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From IMAX to HDR, going to the movies has become a mess

With 3D, 2D, IMAX, and HDR, picking a theater is a pain.

Dolby and other format providers are improving theaters, but at the cost of simplicity. Credit: Dolby

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If you're like most people, you're probably going to check out a few big-budget blockbuster movies in the near future. Maybe you're all aboard the spandex-clad punch wagon that is Captain America: Civil War, or perhaps you want to see Disney's It's In The Public Domain So Why Not? The Jungle Book.

Either way, you no longer have to only agree on a movie, time, and a theater. Now you also have to decide whether or not to see a film in 2D, 3D, IMAX, Dolby Vision, or even "4D" with systems like MX4D and D-BOX. It's enough to make your head spin. No, I mean it; 4D seats shake until your head spins.

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It's so confusing that Jon Favreau (who directed The Jungle Book), actually had to take to Reddit recently just to explain all the different formats his movie is available in. If it takes the director (or at least one of his interns) 1,000 words to explain all the ways you can see his movie, something's wrong.

If it takes a director 1,000 words to explain all the ways you can see a movie, something's wrong.

This is a train wreck.

Why are theaters so fragmented? Because like a T-1000 that's fallen in a vat of molten steel, theaters are trying anything they can to survive. After all, it's harder to justify spending $30 or $40 on movie tickets when you have a 60-inch flatscreen at home.

Choose wisely, there are more formats than we could fit in this image.

Choose wisely.

And going to the movies has gotten easier, thanks to improved amenities like online and mobile ticketing, assigned seating, better concessions, and even wine and beer sales. But the skyrocketing number of formats is just too confusing.

The problem is now we're all paralyzed by choice. If I want to go to see the new Captain America movie I have to decide between all of these formats:

  • Standard Digital 2D
  • Standard Digital 3D
  • XPlus with Dolby Atmos
  • IMAX 2D
  • IMAX 3D
  • IMAX 4K with laser projection
  • Dolby Vision 3D with laser projection
  • Dolby Vision 2D
  • Cinemark Ultra 3D
  • RealD 3D
  • RealD 3D with Ultimate Screen
  • D-Box 2D
  • D-Box 3D
  • Cineplex UltraAVX
  • MX4D

That's 16 different ways to see the same movie. While most people will opt for standard IMAX or 2D, you might unknowingly opt for one of the 4D showings where the seat rumbles every time Iron Man punches someone or Chris Hemsworth flashes that Thunder God smile.

And this doesn't even cover other variations, like Showcase Cinemas' Superlux / LuxLite / Lux Level in-theater dining, or the fact that there are four different sizes of IMAX screens in my neck of the woods. The worst part is that if you go during opening weekend, sometimes you're stuck going to (and paying more for) a format that makes you physically uncomfortable just to see the movie.

Now, this isn't to say that new formats are bad. We absolutely love Dolby Vision HDR and we want theaters—both big and small—to thrive. Most of these formats provide brighter projection, bigger screens, and far better sound quality, all of which improve the experience.

But the industry is moving in too many directions at once, and it's far too confusing. And if consumers don't know what they're in for, they may just stay home. At least then they aren't paying for the privilege of getting a face full of mist sprayed at them during "The Bare Necessities."

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