Movies try new tactics in battle with TV
The future of television has arrived - satellite transmissions, cable hookups , 100 channels to choose from. But how about the movies? Can they compete with all that hardware? Can a 90-year-old art survive the age of high technology?
Many experts say yes, though big changes may be in store. Slowly, the film industry is changing its approach and its image, hoping to keep its revenues intact as audiences are vigorously wooed by TV's electronic revolution.
Some trends are already visible:
* Bigger screens, bigger projectors, bigger pictures. Major distributors are releasing more films in 70-mm prints, and audiences are responding favorably to the larger, clearer images. Such hits as ''E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial'' and ''Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan'' blasted off with 70-mm showings in many cities, and some less-successful pictures - ''Annie,'' for example - have sold far more tickets in 70-mm theaters than in conventional 35-mm houses.
* More gimmicks. Movies in 3-D, a failed experiment of the 1950s, are making a comeback. Advertisements for a current horror film mention its 3-D format twice as often - and in type twice as large - as the picture's title. Stereo soundtracks are also a proven draw, especially with younger viewers.
* Larger theaters. According to the entertainment newspaper Variety, ''minicinemas'' - averaging 150 seats - are on the way out. After 10 years of ''small is beautiful,'' exhibitors are charting a reverse course, beginning a new wave of 500-seat theater construction. Hopes are that ''upgrading the moviegoing environment'' will divert patrons from their home TV screens.
* More luxurious theaters. A newly refurbished Chicago moviehouse, the Deerpath 2, reportedly sets a new standard for theater design - boasting perfect sightlines, a lavish refreshment stand, state-of-the-art seats, and cable-TV sets in the lobby for patrons bored with the main attraction. Also on hand is a satellite dish, available for ''teleconferencing'' during hours when films are not on view. Industry observers are closely watching audience reaction to these posh surroundings.
* Fewer shopping-mall theaters. The 1970s love affair between theater owners and shopping-mall developers has waned, says Variety, largely due to high interest rates. As shopping-center growth slows, film exhibitors are turning to more traditional sites, or expanding their present facilities by adding more screens. The result could be more ''multiplex'' cinemas and freestanding theater buildings.
* More movies aimed specifically at young spectators. From the hit ''E.T.'' to the kinetic ''Tron,'' films are diving straight for the attention - and the wallets - of viewers under 25 years old. Young people, it is felt, have more disposable cash than their parents; are less averse to leaving home for entertainment; and still relish the communal aspect of moviegoing. Indeed, some producers and directors have virtually written off the adult audience, while others regard it as an attractive but marginal source of income.
Will the new trends and experiments pay off? While it's too early to tell, the most promising development is the stress on 70-mm prints. Variety calculates that the current ''Star Trek'' sequel has earned about 20 percent of its gross at only 4 percent of its theaters - all showing the film in 70-mm. Similarly, the musical ''Annie'' has earned up to one-fifth of its revenues at a mere 42 theaters, all using the splashy big-screen format.
Given such figures, the major studios are gearing up for increased 70-mm distribution, and many exhibitors are investing in the special equipment needed for wide-gauge projection. Naturally, such hits as ''E.T.'' and ''Rocky III'' (both released widely in 70-mm prints) make vivid advertisements for the format. The scramble toward sharper images and bigger screens also jibes with current Hollywood wisdom: that films, to survive, must become ''events'' rather than mere ''entertainments.'' The same attitude underlies the boom in stereo soundtracks, the wave of ''special effects'' movies, and the kind of elaborate ''tie-in'' campaign that is busily linking ''E.T.'' with every product from bicycles to underwear. Not to mention the otherwise inexplicable revival of a forlorn gimmick like 3-D.
As much as Hollywood wants to surmount the challenge of pay TV and video cassettes, not all its ploys will work. Audiences, for example, are not flocking to Chicago's ritzy Deerpath 2 theater, presumably because many programs there - including such clinkers as ''Pennies From Heaven'' and ''Night Crossing'' - have simply not been worth the price of admission. Most informed observers agree that artistry as well as technology will be called for if the movies are to stay in business. If both are not forthcoming, Hollywood could find itself stalled in its present pattern of a few blockbusters each year, surrounded by an increasingly motley crowd of aesthetic and financial losers.