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1st August 2005

Hands up those who saw Batman Begins? Okay, so I can’t actually see if hands are raised or not, but judging by the box office figures then thousands crammed into cinemas to see the latest celluloid incarnation of the Dark Knight. The film might have been a bleak and moody affair but there was a bright spot: Bale’s Batman brought in the bucks. Batman Begins snatched a little under $50m at the US box office during its opening weekend (in the UK it soared to the top with takings of £3.57m). The trouble is that a certain web-slinging superhero swung away with $115m during his opening weekend just one year ago.

But this isn’t Batman’s fault: cinema audiences in America are falling and have done so for the second year running. This is despite releases such as Star Wars Episode III ($108m) and Mr & Mrs Smith (taking $51m it seems Brad and Angelina’s off-screen romance was more interesting). More recently War of the Worlds, offered big screen-scale disaster, death, destruction and Tom Cruise if all that wasn’t enough; it took $77m and headlines focused more on Cruise’s engagement frivolities rather than that Spielberg was back with a bang.

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So post-Star Wars what will it take to get people buying tickets again? Spider-man 3? More importantly why aren’t people queuing to see the latest movies?

The answer to that question: DVDs. A recent US survey revealed that 83% of moviegoers preferred to watch movies at home on DVD. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a similar result if a poll was conducted over here.

Certainly, the attitude in the US mirrors my own film-watching habits these days. Sometimes I just cannot be bothered to drag my carcass to the cinema (all of five minutes away); fritter away the best part of £10 on a ticket and a Pepsi (a habit I’ve recently picked up in my old age); choose a decent seat (only to have someone sit right in front of me even if the cinema is otherwise empty); and then put up with overlong bass-heavy adverts (the Smirnoff one with the breakdancing Frenchman is particularly irritating).

This routine is all the more wounding when the film proves to be average at best leaving you with nothing more than a cup full of ice, a ticket stub and a rolled-up copy of a film preview magazine (detailing films that were released the previous month). Far easier to forego the multiplex madness and wait a few months for the DVD to arrive at the local Blockbuster or even pick it up later as a multi-purchase offer in the high street. Interestingly, this line of thought has resulted in films that received a relatively lukewarm reception at the cinema scoring highly in the US DVD rental charts.

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But what of the often-lauded cinema ‘experience’? Well, if your average trip is anything like the above then surely it’s more of a trial than an experience. Of course, unless you are very rich then there is nothing in the average living room to rival the draw of the big screen. However, even the most modest home cinema DVD set-ups will energise a mundane two-night rental. What’s more DVD arguably offers a clearer picture: no ‘soft’ looking scenes, no ‘hissing’ or ‘popping’ and certainly no appearance of what can only be described as a giant pubic hair that sometimes invades the top right of the screen. (Cinema’s answer to this would be digital projection, but let’s face it even with George Lucas behind it – a few years ago he predicted that by Episode III everything would be digital – most cinemas, even in the US, still favour film projection.)

So does this mean I’m going to stay at home and wait until technology reaches the stage where Hollywood’s efforts are piped straight to my television at home? No, because there are still films that cry out to be seen on the big screen if only for one scene or sequence (War of the Worlds is one such example). The onus is with the cinemas, studios and film industries, though, to embrace the latest technology (because consumer technology is getting better and cheaper), offer cheaper ticket prices and once more deliver an experience that gets us talking about the magic of the movies.