We always talk about how the game industry imitates the movie industry, from cutscenes to product placement to its maturation, but I think the converse is true when it comes to the future of the movie theater. Earlier today, I went to see 10,000 BC, which is #1 at the box office, and I was surprised to see how empty the movie theater was. Where was everyone? Were they at home playing Smash Bros.? That was a reasonable prediction seeing as how games were replacing movies as people's favorite past time. The release of Halo 3 led to the worse month in box office sales since 1999 and Hollywood is already afraid that Iron Man would lose ticket sales to Grand Theft Auto 4.
Sitting in a half empty theater for a big budget movie made me think that the movie theater is going to go the way of the arcades. By that, I mean movie theaters will start to die out until they adopt gimmicks that cater to a niche audience and leave them barely alive. Back when Street Fighter 2 came out, arcades were booming. Everyone was at the arcades... it was the cool place to be. But over the years, arcades lost their audience and many started closing. I remember frequenting five different arcades in my city and now there's only one left. But what made the arcades die out and why are movie theaters following the same path?
There are three main reasons. The first is because the home experience became much more competent and eventually exceeded that of the arcades. In the beginning, arcade cabinets provided superior hardware and the console ports often had less features or were downright terrible. But when console ports became equal to their arcade counterparts and eventually started including more features, the arcades lost their appeal. Likewise, in the movie industry, high-definition television and surround sound systems have been infiltrating homes, providing a very high quality experience that rivals the movie theater.
When arcades realized that they were losing to consoles, they started introducing gimmick-based hardware to differentiate themselves. Thus came the age of Beatmania, Dance Dance Revolution, and all those other games that make you work up a sweat to have any fun. Now that the Wii, Playstation Eye, and Rock Band are paving the way for gestural gameplay at home, I don't see any point for arcades to still exist unless they come up with another big innovation. With the movie industry, my prediction is that they'll need to rely on gimmicks as well to stay alive. Expect to see more movies coming out on IMAX 3D and new stuff like interactive, vibrating seats that we normally see as amusement park rides.
The second reason why arcades died is that people grew out of them. Arcades were a great place to play against strangers and meet other gamers, but now we have the Internet and online gaming for that. Not to mention that meeting people at the comfort of your own home is a better experience than being surrounded by lots of smelly, sweaty nerds in a dim-lit room. Likewise, watching a movie on your big screen HDTV from your couch is a more comfortable experience than having the guy behind you constantly kick your chair while someone up front is talking on his cellphone. By the way, despite how empty the 10,000 BC theater was, I still managed to get a group of commentators, a crying infant, and a jerk with a laser pointer.
Finally, the third reason is because the consoles were getting media as quickly as the arcades were. At one point, you had to wait forever for your favorite arcade game to get a console port and most of the time, you weren't even sure if there was a console port coming. But then console ports became only a few weeks wait and eventually, consoles became the premiere launch platform for every game. We're seeing the exact same thing in the movie industry. Lots of movies are direct-to-DVD while movies that are released in theaters get a home port much sooner than before. In fact, Atonement just came out on DVD and Blu-ray, while the theater next to where I work is still showing it. Something like that never happened two years ago. It further proves my point that the movie theaters are going to diminish like our beloved arcades.