I just came across an interesting article in the New York Times that indicates that moviegoers are staying away from theaters more often these days. Except for “must-see” titles like Star Wars, moviegoers are by and large waiting for the DVDs to come out, as well as watching pay-TV, playing videogames, and taking in other forms of entertainment.

Of course, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. In fact, the ripple effect caused by the last time movies tried to combat a slump in attendance due to TV is still reverberating through the home-entertainment industry. As Shirley Bassey and the Propellerheads put it, “I just see a little history repeating.”

Mr. Peabody, set the wayback machine for the 1950s. Back then, motion pictures just coming to the end of their golden age. Going to the movies was still a whole experience, not just a movie. When you went to the theater, you’d spend the whole afternoon or evening enjoying some shorts, cartoons, serials, newsreels, a low-budget “B-movie”, and a feature film presentation. All of it was in 1.33:1, or Academy, ratio—because that’s what the ratio had been when movies were invented, and nobody could see any reason to change it.

But with the 1950s came a new threat: the rise of the television. Though they were only black-and-white with a tiny screen, erstwhile moviewatchers were buying them and staying home in droves. The TVs were showing original new programming and older black-and-white movies, things that viewers couldn’t get from a movie theater. And movie studios began to feel threatened.

How did they respond? Partly by slimming down the moviegoing experience; with news and cartoons coming from TV, they didn’t need newsreels or short subjects anymore—and they would have time for more showings of the movies themselves. And partly by looking for new gimmicks. Color movies were things that TV could not do (at the time), but color by itself was clearly not sufficient to continue drawing the crowds. So, this was the era of massive experimentation, and all sorts of crazy gimmicks: 3D, smell-o-vision, audience participation (particularly in the gimmick flicks of William Castle), various experimental forms of widescreen, and so on. Even into the seventies, the gimmicking continued as theaters tried out things like Sensurround.

In the end, the only one of those gimmicks to stand the test of time was widescreen (and even that took two or three tries to get it right). People could be coerced out of their comfy seats to see movies if they offered a bigger, wider picture than what they could see on their TV sets. And the home-entertainment industry hasn’t been the same since: because a TV screen is narrower than a wide movie screen, movies must either have bits chopped off the sides or black bars added to the top and bottom to be shown on a TV screen—giving rise to an advocacy argument that may never die.

Jumping back to the present, it looks like movie theaters are being faced with much the same problem as they experienced in the 1950s—only this time it’s even worse. Thanks to high-definition/big-screen TV, DVD players, pay-TV, and Dolby and DTS surround speaker systems, consumers can come closer than ever to recreating the desirable aspects of a movie theater experience in their own homes, without the undesirable aspects such as crowds and sticky floors. And with the average time between theatrical screening and home video release shrinking down to four and one half months, it’s easier than ever to wait for the home video release of any but the most critical-to-see movies.

And once again, movie theaters are trying to find ways to draw people in (as well as cut costs to maximize profits from those people they do draw in). George Lucas, James Cameron, and Mark Cuban think more digital movie theaters, with higher-definition pictures than even HDTV can provide, are the answer. Robert Rodriguez is reviving 3D (as in Spy Kids 3-D), and George Lucas wants to re-release Star Wars in digital 3D in 2007. Mark Cuban also wants to try releasing movies on theatrical, pay-TV, and home-video formats at the exact same time to see if there is a synergistic effect.

In my opinion, this is an exciting time to be a movie-goer. Competition always drives improvement—even competition between two different formats such as home and theatrical movie exhibition. Make no mistake, both movies and home video display are going to get better (especially after the dispute over the upcoming high-definition DVD format is over). And frankly, I can’t wait.

See you at the movies!

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