When "August: Osage County" came out in movie theaters in December, Karen Freedman didn't have to fight the holiday crowds to see Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. Nor did she have to pre-order a DVD and wait.
Freedman watched the movie settled into one of 16 reclining, ultra-suede red chairs in her recently-built home theater, with a top-of-the-line projector, a giant screen, gold-plated sconces and neat piles of candy boxes hidden behind a wall panel.
"It adds to the excitement," she said of being able to play a new film from a premium service that makes it available to home subscribers at the same time it debuts in commercial multiplexes. "We invite friends over for movie nights."
The Super Bowl and shows like the Academy Awards tend to spur home-theater upgrades; this year, there also was the winter Olympics. And it helps that the real estate market, along with the demand for pricey new toys, is on the rise again.
"It's an incredibly cool time to be in the home-theater business," said Dave Pedigo, a director at the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association, whose members design and install home theaters that can cost millions of dollars. "We made it through the storm, which was the housing market crash."
Now, he said, "We're getting to the point of another series of breakthroughs that will make watching a movie in your home unlike anything you've ever experienced."
Here are some of the latest ways that well-heeled film buffs, sports fiends and others are tricking out their home theaters and media rooms.
IMAX IN YOUR HOME
Mega-movie giant IMAX Corp. installed its first signature curved, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling screen in a home theater in Los Angeles in November.
The cutting-edge system, including 4K ultra high definition technology - four times more crisp than high definition, or HD - and laser-aligned surround sound, starts at $2 million.
As in its commercial theaters, The IMAX Private Theater uses a high-resolution, dual-projection system to accommodate 3D. The company says the audio system collects data from individual channels for daily, automatic calibrations.
IMAX screens in movie theaters go up to 118 feet wide and 82 feet tall. For its home theaters, a 20-foot-wide screen is required, and the space must be able to accommodate at least two projectors that are 5 feet tall, 21/2 feet wide and 4 feet deep in a separate area from the screening room, said Rob Lister, chief business development officer for IMAX.
Some homeowners may erect a separate building specifically for the home theater, as was the case with the one installed in November. But typically, there's no space crunch.
"We're catering to a fairly elite crowd who generally do have enough space within their existing home - or they're in the process of building a new home," Lister said.
The company works with architects and interior designers and decorators - and clients have their own demands. Lister said a "culinary aficionado" in Arizona wanted to be able to see his IMAX screen while cooking. "We have literally designed a wall that descends into the floor and can be lowered when he's in his kitchen, so he can look into his theater from across the house," Lister said.
A major impetus for creating IMAX home theaters was the company's "big deal" screening room in Santa Monica, where director James Cameron and other major movie makers go to screen their films and make adjustments to remaster them into the IMAX format.
"It was really in there we had that creative spark - why can't we create something like this for somebody's home?" Lister said.
YOUR OWN FIRST-RUN MOVIE
The Prima Cinema service makes first-run movies available in private homes on opening weekend.
Prima's technology alone costs $35,000 to install. That's about $5,000 to $10,000 more than the typical cost of an entire home theater.
Prima insists that homeowners have certain accouterments, including a sophisticated projector and at least a 100-inch screen. The movies don't come cheap. Prima Cinema charges $500 for each viewing. Or, for a 3D film, $600.
So far, Prima has lined up Universal and Paramount for distribution of first-run releases, and says it has about half the mainstream content coming out of Hollywood through a variety of smaller studios, with more deals in the works. The company declined to provide additional names.
Prima CEO Jason Pang said executives, entrepreneurs, heads of investment funds and sports team owners make up most of Prima's clientele; others include celebrities and pro athletes.
Karen and Jeffrey Freedman spent about $500,000 last year to join two rooms in their 7,000-square-foot, five-bedroom Brentwood, Calif., home, structurally reinforce the new space and build their soundproof theater. That included installing the Prima technology, which had a soft rollout in 2012 before its official launch in September.
The Freedman's theater was designed by VIA and Paradise Theater. Karen Freedman is an asset manager for a commercial real estate firm; Jeffrey Freedman is an entertainment industry executive. They have four children: A 3-month-old girl, two 12-year-old boys and a 14-year-old boy.
The couple closely monitors upcoming releases and plans catered events and guest lists. "We make an evening out of it," Karen Freedman said.
Pang likened spending $500 to see a first-run movie at home on opening weekend to taking the family out to a football game or a concert. Or even leaving the kids at home, but paying for a babysitter, a restaurant, a good bottle of wine and reserved seats at the multiplex.
By doing all that, he quoted a client as saying, "I'm over $500 bucks for the night."
MILLION-DOLLAR HOME THEATERS
Projector technology has made another generational leap, said Jason Voorhees, president of Cantara, a home theater technology-design firm in Costa Mesa, Calif.
"We are now seeing relatively affordable projectors in the $6,000 to $9,000 range that are about 30 percent brighter and have better picture quality than ever before.
"The physical size of the units have become smaller as well," he said. "This enables larger screen sizes in dedicated theater rooms, and projection in places of the house that were impractical or very expensive in the past, such as the family room."
The industry also is moving to 4K ultra high-definition, which delivers eight million pixels compared to regular HD's two million pixels. Whether you've got a panel of glass on the wall or a projector behind your head, 4K delivers even finer detail.
"There's nothing to watch that's in 4K," Voorhees said. "But we're putting these projectors in that will be able to accommodate 4K in the future. We're engineering it into our systems now."
Among Cantara's most high-profile projects: A $4.3 million Orange County, Calif., home theater the owner dubbed Lady Luck, with 45 seats and a balcony. Movies play on an 18-foot wide, curved screen that accommodates 3D projection. The decor, by Slayman Cinema in Laguna Beach, Calif., includes a lobby, marquee and ticket booth.
Another Orange County company, Audio Images of Tustin, Calif., created Cinema Paradiso, a home theater inspired by the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris. The decor was by designer Theo Kalomirakis, author of the book, "Great Escapes: New Designs for Home Theaters." Total cost of the theater: Just under $3 million.
That theater includes an audio system by Concertino, allowing the reproduction of acoustics systems from venues around the world.
"If you want to be at the Met, no problem," said Mark Ontiveros, president and head engineer at Audio Images. "(Almost) any major concert hall."
The seats include a D-Box motion system, technology allowing them to move in perfect synch with the action on the screen. The motion effects are programmed uniquely for each movie and sent to the seats.
"This isn't some little butt kicker thing they sew into the chair," Ontiveros said. "It adds a fourth dimension to the entire presentation."
UPDATING THE MEDIA ROOM
Don't have the bank account for a 45-seat theater or one evoking an opera house?
Maybe your media room could use an upgrade.
While the biggest home theaters use projectors, just like at the multiplex, the devices often are limited to window-less rooms to keep the area dark enough to see details on the screen.
Vizio, a consumer electronics company, says it's changing that requirement.
The company announced that it's coming out with an ultra high-definition, 120-inch LED TV that will raise the bar in visual and audio technology.
TVs in general are getting supersized.
"Three or four years ago, a 55-inch TV was considered huge. Today we consider a 55-inch TV to be medium-sized," said Matt McRae, Vizio's chief technology officer. "At some point, a 60- or 70-inch TV is going to be considered that medium size."
The new Vizio TV will need compatible ultra high-definition programming, not widely available yet. The company has not set a price.
Looking to the future, Pedigo, of the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association, expects several technologies to revolutionize TV viewing: curved screens, 4K and OLED (organic light emitting diode - offering razor sharp colors and jet blacks), and a new standard of surround sound with significantly more speakers.
"It will be good enough to where you won't have to have the gimmicky 3D glasses," he said. "We're getting to a point where you won't be able to distinguish whether it's an image or real life."