Audiences see TV's really big picture

Having waited this long to see “Once,” Fox Searchlight’s well-reviewed musical romance, odds are I’ll simply wait for its arrival on DVD, inasmuch as it’s not the kind of movie where big special effects are an issue.

This is the kind of calculus that consumers engage in regularly, one that’s constantly shifting as the price of bigscreen TV sets drops, transforming the term “home theater” into something more literal than just code for “Would you like speakers with that?”

The question of when the tiny movie gnome in our heads decides “rental” as opposed to “Let’s go see that” is hardly an academic one, surveying the weekly graph for this summer’s blockbusters. A majority of those who saw a big movie showed up the opening weekend, with declines of 50%, 60% or even 70% not uncommon in the second.

Nobody knows, however, what precise role advances in home exhibition play in that dynamic — a nagging thought, previewing Panasonic’s new 103-inch plasma TV, a veritable Goliath that forever banishes the expression “small” screen from one’s vocabulary.

Able to fit four 50-inch sets in its view, the Panasonic retails for a mere $70,000, plus another $5,000 for a special base to support its 485-pound weight. Steven Caldero, senior VP-chief operating officer at West Los Angeles home-entertainment center Ken Crane’s — one of four U.S. retailers peddling the monster set — says stores must conduct site inspections to ensure a home is structurally capable of accommodating the beast.

For most people, the cost is obviously prohibitive, though Caldero — situated near some of L.A.’s priciest real estate — expects to sell a dozen before Christmas. Among those who already have one is Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, whose other holdings notably including co-owning HDNet — the high-definition cable channel — and Landmark Theaters, a chain dedicated to exhibiting independent films.

Although few shoppers will ante up for the 103-inch model, ever-larger sets have become a way of announcing to the world

– or that part of it allowed into your home — that you can afford to watch “Grey’s Anatomy” on a screen so enormous that every curve in Katherine Heigl’s perfect lips is readily discernible. 

Cuban has one of the sets in his bedroom, which made me wonder how he squares that with his theatrical exhibitor hat. After all, if you have a TV like that — or even one a quarter its size — why bother going out?

Stupid question, Cuban says in an email interview.

Having a gigantic TV at home “hasn’t changed my opinion of going to the movies at all,” he writes. “My daughter wants to see movies she can scream at with other kids. My wife wants me to take her out on a date. Teenagers want to go to the mall, hang out, kill time and see movies. … The size of the screen is the least important deciding factor.”

For Cuban, it’s all about a social experience and getting out of the house. “People will always prefer to see movies at the theaters as long as theaters recognize what makes the experience fun,” he contends. “At Landmark, our focus is on being a date destination for grown-ups.”

Maybe, but I’m not so sure. After spending thousands on a TV, it would seem that anybody in a tax bracket below Cuban’s might want to take advantage of that investment. And while teenagers will always want to get out for reasons that have little to do with the quality of movies, my guess is more grown-ups are becoming inclined to make that “date” a stay-in affair.

Meanwhile, as flat-screen prices fall, manufacturers are exploring innovations to get the public’s attention. “All the companies are looking for a way to set themselves apart, and it’s very difficult to do that with 42-inch and 46-inch TV’s,” says Rick Albert, Panasonic’s VP of sales based in L.A.

Indeed, even more oversized sets would likely have moved by now, says Ken Crane’s Caldero, were it not for what he describes as “a lot of confusion out there” about high definition and how it works.

Gradually, though, people are realizing that it’s possible to come home with a TV that resembles the viewing screen on the Starship Enterprise. And if human nature is any indicator, plenty of them will say, “Beam me up, Scotty — and deposit me on the couch, smack dab in front of that baby.”

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