Sign up for a free Courant newsletter for a chance to win $100 P.C. Richard gift card

Will watching movies in future include texting, or a hit closer to home?

The most interesting and suspenseful story playing out at your local cineplex IS your local cineplex and what is to become of it.

This isn't a new plot line, this issue of whether theaters are going to become more like our living rooms or our living rooms are going to become more like theaters.

But the outcome is less certain than in most remakes, reboots or sequels, and ticket-buyers are hardly the only ones in the dark as they watch.

Recent developments, reflective of both the industry's identity crisis and the challenges exacerbating them, include a major theater chain CEO saying he's open to allowing audience members to text during screenings and the guy who helped upend the music industry now trying to bring first-run films into people's homes on the same date as their theatrical debuts.

We're talking about a century-old business that thus far has survived such formidable threats as the advent of color television, video recorders, big flat screens, DVDs, pay-cable and on-demand viewing, improved home sound systems and literally dozens of Steven Seagal movies.

Now if you're of a certain age and disposition, maybe the prospect of theatergoers whipping out their phones and texting with impunity during a film sends a message that maybe your cineplex days are near an end.

There aren't enough frowny face emojis to convey what you're feeling.

"You can't tell a 22-year-old to turn off their cellphone. That's not how they live their life," AMC Entertainment CEO Adam Aron told Variety. "At the same time, though, we're going to have to figure out a way to do it that doesn't disturb today's audiences."

Aron isn't sure if that means sections of theaters relegated for those who can't focus on just one screen or whole theaters at certain showings or what.

But AMC, the United States' No. 2 theater chain, is awaiting approval of a merger with Carmike, which is No. 4, to become the nation's No. 1 exhibitor. If it moves in this direction, others are likely to follow as it addresses how different demographic groups consume entertainment in their own ways.

That extends to The Screening Room, with which AMC is reported to have signed a letter of intent to partner and about which Aron doesn't want to speak.

It's the brainchild of Sean Parker, whose Napster digital music sharing service was at the front end of tremendous upheaval of the movie business. Movie fans unfamiliar with Napster might know Parker as the person played by Justin Timberlake in the Facebook movie "The Social Network."

The Screening Room would charge $150 for a decoder box and then provide movies in sync with their cineplex showings for $50 for two-day rentals (about $15 more than the public is likely to leap at, according to at least one market research report).

The Screening Room debate has split the movie industry, with filmmakers such as James Cameron, M. Night Shyamalan, Todd Phillips and Christopher Nolan opposed, while Peter Jackson, J.J. Abrams, Martin Scorsese and Ron Howard are among those in the pro camp.

"It's essential for movies to be offered exclusively in theaters on their initial release," Cameron, whose films include "Titanic," "Avatar" and the original "Terminator," said Thursday at a theater-owner convention, according to Variety.

"Why are we in such a rush to turn movies into television?" Phillips, best-known perhaps for the "Hangover" trilogy," said at the same convention earlier this week. "Why are we in such a rush to take the thing that separates us from everyone else — the physical shared experience of movie theaters — and do away with it?"

It's a bit funny to hear Phillips, who directed and co-wrote the 2004 movie "Starsky & Hutch" and whose 2003 "Old School" is a cable staple, worrying that movies will become too much like television.

The popularity of streaming services such as Netflix already blurs those lines, and "Lord of the Rings" and "Hobbit" filmmaker Jackson told The Hollywood Reporter the move toward simultaneous home and theater release is "inevitable."

Even with these concerns, the movie business is coming off a record year, according to the Motion Picture Association of America, racking up $38.3 billion in worldwide 2015 ticket sales, a 5 percent increase over 2014.

The surge both in revenue and attendance was driven by big, expensive, effects-heavy franchise films such as "Jurassic World," "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" and "Avengers: Age of Ultron."

Theater owners in the U.S. and Canada last year saw a 4 percent year-to-year increase in tickets sold, to 1.32 billion tickets, generating $11.1 billion in revenue, 7.5 percent better than 2014, the Los Angeles Times reported.

But if it's always darkest before the dawn, it can be bright before the sun starts to set. It's hard not to look to the horizon and wonder.

"Once filmmakers (and) theater owners open the door to this idea (of simultaneous home release), there is no going back. The movie going experience is something to fight for!" Shyamalan tweeted a few weeks ago. "There are other ways to experience art on your phone (and) laptop. But cinema is a group of strangers sharing stories (and) it belongs in a theater. … Film is meant to bring people together."

Shyamalan is famous for his film's endings, especially "The Sixth Sense." That's the one in which a child sees the dead in his midst.

Not everyone sees that sort of thing clearly.

philrosenthal@tribpub.com

Twitter @phil_rosenthal

Copyright © 2017, CT Now
23°