Were we asking the right questions?

October 20, 2013

EDUCAUSE 2013 ended just in time for me to spend the weekend at MOVIETHEATERCAUSE 2013. (Conveniently being held in Hollywood, just down the road from Anaheim).

Like a surprising number of other folks in educational technology, I have a second job in movie theater technology. 

MOVIETHEATERCAUSE, like EDUCAUSE, is both an association and a conference.   

The tagline for MOVIETHEATERCAUSE 2013 was "The Best Thinking in Movie Theater IT".

MOVIETHEATERCAUSE is the highlight of the movie theater technology calendar. (And Casey Green's presentation from his Cinema Computing Survey is always a highlight of the conference). 

Each year it has seemed the the MOVIETHEATERCAUSE has gotten bigger and bigger, with the vendors vying for the fanciest booths on the exhibitor floor to show off new advances in projectors, screens, ticketing systems, and popcorn poppers.   

Who can forget the excitement we all felt last year over the arrival of the MOOCs - Massively Outrageous Optimized Cinema - a new way of running movie theaters that simultaneously excited and freaked us out?   Good times.

This year's MOVIETHEATERCAUSE conference is leaving me a bit puzzled. Normally I come back to my movie theater technology job totally energized by MOVIETHEATERCAUSE. This year not so much.

What accounts for the difference? A few questions to ponder:

Is Technology Really the Big Deal in Movie Theaters?

Wandering around the exhibitor hall at MOVIETHEATERCAUSE it would seem that the technology world of movie theaters is going strong.  The advances in 3D digital displays, surround sound, and self-serve ticketing kiosks is truly amazing.   I've never seen such fancy projectors or bigger screens.

The sessions where different movie theater technology specialists talked about new ways to improve the film viewing experience were captivating.  So much innovation in our community.

What seems to be left out of all the movie theater vendor technology displays and many of the sessions is the larger question about how people will watch movies in the future.  

We seem to be building these fancier movie theaters with lots more technology (digital IMAX surround sound etc.), where tomorrow's movie audience might find it strange to sit and watch films in a big dark room with a bunch of strangers. Future film goers might be just as happy watching movies on their smart phones or tablets as in our fancy theaters.   

And even though many of our movie houses continue to be busy it is getting harder and harder to make enough money to keep them going. The arms race for digital projectors and luxury seating has driven up our costs faster than we can raise ticket prices.   

New options, from streaming video to user generated social media, are increasingly compelling entertainment alternatives to spending time at the movie theater. And it is not clear that movie goers will want to keep paying for the ever rising costs of movie theater tickets when they can get a good entertainment experience without ever stepping foot in our our buildings.

All these questions about the future of the movie theater business seemed to be in the air at MOVIETHEATERCAUSE 2013, but were not the focus of the conference.  

There were lots of new movie theater technologies on display, but less systematic or organized discussion if these new technologies are less relevant in an age where movie viewing is no longer synonymous with going to the movie theater.

What Do Movie Theater Managers and Owners Think?

MOVIETHEATERCAUSE never has too many movie actors in attendance. Nor do we get movie goers - the people that buy the movie tickets. That is okay I guess, although it would be interesting to know what these people really thinking of us movie theater technology types.

What seems increasingly troublesome is that so few movie theater managers (or movie theater owners) tend to come to the conference.

The conversations that we do have about the role that technology can play in the future of movie theaters ends up not going very far. We (us movie theater technology people) are really just talking to ourselves.  

It would be great to know what the movie theater managers and owners are worried about. How do they view the role of movie theater technology in improving the quality of the cinema experience? How can we help in the triple aim of improving (movie theater) quality, lowering (movie ticket) costs, and expanding (film viewing) access?    

It seems that if movie theater technology people want to have a strategic role in the movie theater business then we need to include more movie theater leaders at MOVIETHEATERCAUSE.

As I flew home from California and reflected on MOVIETHEATERCAUSE 2013 a few even more disturbing questions kept surfacing in my mind.

What if I'm really in the entertainment business and not the movie theater business?  

Are movie theaters, with our proud history and beautiful architecture, really the best way anymore to share the magic of cinema?   

Sure...many movie goers will continue to absorb the expense of the movie theater ticket to enjoy the experience of watching on a big screen with an enthusiastic group of fellow film viewers.  A night at the movie theater is a great experience.

I'm just not sure that movie theaters will be where the cinema action takes place in the next 20 years.  

And given that MOVIETHEATERCAUSE is focused mostly on theaters, not entertainment, I wonder if the conference will become less relevant in the years to come.


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