A movie theater (American English) or cinema is a location, usually a building, for viewing movies. Colloquial expressions, mostly used for cinemas collectively, include the silver screen and the big screen (contrasted with the "small screen" of television). Generally, theaters are not owned by individuals, but rather operated by corporations and visited by the general public: one can attend the film showing after buying a ticket. The film is projected with a movie projector onto a large projection screen at the front of the auditorium.
Traditionally a movie theater, like a stage theater, consists of a single auditorium with rows of comfortable seats, as well as a lobby area containing a box office, refreshment facilities, and washrooms. Stage theaters are sometimes converted into movie theaters by placing a screen in front of the stage and adding a projector; this conversion may be permanent, or temporary for purposes such as showing art house fare to an audience accustomed to plays.
Cinema design in American reached its heyday in the decade immediately before the Depression. Los Angeles promoter Sid Grauman began the trend of theatre-as-destination with his ornate "Million Dollar Theatre", which opened on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles in 1918. In the next ten years, as movie revenues exploded, independent promoters and movie studios (who owned their own proprietary chains until an antitrust ruling in 1948) raced to build the most lavish, elaborate, attractive theatres. These forms morphed into a unique architectural genre. Most of the hundreds of "picture palaces" built in the 1920s were designed by three firms: the Austrian John Eberson , Thomas W. Lamb, and Rapp and Rapp.
Eberson specialized in the subgenre of "atmospheric" theatres. His first, of the five hundred in his career, was the 1923 Majestic in Houston, Texas. The atmospherics usually conveyed the impression of sitting in an outdoor courtyard, surrounded by highly ornamented asymmetrical facades and exotic flora and fauna, underneath a dark blue canopy; when the lights went out, the Brenograph magic lantern machine would begin to project clouds, constellations, and special celestial effects and illusions on the ceiling. Lamb's theatre style was based on the more straightforward, 'hardtop' form patterned on opera houses, but no less ornate. Some of these theatres were ornamented to a ridiculous extent, in a kitchen-sink exoticism where referenced visual styles wildly collided with each other: church Gothic, Moroccan, Mediterranean, Spanish Gothic, Hindu, Babylonian, Aztec, Mayan, Orientalist, Italian Renaissance, and (after the discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1922) Egyptian Revival, all mixed, matched and bastardized. This wealth of ornament was not merely for aesthetic effect. It was calculated social engineering, distraction, and traffic management, meant to work on human bodies and minds in a specific way.
With the Depression, this unique and extreme architectural genre came to a sudden end.
By the mid 1960s in many areas the traditional theater has been largely replaced by multiplex cinemas, where a single lobby is shared between several auditoriums (the term "cinema" or "theater" may then mean either the whole complex or a single auditorium; sometimes "screen" is used with the latter meaning). This arrangement allows the operating company to show more movies with fewer staff. Sometimes a popular movie is shown on multiple screens at the same multiplex, reducing the choice of movies but offering more choice of viewing times. Two or three screens may be produced by dividing up an existing cinema, but newly built multiplexes usually have at least 6 to 8 screens. A very large, modern multiplex with more than about 15 screens is called a megaplex. AMC Theatres is credited with creating the first multiplex; Kinepolis pioneered the first megaplex.
IMAX is a system using oversized film to produce image quality far superior to conventional film. IMAX theaters require an oversized screen as well as special projectors. The first permanent IMAX theater was at Ontario Place in Toronto, Canada.
Some movie theaters are outdoors and so can only be used when it is dark. A drive-in movie theater is basically a parking area with a screen at one end and a projection booth at the other. Moviegoers drive into the parking spaces which are usually provided with portable loudspeakers or the vehicle's sound system tunes to an FM station over which the soundtrack is played, and the movie is viewed through the car windscreen. Drive-in movies were mainly found in the United States, and were especially popular in the 1950s and 1960s, but are now almost extinct.
Some outdoor movie theaters are just cleared areas where the audience sits upon chairs or blankets and watch the movie on a temporary screen, or even the wall of a convenient building.
In the late 1990s, student organisations in universities and schools started to show movies in auditoriums equipped with multimedia projectors.
Some alternative methods of showing movies have been popular in the past. In the 1980s the introduction of VHS cassettes made possible video-salons, small rooms where visitors viewed the film on a large TV. These establishments were especially popular in the Soviet Union, where official distribution companies were slow to adapt to changing demand and so movie theaters could not show popular Hollywood and Asian films .
Movies are also commonly shown on airliners in flight, using large screens in each cabin or smaller screens for each group of rows or each individual seat; the airline company sometimes charges a fee for the headphones needed to hear the movie's sound. Movies can also be shown on trains.
Movie theaters may also be classified by the type of movies shown:
First-run theater: A theater that runs primarily mainstream film fare from the major film companies and distributors, during the initial release period of each film.
- Second-run or discount theater: A theater that runs films that have been pulled from the first-run theaters and presented at a lower ticket price.
- Repertoire/repertory theater or art house: A theater that presents more alternative and art films as well as second-run and classic films.
- A sex theater specializes in showing pornographic movies.
IMAX theaters can show conventional movies, but the major benefits of the IMAX system are only available when showing movies filmed using it. While a few mainstream feature films have been produced in IMAX, IMAX movies are often documentaries featuring spectacular natural scenery, and may be limited to the 45-minute length of a single reel of IMAX film.
According to motion picture rating systems, children or teenagers below a certain age may be forbidden access to theaters showing certain movies, or simply subject to parental guidance.
As movie theaters have grown into multiplexes and megaplexes, crowd control has become a major concern. An overcrowded megaplex can be rather unpleasant, and in an emergency can be extremely dangerous. Therefore, all major theater chains have implemented crowd control measures.
The most famous one is the ubiquitous holdout line which prevents ticketholders for the next showing of that weekend's most popular movie from entering the building until their particular auditorium has been cleared out and cleaned. Furthermore, many theater chains like to co-locate their theaters in shopping centers, and they deliberately build lobbies and corridors that are too small, making holdout lines a necessity. In turn, ticketholders will hopefully be enticed to shop or eat while stuck in the holdout line.
"The back row"
Sometimes couples go to a movie theater for the additional reason that it provides the possibility of some physical intimacy, where the dark provides some privacy (with additional privacy in the back-row). This applies in particular for young people who still live with their parents, and these parents tend to monitor and/or forbid certain activities. Compared with being together in a room without other people, it may also be reassuring for one or both of the couple (and for parents) that the intimacy is necessarily limited.
Arm rests may be a hindrance for intimacy. Some theaters have love seats: seats for two without armrest in the middle. The most modern theaters have movable armrests throughout the theater that when down can hold a food container as well as act as an armrest or partition between the seats and when up allow closer contact between the couple. More expensive theaters may have large comfortable sofas.
Movie theaters usually sell various snack foods and drinks at concession stands which often represents their primary source of income; movie studios in the US traditionally drive hard bargains entitling them to more than 70, 80, or 90% of the gross ticket revenue during the first week (and then the balance changes in 10% increments per week from there). Some movie theaters forbid eating and drinking inside the viewing room (restricting such activities to the lobby), while others encourage it, e.g. by selling large portions of popcorn. Concessions is currently a huge area of expansion with many companies in the US offering a wider range of snacks, including hot dogs and nachos. The noise of people eating, including the opening of wrappers, is frowned upon by many moviegoers.
It is quite common for the lobby to include an arcade game area.
Business practice controversies
A recent development in cinema programming has been the inclusion of commercial advertising shorts that have nothing to do with film. Many filmgoers have complained that these advertisements defeat the basic point of the experience of seeing films without this kind of commercialism interfering. Other critics like Roger Ebert have expressed concerns that these advertisement, plus an excessive number of movie trailers could lead to pressure to restrict the preferred length of the feature films themselves to facilitate playing schedules. So far, the theatre companies have typically been highly resistant to these complaints, citing the need for the supplementary income.
Another major recent concern is that the dramatic improvements in stereo sound systems have lead to cinemas playing the soundtracks of presented films at unacceptably high volume levels. Usually, the trailers are presented at a very high sound level, presumably to overcome the sounds of a busy crowd. The sound is not adjusted downward for a sparsely occupied theater, and so many people now bring earplugs to wear until the main feature begins.
The multiplex offers a great amount of flexibility to a theater operator, enabling multiple theaters to exhibit the same popular production in multiple theaters with staggered starting times. While it was once believed that multiplexes would allow the economic exhibition of "small" films (art films) that would not draw a large audience, particularly in locations not capable of supporting a specialty theater, such has not generally been the case. Furthermore, even the enjoyment of such films, when exhibited, can be greatly reduced by the penetrating low frequency sound of explosions, small arms fire, car crashes, dinosaur roars and footfalls, etc., from adjacent theaters showing more typical movie fare, despite the use of substantial reinforced concrete walls between theaters.
The colocation of theaters results in a great economy of scale for the sale of so-called "junk food" — sugary soda pop, fat and salt saturated popcorn, and the like. In addition to poor nutritional values, the foodstuffs sold are also characterised by extremely high markup and the profit their sales can form the bulk of the gross margin of a theater.
Major movie theater companies