On its opening weekend, I managed to snag a last-minute ticket to a sold-out IMAX screening of James Cameron’s Avatar. Like many moviegoers, I was overwhelmed by the visuals and underwhelmed by the story. The experience also left me with nausea, migraines and a temporary loss of peripheral vision, but in a way I was luckythe theater in downtown Raleigh was sold out for all screenings over the next few days.

The spectacle of Avatar helped lead the 2009 box office to a record $10.6-billion year, even with an economic recession and many fans illegally downloading films such as Star Trek off the Internet. But Avatar‘s greatest achievement might be that its super-size 3-D experience has made it the kind of film people have to see in theaters, as opposed to waiting for DVDs and on demand.

But while blockbusters such as Avatar and the critically lambasted Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen have broken records, art house cinema faced a particularly tough year in 2009. In the Triangle, Chapel Hill’s venerable Varsity Theater closed earlier this year, only to reopen with an emphasis on second-run titles. The Galaxy Cinema in Cary has combined its emphasis on independent films with mainstream titles like Star Trek.

And the distribution model for smaller films has changed to the point that not only were there no art house hits such as Slumdog Millionaire, but smaller local theaters might have lost the ability to run films such as Up in the Air before they hit the multiplexes.

Jim Carl, executive director of Durham’s Carolina Theatre, says “there is a huge divide in 2009 between art house cinema, compared to 10 years ago, and mainstream, commercial cinema.” He laments how many smaller distributors, such as Paramount Vantage, Fox Searchlight, Miramax and New Yorker Films, on which the Carolina used to rely, have either closed or shrunken to a shadow of their former selves.

Carl calls 2009 “The hardest, most difficult year for art house theaters I’ve seen in the 15 years I’ve been in the business.”

“I don’t know if the bubble has burst on art house theaters, and if we’re going to be seeing a lot of closings in the next few years,” he says. “I just don’t know.”

Bruce Stone of the Chelsea Theater in Chapel Hill has already taken steps, selling off the Varsity and publicly stating that he’s looking to sell the Chelsea. Still, he doesn’t cite 2009 as being particularly bad for the business. He feels it was “maybe down a little bit” but is reluctant to commit to a statement without examining the numbers.

But he does echo Carl’s feelings about distribution. In the early 1990s, he says, the independent film scene exploded after the critical and popular success of such films as Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Pulp Fiction. “Everyone said, ‘Oh, this is a trend, and we should have all these specialized divisions to release these small films,’ and then they didn’t have breakout hits, and started shrinking and disappearing,” Stone says. “It’s a cycle, and we appear to be on the down end of that cycle right now.”

As Stone puts it, local theaters are “slaves to distribution.” He and Carl both complain about Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air. Reitman’s previous films, Thank You For Smoking and Juno, were both art house hits, and Up in the Air was made with a similar audience in mind.

However, Up in the Air was a release by Paramount Studios, which folded its specialty division, Paramount Vantage, into the parent studio in 2008. As a result, the film went from a limited release in major cities to a wide release in multiplexes just before Christmas, instead of first being introduced in smaller theaters, such as the Chelsea.

“There was a day when we would probably have played that, but Big Paramount has it, and it has to go to the multiplexes,” says Stone, who adds that the Chelsea was also denied the low-budget hit Precious. (He calls Chelsea getting Clint Eastwood’s Invictus “a fluke.”)

On Up in the Air, Carl says “there seems to be a rush by the major studios to get films out as fast as possible so they can get it on DVD, where the real money is.”

He has a point. According to a study by the National Association of Theater Owners (yes, NATO), the window between the theatrical and DVD release of a film is four months and 13 days. Those who don’t want to spend the time and gasoline heading to a movie theater can enjoy a great deal of convenience if they just wait for the DVD. If you just want to watch the film without owning it, you don’t even need to go to a video storejust pop it into your Netflix queue, or impulse-rent it from a Redbox kiosk at the Harris Teeter. Or you can stream it through Netflix or on demand. It’s an increasingly popular practice that has already knocked a number of local video stores out of the market.

If you want to own the film, Amazon, Target and Wal-Mart have slashed preorder prices for new releases down to as low as $9.98. An evening movie ticket at most local theaters range from $8 to $9.50, so owning the film costs only a little more than seeing it once. And if you’re watching the film with your family, it becomes significantly cheaper.

But the ease of home viewing does deny one key aspect of the moviegoing experience: going to the movie. “I think when you watch a film it should just be you and the film and the audience around you in a dark room,” Stone says. “I don’t like to sit at home, where you have traffic out frontit just diminishes the experience for me.”

Many moviegoers agree, but what seems to be the big draw for many films is spectacle. Saying action movies and escapist fare are popular is old hat, but major studios have put a greater and greater emphasis on big-screen gimmicks, such as IMAX and, more recently, RealD Cinema, the digital projection system that uses a technology called circular polarization to aggressively convince viewers that they’re seeing 3-D (and in the case of my experience with Avatar, mess with our heads).

This past year has seen a number of major studios and directors championing the RealD. experience. Disney Feature Animation and DreamWorks Animation released animated films in RealDincluding Up and Monsters vs. Aliens (but not The Princess and the Frog)but the format was also used for the old-school horror movies My Bloody Valentine and The Final Destination. Next year will see 3-D versions of everything from the new Toy Story to the new Friday the 13th and Saw.

In some ways, the current climate of cinema is reminiscent of the situation in the 1950s. After television became a popular medium, studios realized they needed to offer moviegoers something they couldn’t see if they just stayed at home. The result was everything from massive Roman epics in CinemaScope to gimmicky monster movies in 3-D.

“The studios are trying to lure people back to theaters with things they can’t have at home on their TVs or computers or iPods,” Carl says. “That’s great for big commercial films but not for the art houses. We can’t afford those kinds of projectors, and I don’t think there’s a lot of art house films with that kind of spectacle anyway.”

Artistically, television might have overtaken film; shows such as Mad Men and The Wire offer a long-form, complex narrative that is absent from many theatrical releases. New York magazine film critic David Edelstein recently admitted television has “left movies behind as a narrative medium.”

Carl agrees with this to a pointhe expresses disdain for many of the films released this year, and bewilderment that the Oscars will include 10 nominees for Best Picture. Sherlock Holmes, he said, caused him to fall asleep in the theater. “Contemporary TV is very good right now,” he says. “It’s hard to draw (an audience) away from television because there are so many good series on right now.”

He cites the award winning but box-office-poor The Hurt Locker as the kind of story that plays better on television than in theaters. “My suspicion is that in the current economy, if you have $10 to see a film, you don’t want to spend it on a small, intimate drama,” Carl says. “You want spectacle. You want to see things like Avatar.”

One way some theaters are competing with multiplexes and TV is with nostalgia. The Carolina does numerous revival screenings and festivals throughout the year, while the reopened Varsity has specialized in older films, such as The Wizard of Oz, over the holidays.

Paul Shareshian, owner of the revived Varsity, says that the theater’s been getting a strong local crowd over the holidays with UNC-Chapel Hill students out of town. “We’ve really been getting the town in here, which is interesting to see,” he says. He believes that the theater will be able to combine older screenings with newer films after the holidays: “I think once we get the college students back, we’ll be able to accommodate both.”

In Raleigh, the local crowd has also proven a boon to art house theaters. Denver Hill, general manager of the Colony Theatre, says the Colony has enjoyed success both from revival series like Cool Classics and Cinema Overdrive and from newer films, such as (500) Days of Summer and The Young Victoria. He credits this in part to long-term loyalty. “We still have regulars from the last 10 years coming here,” he says. “If we get a good movie, our audience is savvy enough to pick up on it.” Still, he wishes that the area was a greater draw for small films with limited distribution. “I’d like to see Raleigh become a bigger market, so we can get more of these challenging films in the area.”

Even if the future does hold a sea change for the way people see movies, it’s unlikely that art house fare will ever die. “I think there will be small, independent films still produced, obviously,” Shareshian says, “but the way they find their way into theaters across the country might be done a little differently.”

Even Carl cites such emerging distributors as Overlook and Apparition Films as potential successors to Miramax and their ilk. “There are new, small distributors emerging, and they’re having success,” Carl says. “We really need them even more than any time in the past. Maybe the distributors will have some great films for us next year. There’s always 2010.”

True enough. And maybe there will be a new film that will do for art houses a small fraction of what Avatar did for IMAX. One Slumdog might be all it takes.