Cinema vs. Home Theater

There's an interesting discussion going on at the Onion's AV Club these days about the relative merits of watching movies in the theater or at home. Noel Murray and Scott Tobias began the discussion in a "Crosstalk" article, and that ingnited a nice little debate in the discussion area. Josh Oakhurst has weighed in on the issue, too (via FresHDV). My partner, Ashley, manages a one-screen historic art house cinema. With the exception of 19th century costume dramas, I'll see pretty much anything they screen. On the other hand, we also have very modest home theater setup. Just so you have the context, here's the setup:

    - a low-end video projector - a movie screen bought for $10 from junk merchants that had set up shop on the side of the road near Joelton, Tennessee - a dvd player - an old home theater audio system handed down from my dad - home-made window blinds that completely blackout our living room when we want to screen in the daytime (unnecessary at night)

It's not fancy, but we love it.

As for which is better, I think there are certainly pros and cons to either experience. I'm certainly not going to argue that people should give up going to the theater, nor that they should stop renting movies. De gustibus non est disputandum, as the saying goes.

These articles did get me (re)thinking the cinema vs. home theater debate. Here are a few personal observations inspired by Murray, Tobias, Oakhurst, et al.


Screen size matters. Attention matters more. The biggest advantage that cinemas have over the home viewing experience is not the size of the screen. What matters is that I enter into a kind of social contract wherein I am committing my time and attention to a story. Many people can't, don't, or won't do that at home. They turn on a movie as one of many competing distractions.

If I am serious about watching a movie at home I will turn off the phone, use the restroom, get any food/beverage I might want, and then I'll turn out all the lights and screen the movie using a video projector.

Sure, a big screen helps, but it needn't be as enormous as what I see in a theater. It simply needs to be large enough so that the image and sound command my undivided attention. Arguably any type of projection (film or video) is better than television. Why? Because projection requires darkness for a visible image; television does not. And that darkness directs my attention to the light, the story.

Seeing a film in a movie theater is not a communal experience. I heard someone talking on NPR a few days ago about how we need the theatrical experience because it is "our campfire." I yield to no one in my belief that storytelling plays a civic and communal function, but going to see movies is NOT the same as telling stories around a campfire. For those that can't tell the difference, telling stories around a campfire is an interactive experience wherein the teller's tale is actually shaped by her responding to her audience's reaction as the tale unfolds. Movies are the same every time. Aside from The Purple Rose of Cairo, I've never seen one that talked back to its audience.

Even beyond these obvious facts I simply don't think the theatrical experience of moviegoing is as communal as people make it out to be. When I go to the movies, I go alone or with friends. We watch the movie and we do not talk during it. Then, after it's over, as we exit the theater, we might begin to discuss it. That last part is the communal part, but this discussion could just as easily happen at home, after we've watched the thing on video.

With regards to the "communal experience" I would need to interact with strangers for the theatrical experience to really distinguish itself from what I get from home video. By and large, this simply doesn't happen. In fact, I can't remember the last time I spoke with a stranger at the movies.

The most communal thing that happens during a movie is that strangers laugh at the same joke or scream at the same shock effect. This isn't a terribly deep experience, as experiences go. It doesn't remotely compare with the experience of, say, singing along with strangers at a rock concert or giving some dude a high-five or even a man-hug -- yes, hugging a stranger -- at a football game when the home team scores. Furthermore, if you don't share the rest of the crowd's taste (say, you don't find Little Miss Sunshine as funny as everyone else) then watching a comedy with an audience can be a depressing, even anti-social, experience.

Seeing movies can lead to communal experiences. Movies can serve as today's "campfire story", but since they're the same wherever they're screened (excepting scratches, splices, etc) the communal experience can take place well after the fact of the event. I can talk about Children of Men with my sister on the phone, or with a co-worker in the office lounge, or right here on the Internet. This is the campfire, right here. (Just ask all those people on the Onion AV discussion board.) With regards to my ability to take part in the communal discussion, it doesn't matter how I've seen the movie, just that I have.

There is something special about seeing a motion picture on film, but seeing a work on film does not guarantee or preclude its making an impact on you.

Here's a random list of some of the best movie-watching experiences I've ever had. Some of these are my favorite films; some aren't. There's a huge gap from '99 to '06, which I could fill out if I sat down and thought about this for more than a minute.

    - Star Wars - movie theater - Knoxville, TN (1977) - Hannah and Her Sisters - movie theater - Knoxville, TN (1987) - Sex Lies and Videotape - movie theater - Knoxville, TN (1989) - Through a Glass Darkly - vhs - 12" television (1991) - Jules et Jim - restored 35mm print at AFI cinema in early 90s in Washington DC (1991?) - Jackal of Nahueltoro - 16mm classroom projection (1993) - The Awful Truth - vhs - 12" television - VHS (1993) - Jacquot - movie theater - Durham, NC (1994) - Time Indefinite - movie theater - Chapel Hill, NC (1994) - My Night at Maud's - 16mm print - Philadelphia Senior Citizen's Center - Philadelphia (1995?) - Through the Olive Trees - 35mm print International House - Philadelphia (1995?) - The Garden - 35mm print film festival screening- Philadelphia, PA (1996) - Diary of a Country Priest - crappy VHS edition on 15" television (1996) - L'Argent - 35mm print - Florence Gould Hall - NYC (1997) - Apu Trilogy - 35mm re-release @ Ritz Theaters - Philadelphia, PA (1997?) - Contempt - 35mm re-release @ Ritz Theaters - Philadelphia, PA (1997) - Red - 16mm print - Philadelphia Senior Citizen's Center - Philadelphia (1998) - Window Water Baby Moving - 16mm projected onto a white wall in a 10x10 room at University of Tennessee - projected and watched by myself (1999) - What Farocki Taught - vhs pre-screener - 15" television (1999) - Mulholland Drive - movie theater - Knoxville (2001) - Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind - movie theater - Knoxville (2004) - Yi Yi - dvd - living room video projection (2006)

Most of these were screened on film. Still, some were screened on video, and under lousy conditions at that. What's more interesting to me is that many of these films were rare or difficult to see. The fact remains, though: Film is not a necessary condition for a powerful movie-watching experience. Attentiveness is. (See above.)

The arguments for watching films at home are rarely arguments for the home viewing experience. They're arguments against the theatrical experience. Here are some of those arguments:

    - Some chains think of the movie as that thing that runs after their 2wenty minute in-house commercial. - The cost of seeing a movie in a cinema is at least double what it would cost to rent a video. - Some theaters have lousy projection, sticky floors, etc. - People don't know how to behave in public, and especially not at the movies. (Any serious moviegoer has his/her audience war stories. Here's one: Once, during some lousy Sean Connery movie, a lady seated in the row behind me changed her baby's diaper on the spot. I've seen some movies that stunk, but none more literally than this one. But I digress.)

The point is, those that argue for the glories of home cinema are not saying that it's better, but that it's less bad. On one level, obviously, this reflects what a sorry state we're in as moviegoers. But it also means that if movie theaters, especially the cinema chains, would reevaluate the way they do business they might win back some audiences.


I'm lucky. Most of the movies I see in the cinema these days are screened at nicely maintained, independently-owned movie theaters in Blacksburg and Roanoke. Their projection is good and the sound is always adequate, at the very least. My main gripe with these theaters -- and cinemas in general -- is that their programming is not as adventurous as I'd like it to be. And while that might be an argument for watching videos at home, that's a separate issue.