This information seemed accurate when published at the beginning of 2015. However these things sometimes change very quickly, and it's possible some of this is not currently correct.
Once, looking at a big screen together with other people one didn't know in a building outside the house tailored specifically to that purpose, was the only way to watch a movie. (Projection technology was too arcane and too expensive for anything other than massively shared use in a fixed location.) But technology has changed, and nowadays one can watch a movie many different ways in many different places. This particular webpage though still focuses on movie theaters.
An ongoing problem of mine has been what I perceive as insufficient art‑house and esoteric movie theaters/screens near where I live in the suburbs. It's frustrating to read an intriguing movie review in the local newspapers, only to find that movie is not available to me. (Because of those newspapers, I'm acutely aware that the urban area of Metro‑Boston has more and more varied movie theaters than exist near me.)
Of course it's all relative. Over time I've come to realize that objectively my current situation is one of the best of any suburb in the entire country. I participate in several social media groups on Film, and I repeatedly have the experience of being one of only a handful of people that can discuss a particular film, because I've seen it and almost nobody else has. Living in Los Angeles or New York City would be better, as would downtown Boston (and maybe Seattle), but outside of those few places, where I am is actually the best there is, and wishing it were even better seems silly.
Newburyport's The Screening Room is a fairly traditional art‑house theater and is easily accessible to me. But even after accounting for the vastly smaller potential audience, some art movies are still much more commercially viable than others, and really esoteric movies still aren't available even at traditional art‑houses like this one.
Beverly's The Cabot reopened in November 2014 as a non-profit, and programs both movies and lots of demanding live stage productions. The movie part initially programmed almost exclusively art type films, probably mainly because at that time they could project only films that were distributed on disc. Within a few months they also got the capability of handling stock digital distribution, and now program a very eclectic mix of art films, revivals, shorts compendiums, awards nominees, foreign films, documentaries, film festival entries, and recent mainstream dramas.
(The Cabot's earlier incarnation similarly programmed both movies and live stage shows, but those stage shows were typically matinees and so didn't preempt peak movie viewing times. The movie part of that operation programmed a lot of foreign films and festival award films, either because of the unconventional tastes of the booker, or because they knew they couldn't compete with the blockbusters at the multiplexes and so deliberately just did something completely different. The new incarnation's movies are even more eclectic and unpredictable, and include several new categories such as revivals.)
Both The Screening Room and The Cabot aren't focused on making significant profits from their movies (although they don't want to lose lots of money either:-), so they can be more adventurous than many theaters. But they still may not be as consistently adventurous as I would wish, and previously (and maybe again) there was more than a little duplication.
In Gloucester, the Cape Ann Community Cinema consistently screens uncommon movies in their theater space where everyone sits on couches rather than in the traditional individual seats. While they mainly show new movies, they show a few oldies -and even non-commercial private collections- too.
The local one-off Hollywood Hits theater occupies a building that was formerly a theater chain multiplex, and so has seven screens. At first they seem like just another second-run or kids theater. But they in fact program a lot of uncommon movies (possibly because of their hunger for material to fill all their screens? or to appeal to as many different audiences as possible?). Things I've seen there include such widely variable and not widely distributed movies as The Tree of Life, Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing, Citizenfour, The Homesman and Inherent Vice. Once in a while a movie stays there a very long time, occasionally giving me the opportunity -even weeks after it's left other theaters- to see repeatedly things like Ponyo, Birdman, and Into the Woods.
But now we have something even better than another full-time "art‑house", a new idea promulgated by a movie loving theater owner. Cinema Salem has installed 18 cushy seats, a good screen about the height of a person and a ceiling-mounted computer projector and a good sound system, and some high end VideoDisc (Blu-ray/DVD) gear into a spare nook which they now call their Screening Room. So the theater retained its three fairly conventional screens and now also has a fourth "art‑house" screen. They show unusual movies on that screen, often a newly but not widely released film, sometimes a VideoDisc that's publicly available but not well known, occasionally a one‑off VideoDisc they got from the filmmaker. Because they show only movies distributed on VideoDisc on that screen, while most of the other theaters still emphasize movies distributed conventionally (which currently means the DCP digital format, often on something like a computer hard drive), the range of movies available to me has been wider. (Some -but not all- movies are distributed in both formats.)
To summarize the situation, instead of the whole thing becoming an art‑house theater, only one portion of their theater became an art‑house screen. What's revolutionary is the idea that a theater doesn't need to be either all or none but can also be some.
Unfortunately few others seemed to immediately take to this new screen like I did. Fortunately the theater persisted while audiences built very slowly —it took a couple years to have more than one person (me:-) in that nook most of the time. They've shifted their programming somewhat, from almost entirely esoteric films to a mixture of esoteric films, horror/slasher films, cult and niche films, and a few offbeat films of other genres.
However all these theaters and screens feel somewhat precarious to me because of the lack of large audiences.
(Obviously, this description of movie distribution patterns in the U.S. may not match what happens elsewhere.)
The first thing one notices about the way movies are distributed to theaters is just how variable it is. The one size fits all days are gone. Furthermore, the old pattern of double-bills with an A movie and a B movie is long gone. Even the pattern of movies first opening simultaneously in several First-Run (usually Central-City) theaters, then later becoming available at staggered times in Second-Run (usually Suburban) theaters has been so heavily modified it effectively no longer exists.
And the second thing one notices about the way movies are distributed to theaters is it's always shifting. Ongoing competition amongst distribution companies, a conscious effort to continually experiment and innovate, and new individuals in marketing who want to make their mark continually stir the pot. Figuring out every last detail isn't useful because it will change next month anyway. Nevertheless some broad pattern outlines can be described:
One pattern is for a movie to open wide, appearing simultaneously all at once on many many (sometimes in the neighborhood of two thousand) screens. Such openings may be prepared by a mega-blitz of advertising, stories in movie magazines, trailers, social media campaigns, and so forth, (this is typical of expected blockbusters); by somewhat less heavy advance buzz generation; or by only a light pre-release marketing campaign. (Once in a while the preparatory campaign is fairly small overall, yet quite large in one particular sector, for example social media.) Occasional experience has shown that wide openings do not work at all when there is virtually no advance advertising. (Even medium amounts of advance advertising usually don't work in those cases where the generated advance buzz turns out to be awfully mixed.)
A second pattern is for a movie to open limited (sometimes initially only on a very few screens in major urban areas), then to expand their opening to more and more screens in the next several weeks. In highly successful cases, such movies may eventually show on as many screens as a movie that opened wide ...but it may take more than a month to do it. Even so the movie will eventually show everywhere pretty much simultaneously, and will finish up everywhere at pretty much the same time. Movies very seldom come around again or reappear at a different theater months later. (Smaller independent art‑house films are sometimes an exception to this rule of showing exactly simultaneously, simply because their target theaters often have so much less scheduling flexibility. Showings of those movies at different theaters will sometimes be scheduled a few weeks apart.)
These two broad patterns and their variations work pretty well for the majority of large theatrical releases. There are two notable issues though: First, blockbuster candidates must always be pre-selected to be blessed with very large marketing budgets; these days it's almost impossible for a movie to have a less splashy release yet nevertheless eventually reach blockbuster status simply because of unexpectedly very high audience resonance. And second, movies in some brand new style different from anything that's come before before often get lost. If some marketer figures out how to advertise and sell the new movie, all is well; but if not, it may simply disappear even though it would have done much better if it had been promoted right. (Once in a while the movie later becomes a cult hit, but not anywhere near often enough to offset the original problem of getting lost.)
These two patterns are also inconsistent with the old idea of word of mouth taking something like a week. Most movies will have already left theaters by the time one hears a first-hand report in a face-to-face interaction with one's neighbor or friend, then schedules an outing of one's own. But word‑of‑mouth moves differently and much more rapidly these days. Ever notice just how many of the folks in a theater audience seem to be sending some sort of text message on their cellphone right after the movie (maybe even as soon as when the end credits start to roll)? Propagation of viewer opinion is so fast that what the Friday night audience thinks will affect the attendance Saturday and Sunday, possibly significantly skewing the opening weekend gross. That's why typically no amount of advertising can overcome a stinker of a movie for even just the first weekend.
A third pattern is for a movie to open by showing at various film festivals. Typically a film gets only one or a few screenings at each festival, and multiple festivals may be months apart. The film may eventually go on in either one of two principal directions: i] hit theaters more conventionally in a few more months, or ii] build buzz among the rather specialized audiences spearheaded by the film aficionados at film festivals and use it to launch a small theatrical release. Both forks usually rely on getting picked up in a deal with a distribution company. If no theatrical distribution deal is offered, the movie may move to other distribution channels, such as website, Youtube, personal connections, or DVD; independent theatrical distribution is unlikely (but not completely unheard of).
Together these patterns work fairly well for most larger theatrical releases. Sometimes though a movie is intended for a much smaller specialized audience that frequents particular theaters, and was produced much less expensively so it can make money even with the much smaller distribution. Different small distribution companies tend to each specialize in a particular genre of movies, so much so that seeing the name of a particular distribution company can tell as much about the movie as seeing the name of a well-known director. My own experience is that currently the publicity for this kind of distribution simply does not work reliably. The size of the paying audience for a movie can easily vary by tens of times for no obvious reason. Worse, there seems to be very little theaters can do about it. I suspect this situation drives them nuts.
For most of a century, ever since movies began, they were both distributed on and projected from film (initially 16 millimeters wide, then 35 millimeters wide). If you hung around a theater at program changeover, you'd notice many reels of film being bundled together and mailed. And if you peeked into the little room at the top back of the theater, you'd see a machine with a very bright light, a big fancy lens, and a bunch of synchronized gear wheels.
Around 1998/2000 the technology for digital distribution and projection appeared and began to mature. Digital means the images are broken up into computer-style ones and zeros, which are then somehow distributed to theaters and projected on the screen (somewhat like the familiar Youtube video clips, but much bigger and fancier). It's fairly easy technically to extend digital projection to include polarized 3D projection too, so 3D also took off. The worldwide changeover to digital distribution and projection (which required theaters to completely replace their projection equipment) proceeded fairly rapidly. The changeover speeded up even more after many studios and distributors forced the issue by announcing they would no longer distribute film at all after the end of 2013.
Penetration of the new digital distribution and projection is very high in the U.S (it's even higher in the U.K.). For example it's virtually complete here in eastern Massachusetts - recently Christopher Nolan's Interstellar was made available in many formats including 35mm film, and theaters who could show film were given preference. In the whole northeast corner of Massachusetts, all the way from Boston to the New Hampshire state line, there was only one theater that still had the option of projecting film.
Digital distribution is typically done in advance, but can also be done every showing as needed. Currently typically once in advance distribution is done by mailing around either i] something like a computer hard drive or ii] some sort of VideoDisc (as needed distribution would be done by some combination of satellite and fiber-optic cable communications). As the goal of doing once in advance distribution by some combination of satellite and fiber-optic cable is reached by more and more theaters, more and more movies will be distributed without mailing around anything at all (not even very small packages).
Digital movies are distributed in one or the other of two formats:
In practice, the common 2K resolution is very roughly the equivalent of 35mm film (maybe better or maybe worse, depending on things like the quality of projector lens your theater had previously). The 4K resolution -when you can actually find it- is in practice superior to 35mm film. (Theoretically 35mm film's resolution is probably even higher than the equivalent of 4K, but that's hardly ever what actually makes it onto the screen.)
It can only be read meaningfully together with the right key, which is communicated separately (often by email). Mere physical possession but without the right key is of no use.
Even this slightly lower resolution is completely indistinguishable on screens up to eight feet high, barely perceptible on screens fifteen feet high, and minor even on screens well over twenty feet high.
Simple physical possession of the VideoDisc is all that matters ...so the discs are numbered and tracked very carefully.
The precise meaning of digital varies. For example— Some sources use digital to refer to any and all formats that are not film/analog, including formats that have little or nothing to do with theaters; while other sources use digital to refer specifically and only to the DCP format.
Some notes about digital resolutions such as 4K—
Initially I expected that hanging around theaters enough would put me in touch with some very movie-literate people, and that I would learn quite a bit from chatting people up in the lobby before or after the show, and even from overheard conversations. Unfortunately that expectation turned out to be naive. My experience has been the current level of movie literacy in the U.S. is very low. There are a whole lot of people in Metro‑Boston, so many that it initially seemed reasonable to me that at least a few of them would be movie buffs. But something as seemingly simple as finding a person who can either agree with or disagree with the review posted on the theater's bulletin board of the movie they just watched five minutes ago is virtually impossible. Too often the theater's program director is the only person in the whole place who can actually say much of anything about a movie ...and they seldom feel free to say a whole lot to me.
Even well-publicized winners like the original Argentinian The Secret in Their Eyes, In a Better World, and the animated The Secret of Kells, had very sparse audiences, with most of the theater seats remaining empty. What felt to me like mainstream films such as Ondine and The Secret Life of Words were poorly attended. Likewise much-talked-about worldwide events such as I Am Love or the almost fully restored version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (many months before it was available for home viewing) were similarly poorly attended. And the stylized somewhat unexpected hit of the South‑by‑Southwest festival Cold Weather was poorly attended too. Largely -but not entirely- strong films like the animated Illusionist or the animated Mia and the Migoo, which I expected to be of considerable interest to cinephiles, drew almost no one at all. I find it disconcerting that even with more than a million people in the North Shore (north of Boston) area, only a few handfuls show up to see an intriguing movie.
Widely publicized films like Tiny Furniture were only a little better attended. Likewise the more challenging film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives had a little bigger audience ...but then it was almost universally shrugged off by the viewers that clearly didn't "get it" even a little bit. And of even the few tens of people who showed up to watch The Tree of Life with me, about a third walked out of the theater mid‑film. I'm not a film snob (at least I don't think so:-), as evidenced by my inability to even carry on a conversation with a real cinephile. But the rather high frequency of RottenTomatoes entries with wildly divergent critics and audience ratings is disturbing. And I can't help feeling something's amiss when I watch a movie inspired by Jaques Tati, and nobody in the whole theater laughs even once.