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Silver Screen or Handheld Device?

Updated on November 15, 2017

The first commercial​ motion pictures were shown in a box. Each frame reprinted on a page of cardboard, all of which were hand cranked on a cylinder while the patron watched the illusion of motion through a peephole. Less than a year after Edison had his moving picture machines installed in penny arcades across the country, they were already considered obsolete. Inventors were rushing to invent the first practical motion picture projectors. In less than a year, watching a movie in a coin operated machine was archaic. Having it projected onto a sheet allowed an entire room to view the film at the same time.

As movie theaters increased in size, the white sheets were replaced with proper screens laced with silver and/or aluminium dust, the metal particals making the screens surface highly reflective. It was because of this that they picked up the romantic name of Silver Screen, and continue to be called so long after the industry stopped infusing screens with metal dust.

When theaters grew into movie palaces, the screens grew to nearly two stories in size. In the 1950s screens grew again, this time in length. Studios wanted to combat television by making films bigger. And since the ceilings of theaters prevented screens from getting any taller, the only option was wider.

There was a setback in the 80s. Proper movie theaters, including many movie palaces, were subdivided into four separate theaters. The first multiplexes. And when they ran out of old theaters to butcher, warehouse were converted into multiplexes, with much smaller screens. But even though most screens were a quarter of the size they had been a decade earlier, they were still much bigger than the largest television screen. As if the industry realized it had made a big mistake, they began building multistory IMAX theaters, for those of us who like our movie stars as giant as possible.

Movies were meant to be seen on a large screen. Sure, you could still enjoy a film shown on a television screen, but it looses much of it's magic. Which baffles me to hear that the iPhone ( or any other similar smart phone ) has become the screen of choice for most Americans when it comes to watching feature films. They are even willing to wait the extra months for a major feature film to end it's theatrical run and become available as a digital download.

I can almost understand their reasoning. Theater tickets have become expensive, and you often end up sitting in the smells and mess left behind by previous moviegoers. There is the hassle of finding the correct theater,standing on line, and the newest indignity, being told that nights screening has been overbooked, and you will need to come back another night. But preferring to watch a movie on a screen the size of your palm?

At least with the home theater, you have a decent sized screen, an if you wish, the best sound system you are willing to buy. Studios spend tens of millions of dollars on visual effects that the director intended to be seen on a large screen. Often, the visual effects are the only part of the film worth seeing. Watching those effects on a tiny screen washes out the details. You are only seeing 10% of a picture a studio spent millions and hundreds of hours to perfect.

And epics? Films with thousands of extras, huge expansive sets, and filmed in vast vistas, all meant to be experienced on a big screen, are reduced to a 3 by 5 inch screen.

This obsession by Americans to do everything on their telephones seems to have caught the entertainment industry off guard. The trend for the home viewing experience has always been to go bigger. Television technology has not only increased the size of the television screen, but converted the standard to widescreen. Blu-ray was developed specifically for larger screens. Even YouTube, which was designed for low bandwidth videos, now allows for HD video so it can be shown on HD sets. Everyone wanted the theater experience, and that experience was the big screen, right? Wrong!

Perhaps this is just a fad. Perhaps Americans are only using their phones and tablets as their primary source for movies simply because the device allows it. And once the novelty has worn off Americans will return to the theaters again. It is not as if theaters are on their way out. There are still more than enough of us who prefer the silver screen to keep movie theaters in business for years to come. But if you are watching a motion picture on your mobile device, then you are missing something.


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