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Going to the movies has never been so techy

From CNET Magazine: What are movie chains doing to get you out of the house and back in the theater?

James Martin/CNET

Little has changed about the concept of going to the movies in the past two decades. You buy your ticket, maybe some popcorn and a way-too-large soda, and you enjoy the experience for two hours or so. At-home movie watching, however, has evolved rapidly. Between laptops that stream Netflix and cheap TV devices that enable instant rentals, movies at home have never been easier to enjoy.

All this leaves theater owners with an important question: How do they evolve and incorporate new technologies and amenities to draw in younger, and bigger, crowds?

Is Netflix killing theaters?

In 2015, total US consumer spending on streaming media, including Netflix, topped $17 billion. By comparison, total US box office revenue was just under a record $11 billion last year.

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Certainly the rise of streaming services has enabled people to experience more movies from their homes -- and all the convenient amenities which come with that. You can relax on your La-Z-Boy and snack on whatever you like. Yet movie theaters are trying to compete. From comfy couches to full meals to decent beers, theaters are now trying to replicate the familiar atmosphere of home.

The goal is to give moviegoers a "pseudo-first-class experience without having to pay a first-class price - an incredible experience you can't get anywhere else," says Stuart Bowling, head of content and creative relations at Dolby Laboratories.

But to say that Netflix is to blame for a slowing stream of moviegoers also ignores the bigger picture. The Motion Picture Association of America's statistics show that overall, frequent moviegoers (those who go to the movies once a month or more) have a higher rate of ownership of major tech products, such as smartphones and streaming devices. Which is to say, they like to remain up-to-date and connected.

Going off the grid for two hours can be hard for those so plugged in. And while some theaters are relaxing phone-use policies, others absolutely refuse to ease up. If enjoying a movie without a second screen is your idea of paradise, there's a name you should know.

Alamo Drafthouse is a small US theater chain known for its hardline approach to no-talking-no-texting rules. For CEO Tim League, it's about finding balance before the lights go down. "We're looking at all the various ways we interact with [moviegoers], which sometimes involves tech and sometimes good old-fashioned human interaction."

The appeal of Drafthouse lies right in its name: Beer, wine and cocktails, along with restaurant-scale dinner menus, are nearly always available to moviegoers. The chain also allows patrons to order from their seats using (old-fashioned) paper or at its varying in-house bars during films.

Drawing you in

Though food and drinks are great, theaters aren't just about creature comforts. Other draws include Dolby Atmos, Dolby Vision, 4K projectors and Imax screens. In other words, theaters want to out-tech your living room.

Ryan Noonan, AMC's director of corporate communications, says the global chain is constantly improving, not just with recliners and better food, but also with more movie choices, higher-quality sound and better projectors.

"We are offering consumers something that is nearly impossible to replicate in the home.... We're the first-class seat on the plane," Imax Chief Technology Officer Brian Bonnick says of partner AMC.

At each of its 1,061 screens around the world, Imax makes a careful effort to monitor each projection and theater on a regular basis for any problems. With an average screen size that's 52 feet (or about five stories) high by 72 feet wide, the company remotely checks each projector, 4K screen and sound system daily to ensure every viewer's experience is perfect.

Bonnick says Imax creates a unique experience by filming with special Imax cameras. "It starts with the cameras, the highest resolution cameras," he says.

To monitor the whole situation, the company remotely calibrates the system when it powers up for the day. Using mics and cameras positioned throughout the theaters, these checks are done by a supercomputer that also corrects any issues it can from afar. These measures ensure that when people pay for an Imax show, they get their money's worth.

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Prime-time viewing

AMC is the largest Imax partner in North America. It also has a high-end line of theaters called AMC Prime, a plush experience where moviegoers sit in recliners that shake and rumble at certain points during a film (referred to as a "4D" experience). In some markets, these theaters are upgraded and called Dolby Cinema at AMC Prime.

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Mark Mann

The Dolby Cinema experience starts before a person enters the theater. Outside the entryway to some theaters, moviegoers will see projected images on the walls showing scenes related to the film they're about to watch. Once inside, they enjoy heightened sound and sights through Dolby Atmos and Dolby Vision.

Atmos is Dolby's advanced surround sound. It doesn't just present sound in front or behind you; there's also an overhead element so you can hear, for example, a spaceship whiz by above you. Dolby Vision uses two laser projectors that display a greater range of colors than you usually see, along with high-dynamic-range video for improved contrast. The result is an on-screen image that's more true to life.

Dolby also has its own resident architect who regularly checks out every theater under the Dolby Cinema brand. It can also monitor exhibitors' systems, which means Dolby can either remotely fix a minor problem at a Dolby Cinema theater or send a technician for larger ones.

Alamo Drafthouse touts its Sony double stack projector, which creates a brighter picture optimized for showing 4K resolutions on the largest cinema screens.

Then there's Alamo's "surround sound for your eyes," as Henri Mazza, Alamo's vice president of special events, describes the new system the chain is testing. That system delivers everything from strobe lights and confetti to "CO2 machines that drop controlled blasts of air" and "small pyrotechnics so when there's an explosion on screen, we can have a small explosion," says Mazza, saying it's Alamo's take on 4D.

Coming attractions

For Imax, quality is paramount. "With home [theaters] getting better and better, we have to build something people want to see," Bonnick says.

For other companies, the key is less in-your-face tech and more personal tech. "As more and more people have a powerful computer in their pocket, the idea of a [ticketing] kiosk does seem a little 1990s," Alamo's League says.

The company currently supports in-app purchases of reserved seating and foresees a time when ticket taking won't be necessary. Already, you can simply show your phone's "ticket" confirmation to an attendant, no paper necessary.

These companies and others are investing in technology to create an experience that makes it worth your time and money to leave the house. For moviegoers the question remains: Is it enough?


This story appears in the summer 2016 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.