New York — Can movie theaters survive the challenges of the '80s - cable TV, home video, and changing audience habits? So far, the movies are holding up fine, and even growing:
* Last year, ticket sales reached a 21-year high of almost 1.2 billion - a rise of more than 10 percent over 1981, despite a 5.9 percent increase in admission prices. Another rise of 4 or 5 percent is expected in 1983 paid admissions.
* Box office grosses have increased more than 30 percent over the past five years; 1983 may exceed last year's total of nearly $3.5 billion, as calculated by the US Theatrical Economic Review.
* For the ninth year in a row, the number of indoor theater screens rose in 1982, to about 15,000. As many as 500 may be added to the total this year, and 1984 could see twice as much expansion.
To flesh out these figures, I called Joel Resnick, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners and execu tive vice-president of American Multi-Cinema, a leading film-exhibition company. His message was plain: The movies are booming.
In fact, says Mr. Resnick, ''The bigger cable becomes, the more upsurge we have.'' Why? He sees four reasons.
First, movies are relatively easy on the pocketbook. The viewer pays only for one film at a time, unlike most cable-TV arrangements. (Ticket costs are also modest compared with legitimate theater and live music.)
Second, many pictures work best when seen with a large audience. Comedies may seem funnier and thrillers more spooky outside the coziness of your own living room, with a crowd sharing the experience.
Third, the wide screen still has a mystique - and an impact - all its own. TV is hard pressed to compete in this area, even with expensive video-projection systems. ''How big can a TV screen get?'' Mr. Resnick asks. ''Even if you could afford the equipment, there are very few homes with 50-foot walls.''
Fourth, many viewers still enjoy leaving home for their entertainment. ''Going out is part of the movie experience,'' says Resnick, ''whether it's a quick trip down the block or a night on the town.''
He thinks cable TV may even help the movie business. ''It's a huge source of additional revenue to filmmakers, so it encourages more production,'' he points out. ''It makes people more conscious of movies, and curious about what a particular star or story would look like on the wide screen. It's a good place for us to advertise our product.''
In recent years, the average age of ticket-buyers has dropped markedly, leading more producers to aim their films directly at young audiences. Resnick feels the tide has turned again, however.
''The United States is growing older, and so is our audience,'' he says. ''More films are being made for the over-30s: 'Gandhi' and 'Sophie's Choice' are typical. In a place like Florida, where a lot of older folks live, senior citizens are coming out in droves.
But why is the change happening now?
''There are more older people around, and theaters are learning to accommodate them better. Convenient matinees and special ticket prices are being emphasized. And with the shift toward multiscreen theaters in the suburbs, the movies are reaching out to the people.''
The movement of theaters from downtown areas to suburban shopping malls has been one of the most visible developments in movie-house management. Instead of finding 10 or 12 separate theaters on major downtown streets, today's moviegoers often find ''multiplex'' theaters holding several screens apiece, frequently in shopping complexes near residential areas.
Significantly, such ''plexes'' may include auditoriums of various sizes and sophistication. Some are equipped with massive screens and fancy sound systems geared to the latest adventure epics; others are smaller, better suited to intimate pictures that don't require top-line technology or attract huge crowds.
Mr. Resnick agrees that such developments have been central to the continued success of movie theaters. ''The exhibition industry has rebuilt itself in 10 years,'' he says, referring to the spread of multiscreen ''movie cities.''
And he feels theaters of diverse sizes help keep up the diversity of films. ''You need rooms that can hold the 8 million people who saw 'Return of the Jedi' in its first week,'' he says. ''But if you only had 1,000-seat theaters, you couldn't run 'Local Hero' or 'Tender Mercies' - the word-of-mouth pictures that need to run for a while as they slowly find their audience.''
Only in one domain are movie theaters shrinking: the fabled drive-in. Outdoor theaters are en route to extinction for several reasons. Drive-in land tends to increase in value much faster than ticket revenues, tempting owners to sell out. The spread of suburban theaters has heightened competition. The trend to older audiences may be also be a factor, and today's viewers may feel that sitting isolated in a car isn't as much fun as being in a real audience.
What lies in the future of movie theaters? No technological revolutions are on the horizon, but sight and sound will probably improve over current standards. ''Dolby stereo is only a few years old,'' Mr. Resnick points out, ''and improvements are still being made. Also, 3-D is still in its first phase. It will grow more sophisticated, making the audience more a part of the show than ever.''
Filmgoers can also expect a return to ''more old-fashioned hype'' in marketing by local theaters. ''Promotion is coming back in a big way,'' Resnick says. ''There will be more tie-ins with local stores, cable TV music channels, and the record industry.''
And local theater managers may come up with more creative ways of getting movies into the public eye, zapping potential ticket-buyers with everything from billboards to stunts - hoping to revive the spirit of bygone days, when a night at the movies was as habitual as it was refreshing. Italian comedy-drama
Nino Manfredi is best known, at least to American audiences, as the star of ''Bread and Chocolate'' and other popular Italian comedies. But he knows what he's doing behind the camera, too, and proves it in his recent comedy-drama ''Nudo di Donna,'' which he directed while also finding time to play the leading role.
The hero is an Italian husband who is desperately puzzled by the resemblance between his wife and a prostitute he sees in a photograph. Trying to plumb the mystery, he learns a few lessons about himself as well as his marriage and his attitudes toward women. Though there is some nudity and innuendo in the picture, it is handled with relative restraint by director Manfredi, who is clearly interested in seeking insights below the surface of the story.
Over lunch here recently, Manfredi confirmed that the ''mystery story'' plot is just a vehicle for exploring the vicissitudes of male-female relationships in general and marriage in particular. A soft-spoken and conspicuously polite man, with little ''celebrity aura'' about him, he discussed the sometimes flighty plot with an earnestness that underscored the seriousness of his intentions as a director, and made more impressive the lightness that marks his comic performances.
Though not a specially memorable movie, ''Nudo di Donna'' is doing well at box offices in the United States, perhaps helped by its colorful carnival scenes , which feature scores of extras wearing masks and disguises that reflect the questions of identity at the picture's core. Manfredi is certainly a double threat these days.