.


Slocum 03.06.06 at 11:39 am

I thought it was pretty dumb how the “You miss so much when you don’t see these movies on the big screen” montage was almost entirely movies from more than 40 years ago. Who can see “The Ten Commandments” on the big screen anymore?

Oh, my wife and I can. In our living room. With a DLP projector and a wall-sized screen (much less expensive than a ‘big’ screen TV, BTW). Stretched out on a comfortable sofa. With a glass of wine.

Since we bought the projector, we’ve watched all sorts of old movies in the dark on a big screen as they were inteded to be seen. I recommend it highly.

The whole thing about seeing DVDs as a threat to the movie business is a bit silly, BTW. To a great extent DVD sales *are* the movie business (they account for a lot more of the profits than the theatrical run).


Jeff 03.06.06 at 11:49 am

As a few people have pointed out above, the industry is starting to get concerned about the rise in dvd sales and video-on-demand services, and the corresponding decrease in movie theater patronage.

Witness the recent squabbles over the movie-to-dvd window (formerly 6 months, now often 4 months and shrinking), as theater owners snipe that shrinking the window further cuts into their profits, or the surveys showing that the public hardly finds the “movie experience” consisting of overpriced concessions, $10 tickets, and noisy, crowded theaters particularly worthy of praise.

In short, the industry is taking rather pathetic pre-emptive action to try to reinforce their own relevance and support their theater-owning customers.

So why the irony of making the plea on the small screen? Two obvious reasons… first, where else will you find so many people so focused on the industry at once? Second, and more importantly, why on earth would you try to tell people in movie theaters that they should watch more movies there? They’re the audience you’ve already convinced. The people sitting at home watching on their tvs are the prospective market you want to tap.


sburnap 03.06.06 at 12:30 pm

DVDs are a threat to their bottom line. They want to sell at least some people a $10 ticket and the $19.95 DVD six months later.


Richard Bellamy 03.06.06 at 1:24 pm

So, as a practical person, I will sometimes bring my family to a movie for a kid’s show rather than buying/ renting the DVD. This is because (1) the big screen experience has value; (2) sometimes there is a children’s discount; and (3) one adult and 2 kids tickets is about $20 — the same as buying the DVD.

I NEVER see adult movies in the theatre, though, because two adult tickets plus the cost of a babysitter exceeds my budget for any movie out since I had kids (my wife saw a Harry Potter with a friend while I watched the kids — total adult movie expenditure over five years $8.75.)

Also, I don’t have Netflix, so there’s no fixed cost that I’m up against.

Possible solutions to get me to the theatre again besides whining about it:

1. Free child care.
2. Netflix for the movies. Pay a monthly rate, go to any UA Cinema for any movie. Exclude the first week. Throw in a free popcorn.
3. Lower prices (yeah, right).
4. Don’t release the show on DVD.

And speaking of not available on DVD — I don’t pay $10 for a movie, but just last month I shelled out $180 for four tickets ($45 each) to Dora the Explorer’s Pirate Adventure! A live action musical based on the kid’s show. It had cheapo scenery, poor acting, and lame choreography, and was only 50 minutes long (two 25 minute “acts” with a 25 minute intermission), but it was completely worth it to see my 2 year old daughter in complete awe, sitting just 14 rows away from the “Real Live Dora.”

“Really happy kid” tends to be a problematic utility monster in most cost benefit analyses.


Slocum 03.06.06 at 2:17 pm

Possible solutions to get me to the theatre again besides whining about it:

Possible solutions to get me to the theater again on a regular basis? There just aren’t any. There is no way the theater can compete on choice, cost, comfort, and convenience. I can see almost any movie I want any time I want (and my home theater has a liquor license). The quality of a DVD projected on a large screen has passed a threshold where a movie theater cannot offset all the other disadvantages by offering an even bigger screen.

Nobody would go to a concert hall to hear recorded music played back through professional audio equipment–well, we’ve reached the point where the same logic applies to video as well as audio.

The future of the industry is in the home, not the theater (but I don’t expect Hollywood to accept the inevitable until it has no choice).


tps12 03.06.06 at 2:30 pm

Winna and Eszter,

I think for a lot of people who like going to the movies, the occaisional distractions of fellow moviegoers are just part of the whole experience. At a baseball game, you expect to put up with a certain amount of loud fans, people climbing over you to get beers, rude comments directed at players, &c. And at the movies, people’s laughter at inappropriate moments, talking to each other about the plot, trying to hush frightened children, are all just part and parcel of being part of an audience taking in the film. To those scolds who long to impose the silence and solitude of home viewing on the public cinema, I say: please, do stay home. You will not be missed by those who actually like going to the movies.


Tracy W 03.06.06 at 3:00 pm

In NZ, there’s some new movie theatres run by some obsessive film buff in his garage with sofas and standing for God Save the Queen before the movie, and glasses of wine, which are rather popular.

Although the movie selection tends to be electic, and probably is not a successful distribution model for Hollywood’s latest blockbuster.


joel turnipseed 03.06.06 at 4:06 pm

Must say, there’s pretty good agreement here by all–but one thing not touched on… the joy of going out for beers w/pals afterwards and talking about (trashing?) the film. It’s true the “social” experience of taking in a film that’s projected poorly onto a small-ish screen is no substitute for the HDTV and Surround-Sound in my library (and, really, with a kid it’s way less expensive to buy a DVD–even Criterion Collection at $40 is cheaper)…

So I say: let’s all bombard Mark Cuban to get liquor licenses in his Landmark Chains && reduce seating there by 25% && serve better food && build bars/restaurants next door && include Museum style programming (Walker Art Center, where I am, is a good example)… and see if you can’t get something like a really cool indie environment that really maximizes both the pleasure of the experience & the ability of the theater to charge a premium.

As for the $100M+ megablockbuster… they’re all tied up in toy endorsements, etcetera–they’ll find a way to make ’em even w/o many movie screens.

BTW: What’s deal with Jarecki’s film doing so poorly at the box office? Anyone seen it? Haven’t had a chance yet with travel, but I’m stunned to see it’s only done something like $600K.


Delicioius Pundit 03.06.06 at 4:28 pm

DVDs are so important to studios, in fact, that in the last round of guild negotiations they were willing to make concessions on health care rather than increase the (very low) residual percentage they pay on units sold.

As to the future of theaters, sometimes I can’t help thinking about how the economics of the business killed the big bands, how the experience of leaving your home to go see live vaudeville was also irreplaceable, etc. That’s show biz.

Maybe if they brought back newsreels.


me2i81 03.06.06 at 4:34 pm

Nobody would go to a concert hall to hear recorded music played back through professional audio equipment—well, we’ve reached the point where the same logic applies to video as well as audio.

Not unless the music was Pink Floyd, and there were lasers.

but one thing not touched on… the joy of going out for beers w/pals afterwards and talking about (trashing?) the film.
The home experience can be better–go to a friend’s house, watch the movie while drinking some beer, and trash the movie while drinking the rest of the beer without having to go anywhere else.


Thomas 03.06.06 at 4:54 pm

I’m guessing we’re showing our age. I don’t go to the movies, but, then, I have small children, and who wants to pay $50 to go to the movies (babysitting, tickets, concessions, etc.)?

But, from what I see, teenagers still love the movies. Because they go out to the movies, and their parents don’t come along.

The local art-house chain has taken to opening shops in abandoned multi-plexes in the suburbs. The parking lots are filled with white Buicks, and, when the interruption comes, it’s more likely to come from one part of a couple trying to whisper loudly enough to the other to be heard over the movie and through a hearing aid. But they seem to be doing well enough with that crowd, which, when they don’t have to meet with the teenagers (and the cell phones, etc., described in detail above), still likes to go to the movies on Saturday night.

Maybe, someday, I’ll be there as well. Until then, bigger and better at home. There’s even talk of a projection TV, with the hopes that the kids will want to have their friends at our place for a show. (Well, if it doesn’t work out–and it probably won’t, because the reason I’d like them at home is the reason they’ll want to leave–I suppose I’ll suffer through…)


winna 03.06.06 at 6:10 pm

If listening to a howling toddler and some woman babbling about what is happening on screen to her neighbor is part of the ‘movie experience’ then you don’t have to worry- I won’t be there.

And when enough people are sick of the fabulous experience of having their outing ruined by inconsiderate strangers and most of the theaters shut down for lack of demand, you won’t be there, either. Which makes me laugh.


winna 03.06.06 at 6:10 pm

My previous comment was for tps12.


derrida derider 03.06.06 at 6:28 pm

Yeah, they need a new business model. Try this – “mini theatres” run on a franchise. Set them up as drive-ins in parking lots or in vacant shops with portable seating – a DVD projector and temporary screen will do. At least one in every mall – even small malls. Or every video rental store could have a little one – attendees could vote on what they wanted to watch that night.

Capital and staff costs will be way, way low. Even if this approach is no substitute for the big complexes for blockbusters, its a great solution for the dying arthouse and repertory cinemas.


lalala 03.06.06 at 6:30 pm

#12 – I don’t mind laughter at inappropriate moments. I don’t mind laughter at appropriate moments. Or gasps or groans. These are, as you say, “part and parcel of being part of an audience taking in the film.” The jackass (almost always old enough to qualify for a senior citizen discount, for some reason) sitting behind me doing a play-by-play of the most obvious parts of the movie (“there’s someone in the shadows!”)? He’s just a jackass, and if he wants to freely exercise his lackluster intelligence in recapping as he watches, he should do so at home.

(Speaking as someone who goes to the theater a lot, but usually on, like, wednesday night at 10:00, and will if necessary change seats 5 times to get one as far as possible from neighbors, and yet who counts as some of my best moviegoing experiences my college’s film series, where you could count on a big audience responding freely to the movie with laughter and the like but without moronic commentary.)


Phil 03.06.06 at 9:23 pm

I blogged on this earlier
Without repeating the post in full, the anti-dvd line at the oscars struck me as crass and counter-productive. You don’t mention the opposition at your big event. It makes you look cheap and scared.
The actors, studios and pretty much everyone involved in making the films have a big interest in DVDs. The people who have a problem are the intermediaries, the promotors, distributors and so on. DVDs are a different value chain and different people get a cut.


a 03.06.06 at 10:42 pm

” To those scolds who long to impose the silence and solitude of home viewing on the public cinema, I say: please, do stay home.”

No please *you* stay home. You are rude and selfish and a miserable excuse of a cinema goer.


nick s 03.07.06 at 1:40 am

I don’t understand how it helps to make this argument in a situation where most of the people watching your clips are viewing them through their TV sets at home.

Heck, the biggest irony is that most of the Academy’s voters watched the nominees on DVD at home.

Perhaps they did it in the comfort of their own screening rooms, but the fact that awards season is the best time of the year for, um, illicit digital copies of films still showing in the cinema is because the studios loan out ‘screener’ DVDs ‘for your consideration’. You think that the Hollywood types who choose the Oscar-winners actually queue up and pay their $10 for a ticket?


Barbara W. Klaser 03.07.06 at 1:09 pm

I never had a problem with people talking over the movie in a theater, but I came out of Jurassic Park with my ears ringing and my hearing seriously impaired for a few hours because the theater had the volume too high. I’ve mostly avoided movie theaters since, even though I agree you get more out of viewing movies on the big screen.

But at home I have control over the volume—I intend to still be able to hear when I’m sixty. I also control restroom cleanliness and security, at home, and have a pause button for when I need a break.

There are advantages to both. But the older I get the better I like home.


tps12 03.07.06 at 2:54 pm

You are rude and selfish and a miserable excuse of a cinema goer.

How is tolerating a little noise during a movie selfish? What’s selfish is asking a group of people (the US moviegoing public) to modify standard theater behavior to better accomodate the requirements of someone who doesn’t even like going to the movies.

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