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A Comeback for Cinema?

June 19, 2005

One hundred years ago today, John P. Harris opened what is often cited as the world's first movie theater, in downtown Pittsburgh. Patrons lined up on June 19, 1905, nickels in hand, to get a look at the first western: "The Great Train Robbery."

Today, there are those who think 100 years might be about long enough for the movie theater. Hollywood is in a box-office slump, with attendance dropping by about 9% below last year's. An Associated Press/AOL News poll last week found that 73% of adults prefer to watch movies at home on DVD, videotape or pay-per-view.

Part of the reason is the improvement in home electronics. What with giant plasma screens, surround-sound stereo (and the soon-to-come high-definition DVDs), the home-theater experience is getting closer to the cinema experience, as well as more convenient.

Hollywood is adding to the erosion. Recognizing that more of a film's revenues now come from the DVD and its ilk than the box office, studios are reducing the time between theatrical and DVD releases. Viewers know that if they miss a new movie at the cinema, they can soon rent it. And that's just the legitimate system; pirated DVDs are for sale on the street and bootlegs are on the Web.

If it's true that big-screen cinema is dying, we'll be among those lamenting its passage. Above and beyond the sensory charge, public exhibition brings with it a shared experience, increasingly rare in the Internet-and-cable age. Americans sighed together at Fred and Ginger during the Depression, or roared together at Bob and Bing while their sons were swallowed by World War II, or gasped together at Harrison and Carrie while the Son of Sam terrorized New York.

For what it's worth, though, we think the rumors of the cinema's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

In 1985, when the VCR was soaring in popularity, Hollywood experienced a boxoffice slump that had many saying movie theaters were through. Then theaters made big comebacks in 1987 and 1989, and it became clear that people only stayed away because 1985's movies weren't very good. Take a look at this year's slate, and it seems like 1985 all over again.

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