The last two years have been awful for any number of reasons. But along the way, we briefly attempted an experiment: what if movie theaters shifted to streaming instead? Now things are slowly shifting back to the status quo. And you know what? There’s no way I’m ever going back to the theater.
I say this as a former movie theater fan, and yes, the experience still holds nostalgia for me. Movie theaters were, for a long time, a place to escape real life, go on a date, or just pass a few hours. As a life-long geek, the era of Marvel (sorry, DC, but please try again) has been a bit of a dream come true. I thought I’d always be among the first in line to see the latest Star Trek, Star Wars, or Avengers movie. But now I don’t want that anymore. And best of all, I don’t need to either.
Time Off From Movie Theaters
From mid-2020 through the end of 2021, I never saw a movie in a theater. For the longest time, they were closed, and even when they did reopen, plenty of the movies I cared about skipped them entirely. Whether it was Raya and the Last Dragon, Black Widow, or Wonder Woman 1984, I didn’t need to go to a theater. Instead, I had the option to watch the film from the comfort of my home. The last movie I saw in theaters was Sonic the Hedgehog in April 2020, just as the pandemic started getting underway.
Streaming movies from home led us to watch more films than in previous years. After all, it wasn’t so bad to take a chance on a movie if we didn’t have to pay extra—as was the case with Soul, The Matrix Resurrections, and Wonder Woman 1984. And that turned out for the best too. Can you imagine my disappointment if I had paid for theater tickets to see the latest Matrix movie?
Of course, streaming from home did present a few problems. Going to a theater is an experience—the big screen, the massive sound, the popcorn, and even the shared cheers all add to the fun. The moment when Captain America summoned Mjölnir (uh, spoilers, I guess?) stands out not just for an incredible moment but also for the deafening cries of triumph from the audience.
One of the last movies I saw before the lockdown began wasn’t even a new film. My local theater decided to do a special showing of Howl’s Moving Castle. Though I know most won’t agree with me, Howl’s Moving Castle is, in my opinion, the best of Studio Ghibli’s films. The music is terrific, the story poignant, and the characters are utter perfection. But no one I know feels the same way about the movie, so getting to see it with like-minded strangers in the movie theater felt like a special experience.
But it was also kind of terrible because the person next to me wouldn’t stop loudly humming along to all the songs. Try as I might to enjoy seeing Howl’s Moving Castle in a new way, the distracting humming detracted from an otherwise enjoyable experience. And that is one of the biggest problems with movie theaters (besides the price).
The Movie Experiences Sucks Now
It’s hard to fathom how I used to look at the movie theater experience with fondness. Streaming wasn’t an option when Spider-Man: No Way Home hit theaters in December 2021. We chose to go to the theater for the first time since April 2020. After more than a year away, we thought it’d be the perfect time to see what we’d been missing.
The new Spider-Man movie should have been the perfect “return to theaters” option, too. Much like Avengers: Endgame, the film contains plenty of moments designed to get the audience to cheer collectively. But… that didn’t happen.
Instead, throughout the movie, people talked loudly about anything but the movie. Others were using their smartphones with the brightness turned all the way up. Children, likely at the theater for the first time, walked around unimpeded by parents, blocking the screen at times even with stadium seating. A baby cried nearly the entire time. Another family decided no less than three times that they needed more snacks and all left as a group, walking through my row.
It was awful, and I didn’t enjoy the experience at all. Worse yet, I paid a lot for the tickets, plus expensive popcorn and soda. The night cost me over $50, only to find me and my family miserable. Sure the “audience cheer moments” happened, and I enjoyed them—but I was constantly struggling to hear, see, and ignore the people around me. Even those “cheer moments” moments were muted compared to what they should have been.
And it’s not that’s the first time this has happened. Going to a movie, especially a popular one is a crapshoot. Maybe you’ll have a great audience that just wants to watch the film. Or perhaps you’ll find yourself next to a jerk who actually answers the phone. Or the theater could be bad when I went to see the first Wonder Woman, the theater’s terrible lighting setup marred the experience and washed out the screen for over half the film.
We realized we hadn’t been happy with the theater experience in a long time when we thought about it. We kept trying different theaters thinking a particular location was to blame—but the problem is us. My family just doesn’t enjoy the “collective stranger” experience anymore. We want the big screen, the fantastic sound, the popcorn, and the soda. But without the other people and the high prices. And the good news is we already solved that.
Build Your Own Movie Theater
So the bad news is, I don’t want to go to movie theaters anymore. The good news is, in the last couple of years, I’ve slowly built out a home theater worthy of the experience I loved. I used to think that the dream of a “home theater” was out of reach for me for various reasons. I’m not a rich man, so I won’t have a custom theater with stadium-style seats ready to host extended family and friends.
And I live in a ranch-style home with decently high ceilings, but not so high that I could hang a projector. My house’s large windows are also a problem, as bright lights are the enemy of projectors. I have a finished basement where the windows aren’t an issue, but it has even lower ceilings and a giant duct running through the middle, making that entire section barely clear my head.
But, even if you don’t have space for a traditional projector, you can still make one work; it just might entail spending more. Ultra-Short Throw projectors are perfect for smaller homes like mine, as they can live just inches away from the wall and still project a screen 100 inches or more. But there’s a projector for your home, regardless of size and shape.
Buy the right projector, and you may not even need a sound system. More and more come with relatively decent sound these days, but if you truly want a theater experience, you’ll have to step up to something better. If you don’t have a lot of room, you could try a soundbar. A 7.1 surround system, or better, will help you get a complete “movie experience,” though.
I decided to build my 7.1 surround system one piece at a time. I started with the receiver and floor-standing speakers, then added another speaker in the system whenever my budget allowed. In the end, I built a system that rumbles the house during Jurassic Park and makes every game more lifelike. My only complaint about Sony receivers is the company’s insistence on pre-named inputs.
Sony Floor Standing Speaker and Receiver combo
If you want a 7.1 surround system but can't afford it all at once, build it up piece by piece with this kit.
Of course, you could stop there and meet the minimum requirements of a “home theater.” But you’d be missing out. Every movie calls for popcorn; thankfully, it’s not hard to make at home. But skip the microwave stuff. Instead, you can opt for a small air popper or the complete “theater look” with a larger popcorn maker.
West Bend Theater Style Popcorn Maker
If you want traditional popcorn to the max, this is the machine to get. You'll dump kernels and butter, then watch as they pop into the container below. Open the door and scoop some out when it's ready.
Of course, one of the best parts about theaters growing up was the arcade machines. If we were lucky, we could show up early or stay late and drop a few quarters. But now you can bring your own machine home, whether that be Terminator 2, a pinball machine, or a classic fighter.
Arcade1Up Capcom Legacy Edition
One of the best things about this particular Arcade1Up machine is that it comes with 12 games instead of the usual 2 or 3. If you love fighters, especially 'Street Fighter,' this is the one to get.
From there, it’s just about adding whatever touches you need to complete the setup. That could be a minifridge to keep snacks and drinks at the ready or an overpriced replica of the most adorable character in Star Wars since BB-8. The sky is the limit (or maybe your budget is). But the best part is, only the people you invite can come over.
And while you’ll probably spend more money on the setup than you would on movie tickets and overpriced popcorn in a year, you get to use the theater every day (even for gaming!) instead of on special occasions only. You can even watch baseball or an episode of Holey Moley. We won’t tell.