The Future of the Multiplex

Going to the pictures? Well, picture this: valet parking, online reserved leather recliner seats, professional babysitting (drop off kids, get a pager), a waiter serving you hors d’oeuvres and Champagne, and 3-D digital images that reach out from the screen and grab you. It’s coming (relatively) soon to a theater near you. “Theaters are not only going to be giving you a better experience,” says Pat Corcoran, director of media and research at the National Association of Theater Owners, “but they’re going to try to eliminate all the hassles that stop you from going out to the movies.”

Actually, we’ve come a long way already with suburban multiplexes. “We tend to forget where we were just fifteen years ago,” says Ross Melnick, a film historian and co-author of the Cinema Treasures book and website. In Westchester back in 1998, there were just a handful of overcrowded multiplexes (hello, good ol’ Cross County and Hawthorne). Since then, large stadium multiplexes have opened in Cortlandt, Elmsford, New Rochelle, Port Chester, White Plains, and Yonkers, with another state-of-the-art ’plex in Yonkers on the drawing boards. In the years ahead, all these theaters will be working hard to take the experience to a higher level, partly by pampering customers with hospitality services. But the real changes will be seen on the screen with digital images and sound you won’t be able to get at home. Corcoran says, “Anything that can be sent over a wire or over the air can be projected in a movie theater that has digital cinema.” So megaplex customers in the year 2020 will get entertainment from the Metropolitan Opera House, Wimbledon, and even interactive Nintendo Wii bowling matches. And perhaps even the Super Bowl. (It just may take until the year 2020 for IMAX to work out a deal with the notoriously difficult NFL.)

In 10 years, however, multiplexes may face real challenges from a new kid on the block: the community film center. The Pelham Picture House and the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville have begun stealing a share of their audience with their unique, diverse programming and robust membership models. “There’s a need for community as technology and the world get more complicated,” says Stephen Apkon, executive director at the Burns. “Megaplexes simply aren’t physically set up for the discussions and workshops we do, and people want that community around their movie-going.”

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Whether people opt for the small-theater or big-theater experience, nobody predicts that watching movies on cellphones will replace the communal experience of laughing or crying along with a crowd. As film historian Melnick says, “We don’t usually replace technology, we usually add—we still have radio, we still have newspapers—but they get altered by the influx of new technology. Moviegoing will be no different.”

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