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Monday, January 21, 2013

Movie Theaters: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Examining Today's Theatrical Experience

By Chris Sabga

Even now, in the age of big screen HDTVs, amazing home sound systems, and convenient vending machine rentals, nothing can replace the magic of the movie theater experience. Unfortunately, inconsiderate audiences – and the theaters themselves – seem to be going out of their way to keep people at home. Will movie theaters as we know them even exist in twenty years? I hope so, but I sometimes wonder.

There are many problems but very few solutions:

1. Shut The **** Up: This is far from a new issue, but it seems worse than ever today. While it would be easy to blame teenagers and go on a crotchety rant about the lack of manners in today's society, that isn't really a fair or accurate assessment. The fact is: excessive, inappropriate diarrhea of the mouth at the wrong time and place plagues people of all ages – the young, the old, and adults in general who really should know better.

2. Turn Off Your Damn Cell Phone: There is nothing more distracting during a movie than the bright light of a cell phone screen or the loud "whispers" of people carrying on a conversation of their own over the phone while the characters on-screen are speaking. It's like a bad DVD commentary track, except in this case, they're not even discussing the film itself. Again, the conventional wisdom would be to blame this one on teenagers and their newfangled gadgets, but "iDiocy" doesn't have an age limit. At one screening I attended, a 40-something father chattered away on his phone while his young child played on a large tablet for the full duration of the film. After it was over, I overheard the man bragging that he snuck in without buying a ticket. What the hell were either of them doing there in the first place? Can anything actually done though? Jamming the signal of a cell phone, if even possible, would likely be a legal nightmare for movie theaters and cause a major backlash from its dwindling base of consumers. Maybe I'll just invest in a boomerang and use it knock the cell phones out of everyone's hands. Wouldn't that be nice?

3. Poor Projection and Unnecessary Malfunctions: I won't pretend to have intimate knowledge of the technical odds and ends necessary for beaming a movie onto the silver screen. But it doesn't matter because it still needs to be done – and done properly. Why pay for "the movie theater experience" and accept anything less? From movies that are shown off-center or cut-off in some way to bad or damaged screens and improperly-drawn curtains that partially block the view, there are a multitude of issues to contend with. I don't care if it's as easy as 1+1 or as difficult as E = mc2, movie theaters are obligated to get it right! Yes, sometimes mistakes are unavoidable and genuinely no one's fault, but these sorts of errors are far too commonplace to be excused away as ordinary technical glitches.

4. Pricing: Ticket prices are ridiculous and the concession stand is even worse. Supposedly, food and drinks are how these theaters really make their money – and with a captive audience already there to see the movie, I can hardly blame the owners for charging what they can get away with on popcorn, candy, and soda. Still, they have to realize that more and more people are sneaking in their own food – if they even go at all. I don't know what the solution is, but something has to change or we may not even have theaters in the future to complain about.

5. Workers With Flashlights: What is the purpose of this? Two or three times during any given movie, a theater employee will come in with a flashlight or some sort of annoying device and walk up and down the aisles. Why? Do they really expect to catch people who have brought their own food in or haven't purchased a ticket? (If that's even the reason.) I'm sure there's some explanation for this irritating occurrence, but whatever it is, it doesn't benefit the consumer in any way.

Bottom Line: Going to the movies is an investment. It requires time and money, and in many cases, planning. Can you blame anyone for choosing to watch a DVD or Blu-Ray instead, or worse, looking for ways to pirate the latest blockbuster? It's simpler than you think.

To be fair though, as easy as it is to feel nostalgic about the movie theaters of our childhood, things are actually better than ever now in many ways.

1. Stadium Seating: How did we ever live without this? I can vividly remember being a child and having the view in front of me blocked by someone much taller. It was no fun, and it happened all the time. That problem has virtually been eliminated in many of today's theaters.

2. Luxury Seating and Accommodations: Only certain theaters offer these amenities, and one can certainly argue that it's a giant waste of money. Nevertheless, there is something to be said for sitting on a comfortable "couch" and eating real food and drinking wine – all while Arnold Schwarzenegger blasts baddies and warns everyone that he'll be back.

3. Bigger Screens, Better Picture and Sound, and IMAX: Seeing a movie on the silver screen has always seemed amazing, no matter the era. While the gap may not be quite as large today with the advent of home theater, improvements have still been made. Not everyone has access to IMAX, but even the neighborhood theater will usually have bigger digital screens with better picture quality and surround sound.

4. Budget Theaters: Don't expect any of the perks listed above, but it's a lot easier to forgive imperfection when tickets only cost between $3 and $5 (and in the case of my local budget theater, as low as a buck on Tuesdays). Even better, these theaters will often take a chance on obscure arthouse or independent films deemed too "risky" by the big chains. A few of my favorite movies each year end up being screened only at "the $4 place."

Bottom Line: There's still a lot to like about today's movie theater experience. No matter what, it will always be magical to me – my special place, as the main character in "Hugo" said.

"Any man, woman, child could buy their ticket, walk right in. Here they'd be, here we'd be. 'Yes sir, yes ma'am. Enjoy the show.' And in they'd come entering a palace, like in a dream, like in heaven. Maybe you had worries and problems out there, but once you came through those doors, they didn't matter anymore. And you know why? Chaplin, that's why. And Keaton and Lloyd. Garbo, Gable, and Lombard, and Jimmy Stewart and Jimmy Cagney. Fred and Ginger. They were gods. And they lived up there. That was Olympus. Would you remember if I told you how lucky we felt just to be here? To have the privilege of watching them. I mean, this television thing. Why would you want to stay at home and watch a little box? Because it's convenient? Because you don't have to get dressed up, because you could just sit there? I mean, how can you call that entertainment, alone in your living room? Where's the other people? Where's the audience? Where's the magic? I'll tell you, in a place like this, the magic is all around you. The trick is to see it." – Martin Landau in "The Majestic" about the magic of the movies

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