A pernicious narrative has developed over the past decade: Movie theaters are on the down and out, slowly being killed by lazy millennials who would rather Netflix and chill than schlep out to a communal space for the hallowed cinematic experience. The narrative was part of MoviePass’s whole pitch—the idea that the service would swoop in to save the theatrical experience by making it accessible once again—and it’s been indirectly echoed by filmmakers like Chris Nolan and James Cameron, who champion the ritual of theater-going. Though it feels like, in this post-peak-TV world, we’ve entered a unique era in which theaters must desperately compete with TV, we’re really experiencing a redux of a rivalry that kicked off in the early ’50s. Unsurprisingly, theaters’ contemporary coping mechanisms mirror their attempts to compete with TV in that medium’s first golden age.
It is true that movie theater attendance hit its lowest point in more than two decades last year, though revenues stayed roughly consistent thanks to higher ticket prices. That trend, however—the enhancement of the theatrical experience—seems to be where most theaters are placing their chips. In addition to steadily climbing prices, we’re in the thick of a 3D resurgence kicked off by Avatar, and IMAX—which really became a serious contender for features only after The Dark Knight—shows continued promise. Film projection in 70mm for stuff like The Hateful Eight keeps the true cinefiles turning out (although, they probably would anyway), and theaters with laser projection, Dolby Cinema, 4DX, Screen-X, full bars, and recliners all compete in their own way. All this should sound familiar.
When TV rose to prominence in the ’50s, families were moving out to the suburbs and organizing their living rooms around TVs. Theaters were suddenly threatened. One of their first courses of action was—as is the case now—an investment in 3D technology for films like Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. Similarly, increased emphasis on the particularly immersive nature cinema led to the development of numerous large format and wrap-around projection technologies like CinemaScope. And, predictably, studios found that a surefire way to retain audiences was to focus on big-budget spectacle. Whereas the trend now predominantly involves Mark Ruffalo turning into a large green man and punching things, in the ’50s audiences turned out for Charlton Heston-starring biblical and historical epics.
But things also got pretttty weird. You see precursors to 4DX in the short-lived runs of “Aromarama” and “Smell-O-Vision” films, for which scents were piped into theaters through elaborate underground networks of tubing. The idea was to augment stories with an olfactory score—which, per a news report at the time “produced odors as quickly and easily as the soundtrack of a film produces sound.” The results were…mostly just nauseating. Some theaters even experimented with other 4D effects like “Percepto!” which was incorporated into the film The Tingler in 1959 and involved electric buzzers installed beneath seats to startle audience members with a vibration.
Most interesting, though, were early efforts to “fight television with television” by bringing TV shows into theaters—a seemingly obvious solution that was undercut by exorbitant costs, regulatory complications, and the overabundance of free TV programming at home.
Now, in the age of streaming and a lot of really, really good television, theater TV remains an oft-proposed but only occasionally implemented mode of bridging the great divide. Even if Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead can do brisk business showing season finales in theaters, we’re still a far cry from a world where lines are fully blurred between the two mediums. The saga of home vs. theater will continue, it seems, indefinitely.