It's time again in cinematic history to call for the imminent death of the movie theater.
When TV emerged in the 1950s, the death knell was tolling.
When VHS ascended in the '70s, Gabriel was calling.
When DVDs triumphed in the '90s, theaters were knocking on heaven's door.
But death? Not yet.
This time, though, things are different. Movie theaters are facing a perfect storm of cultural, economic, and technological change that's been brewing for the past half decade.
International piracy (bootlegs popping up on the Shanghai black market), advancements in home entertainment systems (56-inch high-definition TV, DVRs), and improvements in broadband and the Internet (cable on demand, streaming video from Hulu and Netflix) — these have conspired to undermine the value of going to the movies.
But movies aren't going away. You could even say it's a great time to own a theater, says Mike Furlinger of the Terrace Theatre.
The same technological advancements that have come to threaten theater venues are the very advancements that will make them more relevant and profitable, he says.
Along with mainstream movies, theaters everywhere are trying to make themselves unique by subscribing to live broadcasts of special timely events, like sports and opera, as well as films made for niche-market demographics, such as fashion-obsessed teenage girls, pro-wrestling freaks, NASCAR fans, or Japanimation aficionados.
In Summerville's Azalea Square Stadium 16, moviegoers can see high-def broadcasts of La Fille du Régiment from the Metropolitan Opera (April 26), a documentary about motocross star Travis Pastrana (April 16-17), Bratz: Girlz Really Rock (April 19), This American Life with Ira Glass (May 1), and Death Note, about the making of a hit manga series (May 20).
You can see Bratz, Pastrana, and Death Note on the same dates at the Regal Charles Towne Square 18, in North Chuck, too, but you can also see The Countdown (April 24), a one-night-only broadcast of the past three years at the Drum Corps International competition.
At the Terrace Theatre, Furlinger has struck a deal with a company called Emerging Pictures to receive high-definition satellite feeds of opera (beginning May 4) from La Scala in Milan, Italy, as well as other high-def content, like the upcoming movie called Note by Note (opens Friday), a documentary about the making of a Steinway piano from beginning to end.
But efforts to stay relevant go beyond high-tech. Some companies are trying to make a typically bad experience better.
In Mt. Pleasant, work began last week on retro-fitting the Regal Mount Pleasant Stadium 12 into a new kind of theater venture called Cinebarre. Originating in Asheville, the company is now opening franchises in Denver and Charleston. The idea behind the business combines dining out, movies, and a widely-shared irritation.
"People are tired of dealing with screaming babies and the Middle School Mafia," says Terrell Braly, president of Cinebarre, which has entered into a partership with Regal Entertainment Group. "If mediocre entertainment is all there is, people are going to stay home. But give them a cool experience, they can't get that from their wide-screen plasma TVs."
The strategy is simple: Appeal to adults.
How? Cinebarre outright bans children under 6 years old, for one thing. Kids under 17 are required to have adult supervision. There's a wine and beer bar as well as an extensive menu of high-end pub food on par with Applebee's. There are no commercials prior to opening credits. Decor is tasteful and modern. Food is made to order. Each theater features dining tables.
Braly says people return at least four times a month — repeat business that's essential to keeping costs down. He expects the 950-seat, 11-screen "eat-o-plex" to be open by Independence Day.
Other companies are combining high-tech with aggressive business tactics.
Southeast Cinema Entertainment, a mom-and-pop company out of Charlotte, spent a year acquiring the land beneath the AMC Citadel Mall 6, pushing AMC Entertainment Inc. out of West Ashley.
It plans to continue operating the venue (it reopens Friday) until late summer when it will tear the building down to construct a 55,000-square-foot, 16-screen, stadium-seating multiplex that features 2,600 seats, two digital 3-D auditoriums, and two (maybe four) theaters devoted exclusively to arthouse cinema.
It, too, plans to offer food and drink as well as satellite broadcasts of niche-market movies and special events.
"This is not just taking over a shuttered theater," says Bryan Smith, district manager for Southeast Cinema, which operates theater venues in Virginia, North Carolina, and Hilton Head. "This was a planned effort to break into the Charleston market. We expect to support that [arthouse] crowd."
So it seems this rumored death might be a tad exaggerated.
"Theaters will be dying for many years to come," Furlinger says.