Robert Newton knows New England's movie theaters better than the average father knows his own children. Mr. Newton has gone to the movies at least once a week since 1986. But today, one theater in particular receives most of Mr. Newton's business: It's just down the hall from his kitchen.
Each afternoon, the video-store owner from Auburn, Mass., opens the door to his former study and enters the domestic sphere's answer to the mega-multiplex.
Six movie-theater seats line the back wall. A mini projector sits three feet above them. With the click of a remote, a 100-inch screen across the room slowly rolls down from the ceiling. The lights dim, and Newton puts his feet up.
"If I had the choice, I would never leave the house," he says. "I'm in control of every aspect of the experience here."
Newton's high-end answer for home entertainment is quickly becoming a national model. Dropping prices for high-quality systems and the rise of the DVD format with bonus features like director interviews have prompted a home-cinema boom. Pop-culture guru Faith Popcorn estimates movie theaters most a bit more modest than Newton's have been installed in about 17 million US homes.
The home-theater surge reflects a changing society, too. The desire to erect temples of entertainment in the home represents a long-term trend of bringing public activity into the private realm, observers say. Moreover, as careers and social lives increasingly intrude on the domestic sphere, home theaters represent a high-tech sanctuary.
"People are focused on 'me' and 'my family,' " says Tom Edwards an analyst with market-research firm NPD Group. "The emphasis is on entertainment in the home."
Americans are still going to traditional movie theaters in droves. But attendance has dipped dramatically over the long term. On average, 90 million people attended a movie each week during the 1930s. The nation's population has since tripled, but weekly attendance has dropped by more than two-thirds.
Since 1995, the total number of US theaters has fallen to 7,070 a 20-percent decline, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. Theaters' inability to make ends meet is partly apparent in average ticket prices, which have gone up 30 percent since 1991, according to the MPAA.
So, between soaring ticket prices on the one hand and low-quality VCR tapes on the other, what's a discerning movie buff to do? The answer, for many, involves an investment in DVD home theaters.
Videophiles testify that the DVD format which offers crystal clear picture and sound makes movie reels and VCR tapes look like scribblings in a flip book. Says Newton: "I wouldn't profane my projector television by hooking it up to a VCR."
Such zeal is not limited to video store owners. The number of American households with DVD players is expected to jump 10 percent this year, to 35 percent.
Sales of home-theater systems with DVD players, for the first five months of this year, are up 988 percent, according to NPD Group. A home theater usually includes five "surround sound" speakers, a receiver, and a TV with a screen 30 inches wide and up.
Excitement about the capabilities of DVD has driven Americans to think more boldly about their entertainment centers. "DVD's universal appeal created the demand for better entertainment in the home," says Mr. Edwards.
New equipment includes high-end projector televisions, which cost about one-third of their $10,000 price tag of a decade ago.
Some buyers embellish with theater accessories, like wall sconces, theater lighting, and popcorn machines. Standard theater seats with cup holders cost about $600 a piece.
Retailers of theater accessories say their customer base increasingly includes middle-class clientele. "If I have a customer, he may not have a few million in the bank," says John Andrews, president of A Big Picture in Vienna, Va. "He could easily be more of a common man, like a waiter or waitress."
Mr. Andrews believes his customers spend most of their free time at home, but crave a little more variety in their surroundings. "They don't want to look at the same old paint, and the same old TV set, in the same old chair." Most of his clients spend about $4,000 remodeling and outfitting their theater room.
American families are embellishing their homes largely to compensate for the growing number of hours they spend at work, experts say. More people prefer entertainment without a commute.
"When they do have time for leisure, they don't want to spend time running out to Blockbuster," says Elise Prosser, a professor of entertainment marketing at the University of San Diego.
THE domestic entertainment phenomenon, some add, is also part of a larger breakdown in the barrier between public and private life.
Technology enables people to experience religious services, inaugurations, and global conflicts from their living room couches. It also allows them to e-mail friends and family from their workplaces or listen to music while on the subway.
Americans' habits of movie watching show the same overlaps. One sign: chatting during the movie. Today, "More people speak to each other as though they are sitting in their own living rooms," says Joshua Meyerowitz, a communication professor at the University of New Hampshire.
Home theaters reflect consumers' desire to personalize the formalities and traditions of the cinema. But Mr. Meyerowitz suspects people are also using the theaters to escape technology the very element driving their own quick adoption.
"Home theater is about intensity of experience," says Meyerowitz. "It's an attempt to create an overpowering experience that is a barrier from the rest of the world."