For cinema owners, 2020 was clearly a watershed year, with many wondering about the long-term future of moviegoing. So a Nov. 2, 1953, guest column by Walt Disney, “The Crucial Year for Pictures,” is a reminder that theaters have survived other crises, and presumably will again. […]
He referred to it as a time of “growing pains which must come periodically to every vital institution which deals with masses of people.” But in the entire column, he never mentioned the source of anxiety: television. In 1950, only 20% of American homes had a TV set. Only two years later, in July 1952, Variety reported that one out of three U.S. homes owned a TV set. By the end of the decade, TV sets were in 90% of U.S. homes.
The issue today with television streaming threatening theaters is the size and ability of the home theater. Disney was writing about a time where TVs were 9 inches big with black and white screens — today we’ve got 70-inch and larger TVs with incredible OLED HDR picture capabilities and Dolby Atmos surround sound being pumped into our living rooms. Why go to the theater when you can install a theater in your living room?
Disney was a futurist; I’m sure if he’d sat down and thought it out he could envision a future where the home had a massive personal theater experience. But I also suspect he would have seen the need to innovate in the public theater space to keep audiences buying those $20 tickets.
I’m no Walt Disney, and I can’t imagine how the public theater experience improves on the home cinema experience — especially as the major theater chains are on the verge of collapse. The theaters need a Walt Disney or Steve Jobs type person focused on the theater space right now, working to create the next amazing leap in cinema that you can’t reproduce at home. But I don’t know who that person is today, or even if they exist right now.