Are movie theatres a thing of the past and new media the way of the future?

The worst summer box office numbers in more than a decade have movie insiders grappling with how to bring audiences in, and one professor believes the future of film lies in augmented reality and virtual reality.

While cinemas struggle to fill their seats, TIFF experiments with virtual reality

TIFF's Bell VR Theatre is screening six virtual reality short films. (Keith Burgess/CBC News)

The traditional movie watching experience is alive and well at TIFF. You still have the big screens, the surround-sound system and the popcorn to feed the masses, but there are signs that the film watching experience is moving in a new direction. 

Just look at the six virtual-reality short films being screened at the Bell VR Theatre.

"It's certainly a new exciting medium," said Brandon Oldenburg, who curated the films.

While the newest version of the film It plays on the big screen, a short film of the Stephen King original in virtual reality is being screened here. 

Oldenburg, who won an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film in 2012, is also walking viewers through his new short Manifest 99, a train ride through the afterlife. 

Brandon Oldenburg, won the 2012 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film for the Fantastic Flying Books. (Keith Burgess)

"As a director, I like to think about what's going to make you feel like you have a place and a role in the narrative because you're not just a fly on the wall. You have opportunities to really play a role in the story," Olderburg told CBC Toronto. 

It's a heightened experience for an audience that currently is failing to fill the seats at mainstream theatres. 

According to Box Office MOJO, the summer box office was nearly $3.7 billion US, the lowest in more than a decade, and the lowest attendance rate since 1992.

'A time to be braver'

While the film industry is flailing the demand for TV is growing.

"If you were to analyze all the different types of projects that are in Ontario right now, 85 to 90 per cent of them are episodic or TV-series based," said Jim Mirkopoulos, the vice president of Cinespace Film Studios. 

"The feature-film shift has already happened. Hollywood is producing less feature films," he said. 

Caitlin Fisher, a professor of cinema and media studies at York University, has this advice for Hollywood studios, "It might be a time to be braver." 

Caitlin Fisher, a professor of cinema and media studies at York University, says when it comes to traditional films in movie theatres, 'I hear a lot of students say this is tired.' (Keith Burgess/CBC News)

She's working with her students on story telling that taps into technology, including gaming, virtual reality and augmented reality.

Fisher said at the moment she doesn't think traditional cinema will be displaced but she does see a future filled with "screens everywhere, new viewing situations, looking at the power of virtual reality. All of these push cinema into new directions."

Meanwhile, another professor at the university is working on large-format projections that move past square screens, to play films on buildings and different shapes and allowing audiences to interact on their phones.

Student Kori Moncur says his interest in film keeps him going to the theatre but he thinks the future will lie in "more interactive" and "on-demand consumption."

"That sort of Netflix culture of being able to choose when you go and not have to be lining up" is what audiences will gravitate to, Moncur said. 

But TIFF's artistic director Cameron Bailey is still betting on the film festival and its ability to keep drawing in audiences. 

"I watch films in many different ways. I also watch them at home. I also watch them on planes," Bailey told CBC Toronto.

"There is still something that is irreplaceable about the surprise, the sense of discovery you get from watching a film at a festival."