With movie theaters in a free fall, home theaters step into the spotlight

A few years ago, if Michael Littleton and his team at Simply AV installed about 10 home theater systems a year, that was them doing good business.

But those numbers would be considered dismal these days, now that his team is on pace to install about 30 systems in the same time period. And Littleton believes they’re only just getting started.

“There’s been a tremendous bump in this last half-year alone,” Littleton said. “And I see it only trending upward from here.”

Littleton’s predictions are based on 17 years of experience in the local home theater business, during which time he’s seen the popularity of home theaters rise at a gradual, but consistent slope.

A report released last year by the research firm Grand View Research found the home theater market, which was valued at $7.7 billion in 2018, is projected to continue on an upward track with a compound annual growth rate of 8.8% through 2025.

Those projections, however, might actually turn out to be too conservative, according to market analysts, as COVID-19 has led the majority of movie theaters to close their doors, while those that remain open see drastically reduced ticket sales. On the weekend of Sept. 18-20, for example, ticket sales in North America totaled just above $13 million, compared to more than $125 million during the same weekend last year.

But perhaps the greatest indicator that the line between the theater and the home is vanishing came in the form of news that broke at the beginning of August, when AMC and Universal Studios announced they would be shortening the window between film premieres in theaters and at-home viewing from 90 days to just 17 days.

By comparison, it used to take at least six months for a movie to reach Blockbuster back in the VHS era.

Littleton said even that window will likely be reduced, with consumers being offered the ability to stream movies at home the same day they hit the theaters, a feature that he said will likely roll out sometime in the next year, according to his connections in the industry.

“It’ll be at a premium price compared to what you’d pay at the theaters, but the point is these theatrical windows are going away soon,” he said.

Representatives from movie theaters operating in the Greenville area, including Regal Cinemas and Camelot Cinemas, did not respond to questions about their plans for the coming months.

But for Littleton and others in the home theater business, the writing has been brightly projected on the wall for a long time.

Home theater installations include: seating, electronics, screen, projector, sound system

Prices range from a few thousand dollars to $500,000

“Home theaters allow you to have your own space, the ability to pause, get up, enjoy your own food and drinks, have that freedom,” Littleton said. “There are so many benefits.”

While prices can go as high as $500,000 for all the bells and whistles — the most top-notch seating, electronics, screen, projector and the sound system — many more affordable room build-outs are possible for a few thousand dollars.

“You can get a $100,000 projector that will obviously look amazing, but if you want one for $4,000, most people won’t even realize much of a difference,” Littleton said.

Some things can’t be replaced, of course. The distinct smell of move theater popcorn. The joy of being a teenager getting away from one’s parents. And the nostalgia factor alone.

“But I think everything evolves,” Littleton said. “And there are plenty of advantages to where things are going.”

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