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Opinion: Why I’ll be going to the movies for the first time in years

movie theater cinema screenHi! I’m Brad, and I’m a movie-holic. But I have a another confession to make: I haven’t stepped foot in a sticky-floored cinema in over two years.

Even then I was reluctant: I took my daughter to see How to Train Your Dragon, both to show her my love and to put an end to the constant stream of “Can we go Dad? Can we go Dad?” The year prior, we went to see Pixar’s Up on Father’s Day. The last non-kiddie movie I saw at the theaters was Batman: The Dark Knight. Prometheus and The Avengers came close — really close — to luring me into my local AMC, but I managed to hang tough.

No, I’m not destitute, and no, I don’t hate movies. (How could a self-proclaimed movie-holic hate movies?) I hate going to the movies, and the excellent state of home theater technology is just one reason why. Having said that, some amazing new cinema tech is just starting to roll out that is bound to draw me, moth-like, back into theaters — but nifty gadgets alone won’t address my biggest concern or keep me coming back.

It’s called “home theater” for a reason

Going to see a movie at the theaters is more than a diversion, it’s a spectacle: loud, larger than life and often full of explosions.

Bah! My home theater setup does all that already. Judging by plummeting movie ticket sales — 2011 was the worst year for ticket sales since 1995, and 2010 wasn’t much better — a lot of you feel the same way.

A 5.1- or 7.1-channel surround sound system delivers a soundscape that’s just as immersive as the experience you’ll receive in a movie theater, especially if you have understanding neighbors who don’t mind you cranking up the volume during an action flick. Even soundbars sound great these days! (Um, some of them, at least.)

home theater projector screenFlatscreen HDTVs are practically ubiquitous and often humongous, while the cheapest of Blu-ray players pump out amazing 1080p video that looks so good it’d make your blind grandmother weep for joy. Netflix streams movies in HD and supports 5.1 audio; Vudu ups that to 7.1 channels. Heck, you can even watch 3D movies in your living room if you want to — not that many people want to.

Basically, there’s no reason to leave my house if I want a top-notch movie watching experience. My setup actually puts out higher quality audio and video than you can find in most movie theaters.

That’s going to change, however, once Dolby rolls its new Atmos technology out to cinemas across the country.

Dolby Atmos: What surround sound should’ve been

The five- to seven-channel audio we’re all used to is just a warbling whisper to Dolby Atmos’ majestic choir, to hear early listeners tell it. “Wow, that was good. I think my ears need a cold shower and a cigarette,” Pando Daily’s Michael Carney says in the wonderfully titled Dolby Atmos Just Gave Me an Eargasm.

dolby atmos movie theater sound systemDolby Atmos can transmit 128 simultaneous and lossless audio objects to up to 64 individual speaker feeds. That massive sound field allows mixers to create three-dimensional soundscapes with pinpoint accuracy. When that group of hyenas closes in around the protagonist on the movie screen, you’ll hear the growls pressing in from around you, as well.

Carney says that during a clip from Mission Impossible 4, the theater-goers were “first engulfed by the sound of individual grains of sand and then viscerally experienced a car crash happening in front of us, flying up overhead, and landing behind us.”

Yes please!

Unfortunately, Dolby is only introducing Atmos to a handful of locations around the world this year, and most of them are in California or other countries. The company plans on a proper full-fledged rollout in 2013, and that, combined with the en masse switch to digital projectors in theaters across the country and the introduction of 48fps films like The Hobbit, will be enough to convince me to tentatively poke my head out of my man cave.

If I don’t like what I see — or more accurately, where I sit, who I hear and what I step in — I’ll be headed right back to the comfort of my couch, however.

Movies aren’t all about the tech

Dolby Atmos sounds like a game changer, but movies aren’t all about the spectacle; they’re about being social, too. It’s just fun to head out and catch an afternoon matinee with your buds. Unfortunately, that’s what theater owners have forgotten.

I’m not expecting a grand night out when I head to a Friday flick, but I do expect a bit more than the crackhouse aura many movie theaters exude, complete with dank and dirty bathrooms, cramped and sticky seats, random shouting, and drug dealer-esque pricing for consumables.

Seriously: Why should I leave my comfy couch and paid-for food to spend an arm and a leg to stand in long lines and be uncomfortable? I’ll just invite my friends over to watch Prometheus on DVD, Dolby Atmos be damned.**

Before you call me an old curmudgeon — and for the record, kids can retrieve their Frisbees from my lawn whenever they want — note that a theater called the Alamo Drafthouse actually saw a roughly 3 percent increase in ticket sales after it began tossing out audience members who were bleating into their cellphones mid-movie.

The ball’s in your court, Hollywood

The good news is that I’m willing to give you another shot, Hollywood.

I’m geeky enough that Dolby Atmos and higher frame rates can coax me back into your long lines and too-tight seats. Will I come back for a second go-’round? That’s up to you. Can you make me comfortable? Can you make going to the movies exciting again, an event I look forward to — a social spectacle? I sure hope so. Because even though I’m a movie-holic, no amount of technical wizardry can compensate for an uninviting atmosphere and sky-high prices.

 **Don’t shed tears for theater owners who claim they can’t afford improvements, either; SmartMoney reports that a theater receives a whopping 85 percent profit on every high-priced food and drink item it sells. And it’s hard to feel bad about slumping ticket sales when the tickets that do sell go for nearly $8 a pop — by far the highest yearly average ever, 2010 aside. Even with horrid ticket sales, 2011 was the third highest-grossing year for movie theaters in history. The two highest grossing years? The two before that.

Image credit: Shutterstock/hxdbzxy [movie theater]; Shutterstock/ep_stock [home theater]

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