In this golden age of TV we are currently living through, have you ever been watching something that was so good, like maybe the most recent episode of Westworld or Black Mirror‘s “San Junipero, it caused you to think, “I wish I could watch this in a movie theater”?
Marvel, ABC and IMAX are banking on that, recently announcing the next Marvel TV show, The Inhumans, will preview its first two episodes in IMAX theaters everywhere next summer before debuting on ABC in the fall. Game of Thrones and Doctor Who previously flirted with IMAX (and scored big at the box office), but this is unprecedented. No TV show has ever premiered on IMAX first before actually airing on TV. As Marvel Televisions’ President put it in the press release, “In an ever-changing world of distribution and consumption, it’s very exciting to be part of a groundbreaking initiative that takes us to the forefront of this evolution.”
But why would we ever want to watch a TV show in a movie theater? We all just create our own private movie theaters these days thanks to increasingly affordable (let’s just call them) big ass TVs and impressive sound systems. Even if we’re still rocking some older, smaller TVs we’re still enjoying all the carefree benefits of consuming our entertainment from the comfort of our own home. Who wants to bother with babysitters, traffic, parking, concession stand mark-ups and rude people prone to texting or talking through movies when you don’t have to?
Of course, that’s been the general argument for TV ever since it claimed its permanent spot in every family’s living room in the 1950s. Back then, the film studios’ response was to go bigger with their budgets and more creative with their marketing gimmicks (e.g., 3D, Smell-O-Vision). The name of the game was to give audiences something they couldn’t get at home, drawing a clear line in the sand between what TV was capable of (The Honeymooners, I Love Lucy) and what film could deliver (The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur).
That’s the playbook the studios and theater owners still follow to this day, with 3D having made a comeback before leveling off, ceding the day to IMAX screens, recliner chairs and restaurant-style menus at concession stands. It’s actually working, too. Film attendance continues to decline, but the more resilient theater chains are thriving by converting more of their locations into premium theaters with higher-priced menus, thus providing more ways to collect revenue. As Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst at the entertainment research firm Exhibitor Relations in Los Angeles, told DMagazine earlier this year, “Theaters target the 30 percent who have discretionary cash and don’t mind spending a little more of it. The movie might not be the best part of your evening, but theaters want to make sure the premiums are.”
That’s the problem, though. Increasingly, the movie is most definitely not the best part of the evening. Instead, you’d be better off staying home and binging the hot Netflix show of the moment. The theaters can put in all of the comfy chairs, giant screens and restaurant menus they want, but if Hollywood doesn’t supply quality movies then we won’t come because there’s always something better to watch or do. And that old line in the sand between what film can do versus what TV can’t is barely visible anymore, kicked over each time HBO or Netflix unveils a new show with a movie-sized budget and the corresponding production values to show for it (e.g., Westworld, The Get Down, The Crown).
Luckily, the quality divide isn’t quite as extreme right now thanks to a healthy supply of worthwhile movies, from Doctor Strange to Trolls to Hacksaw Ridge to Arrival to Fantastic Beasts to Bleed for This to Edge of Seventeen to Moonlight and Manchester By the Sea. That’s not always the case, though. Some months are real shitshows in terms of new movies, and even when there are at least somewhat interesting new movies around there are usually just as many if not more quality TV shows competing for your attention. Beyond that, in the age of Netflix every new film or TV show is not only competing with each other but also with every other film or TV show that has ever been released (or is it at least available to stream). For example, I missed Arrival last weekend because I was binging Parenthood, a show that’s new to me even though it’s been off the air for a couple of years.
If there had been some way to binge Parenthood in a movie theater with a bunch of fellow fans I would have, as that is the type of experience people now pay big bucks to have at TV festivals like ATX and Paleyfest where new episodes of shows are screened and followed by Q&As with the cast. I wouldn’t have needed all that. As Bill DiGaetano, COO of Alamo Drafthouse told DMagazine, sometimes we just need to get out of the house, “You can watch a baseball or basketball team on TV, but people still buy tickets to see it live. Humans have to get out, and theaters are one of the least expensive options. And since our content changes, it’s always new.”
And if Marvel’s Inhumans experiment works who’s to say that the content making its way into movie theaters couldn’t start to include more TV shows, at least those shows with enough fanboys and fangirls (e.g. Walking Dead) willing to pay for a ticket. Combating competition from TV and elsewhere by asking us to pay to see TV outside our home might sound insane, but it’s actually already worked in the past. Game of Thrones and Doctor Who pulled it off, and now Marvel has a shot at it as well. Don’t bet against them, not with their track record and recognizable brand.
At the very least, this “TV in theaters” trend could become another gimmick added into theater owners’ bag of tricks. During those down months for new movies, IMAX screens could essentially turn into the world’s biggest TV, showing us re-runs of beloved shows or previewing intriguing new ones. It’s something 10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenberg hopes to see, and so do I. After all, film attendance is worse than it has been in decades. There’s a superior product being offered elsewhere, namely on TV. I don’t know if enough people will actually pay to see something like The Inhumans before watching it for free on ABC, but given the current state of affairs it’s a worthwhile experiment.