Will the "big screen" one day be a relic of the past?

I should start by declaring that I have a vested interest in the "moviegoing experience." I am both a filmmaker and a moviegoer.

Some of the richest and most enjoyable experiences of my life have been as a member of the audience in theaters when the magic of cinema was at work -- watching such films as "Gone With the Wind," "Lawrence of Arabia," "Shane," "8 1/2," "The Godfather II," "Reds" and "Napoleon." The excellence of each of these films was matched by the excellence of the presentation. The theater was dark, the proscenium high, the screen large, the chair comfortable, the projection sharp and the sound strong and clear.

I cannot say I have had many experiences like that lately, and one reason is that very often the best of the new films are exhibited in those tiny new auditoriums with small screens, pillars scattered in the seating areas, careless projection and a theater staff more interested in selling popcorn than in correcting any aberrations of sight, sound or audience deportment that were once the responsibility of theater managers.

Variety, the bible of show business, recently observed that the survival of movie theaters "hinges on new concepts of comfort, staffing and technical excellence." Variety noted that today's "multiplex" theaters are "built on the cheap, converting barns into boxes."

At a time when theater operators should be enlarging the distinction between their theaters and our living rooms, many of them seem bent on narrowing it -- abandoning large screens for these multiplexes that are usually little more than a collection of cubicles stuffed into a shopping center or an office building, where the screen is small in size, lacking in height and the design ignores both the principles of cinematic presentation and the basic elements of showmanship.

In the last year I have written off the multiplex theaters in my neighborhood. In one of them, many first-run movies are projected at the wrong aspect ratio, cropping off the tops and bottoms of pictures that the filmmakers composed with care. (A letter advising the theater owner of this distortion brought no response.) In another, a viewer runs the risk of being seated far back and to the side of the small screen, making the "screen presence" not much larger relative to the viewer than a large television in one's home. In a Wisconsin Avenue theater the manager insisted it was company policy to leave the lights half on during the movie, presumably to facilitate trips to the concession counter. (A letter to the Boston headquarters of this theater circuit was also ignored.)

The falloff in quality of movie theaters and the presence of home video confront the American motion picture industry with the possibility of going the way of the American auto industry. Every day, more and more Americans are leaving their Hondas and Toyotas in their garages to stay home and watch movies on their Sony and Hitachi VCRs.

Theater design, once a fine art, has given way to real estate considerations -- how to squeeze as many chairs as possible into a leasehold. As a result, adults with living rooms are abandoning theatergoing to teen-agers who don't have living rooms and are happy to have a place to meet their friends.

Adults are discovering the convenience and economy of renting a videocassette for a couple of dollars (in California there are stores that will deliver a pizza along with a cassette) and seeing movies at home. It isn't anywhere near as good as seeing the film at a fine theater, but it is convenient, and many prefer it to paying their way into a mediocre theater.

If adults are choosing home video over theatergoing, teen-agers are flocking to movies manufactured specifically for them. This summer's fare included "Pee Wee's Big Adventure," "Teen Wolf," "Gremlins," "Fright Night," "Back to the Future," "Police Academy 2," "The Return of the Living Dead," "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome," "The Coca-Cola Kid" and "National Lampoon's European Vacation." We may never know if this is the cause or result of the adult exodus.

I haven't given up on theaters, but I have become selective. I will continue to go to the Uptown to see a film such as "Passage to India," to the K-B Cinema to see "Amadeus," or to the Fine Arts to see "Tootsie." These theaters are well managed and offer the excitement and visual splendor of the "big screen" experience -- an experience that cannot be matched at home.

But all the while I keep hoping that the theater industry will heed Variety's formula for survival and give us "new concepts of comfort, staffing and technical excellence."