Cinemas Will Die Out and Museums Will Have to Evolve

When it comes to things like movies and museums, it's all about the experience. But that experience is going to change because it's no longer necessary or even as pleasurable to be at those venues as it once was and you know what will take their place? No? Read on.

What got me thinking about this was going to the movies to see "Our Idiot Brother," which I can recommend. It's entertaining, surprisingly funny, well-directed and altogether worth seeing. Alas, I can't be anything like as complimentary about the actual cinema the movie was shown in, which was the Century Downtown 10 (part of the Cinemark group) in my home town of Ventura, California.

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Putting aside the usual issues that cinema tickets aren't cheap, the premises are only moderately clean, and the candy, drinks and popcorn for just two people can swallow up the budget of a small Central American country, we're left with what the experience involves, by which I mean the picture and sound quality.

In this case the picture quality was marred by something stuck on the screen that was reflective ... it might have been a dried splash of Coca-Cola. It wasn't huge but it was quite visible and I find that kind of thing distracting, not to mention just plain sloppy. It says, "We don't bother to ensure you have the best experience possible." And this wasn't a unique event; I've seen similar things at other cinemas.

Then there was the sound. Not the sound from the movie I was watching, but from the screen next door. They must have been showing "Transformers" or something similar that was loud and violent because every now and then a bass boom would wash through our cinema making a rather surreal counterpoint to the film we were trying to view.

And that's the problem with today's cinemas: They just aren't very good. I can rent a movie at home and, while it won't be shown on a mongo sized screen, it will be displayed on a perfectly good, quite large screen without junk stuck to it and accompanied by very good sound with no intrusive sound effects.

Also at home I can pause the movie if I need to, as well as eat good food, drink something that won't send me into diabetic shock just from looking at it, and I won't have the edge of the screen obscured by the abnormally large head of some random person sitting in the row in front of me. I also won't have to listen to that same person rustle his candy wrappers through every quiet scene and mutter to the person sitting next to him or have to try to ignore his body odor.

In short, by comparison cinemas have become subpar. Thus, I contend it is just a matter of time before cinemas start dying off and online video streaming services such as Netflix become the primary film distribution mechanism in the U.S.

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Just consider that U.S. ticket sales have been slowly declining since their peak in 2002 (they were $1.58 billion then, today they've dropped to $1.33 billion, lower than they've been since 1997). At the same time, cinema tickets have become correspondingly more expensive. The average movie ticket in 1938 cost $0.36 which is roughly $3.37 today, while today's average ticket price is $7.89, more than double the cost!

If our economy were robust there might be hope for cinemas but, as you may have noticed, the economy is anything but, and should this depression (for that is what it really is) go on for much longer, your local cinema will have a limited shelf life.

Cinemas are already trying to stave off their own demise by holding special showings of remote live events, but that's just a tiny bandage on what will likely become a massive hemorrhage.

Some will say the demise of the cinema would be a shame, that the whole "going to the movies" thing is a valuable and enjoyable social tradition we shouldn't loose. Yeah. And so were hoedowns.

And all of that got me thinking about museums.

As a kid, I loved museums. When I was a preteen and then a teenager I lived outside of London. You could jump on the train to King's Cross and in an hour or so be at the Tate Gallery, the Science Museum or the Natural History Museum.

Computer History Museum
Computer History Museum
But today, with transport so expensive no matter where you live, going to a museum is usually a fairly serious outing. And even when you do go, museums, in my experience, are now uncomfortably crowded.

But what do you go to museums for? That's right: to look at things. After all, most museums won't let you fondle the bones of their Tyrannosaurus, let alone touch their 2,000-year-old mummy, and most museums only display a fraction of the material they hold. All of which rather begs the question: Why go at all? If you can't touch the exhibits and often can't get really near, wouldn't an image do just as well?

I contend that when you can't grope the exhibits there's really no point in being physically there. And so, once again, the Internet is the perfect vehicle. As PCs and TVs become bigger and get better displays with more accurate color rendition, the need to be there, where the object is, becomes progressively less compelling.

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Moreover, the ability to augment and enhance the experience of examining and exploring an object is a given online. Want to show X-rays of whatever it is? Explain its history? Show its relationships and context to other stuff? No problem ... the opportunities of online presentation of museums makes visiting physical museums far less valuable.

So there's the future: We'll all sit at home and entertainment and education will come to us with glorious, high-fidelity sound and in perfectly rendered color with incredible detail all wrapped up with rich, multimedia supporting content. It's just a matter of time.

So, can you see the demise of cinemas and museums?

Gibbs sees it all in Ventura, California. Your vision to backspin@gibbs.com.

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