Redefining the Moviegoing Experience

By TJ Edwards

Before multiplexes began to dominate the scene, I developed an affectionate respect for good movie theatres. One of the things that excited me when I first left home for New York City was the opportunity to see films in grander theatres with finer presentation than the small town I grew up in. In my early Manhattan days I would routinely bypass a nearby moviehouse to see the same picture across town in a much nicer theatre, sometimes at a higher price. It would be safe to say that I have always placed a high value on a quality moviegoing experience.

I now live in Los Angeles, “The Movie Capital of the World” - where the actual moviemakers see their films. Shouldn’t our theatres be, if not the best, at least among the best in the world? When I moved here from New York, I thought they were. Two weeks after I arrived in LA, I sent out postcards with pictures of the glorious El Capitan to show the folks back East what I moved out here for.

LA has plenty of movie houses, but, like most cities, there are few real theatres left. Most of today’s plexes have no right to call themselves theatres. It amazes me that a pretentious Hollywood multiplex promotes their zero décor as a selling point. How many of you would be inspired to grab the wallet, jump in the car, fight traffic, park, walk, and drop $14 for the opportunity to see a movie in a “black box?” Admission prices have risen so much that a $20 ticket can’t be far away. Add dinner, parking, concession snacks… there goes about a hundred dollars - and there is no guarantee the experience will be a pleasant one. What am I leaving home to pay for?

Once there were Palaces… After a humble beginning in dingy storefronts, motion pictures moved into theatres and became a popular pastime. In the golden age of movies, theatre owners tried to outdo each other in opulence, luxury and showmanship. This was the era of The Movie Palace. At the time, reasonable admission prices ensured that many people could afford to go out to movies at least once a week. However poor or troubled one’s own world may have been, for the price of a ticket, anyone could escape into a grand fantasy for a few hours. The theatre environment was so exceptional that it took you far away from the outside world - a mini-vacation within one elegant building - and that elevated feeling could last a while after you left. Polite patrons in these classy venues wouldn’t even think of talking during a movie, or putting their feet up on the seats - nor would they be permitted to by watchful ushers, who otherwise treated them like royalty. Double features, newsreels, cartoons, live music and stage acts, plus a large devoted theatre staff, all made the moviegoing experience addicting - and audiences came back for more.

At it’s best, a proper theatre could transport you into another world, seen in sharp detail on giant screens revealed by plush curtains. As in legitimate (live) theatre, drawing back a curtain to present a motion picture was a graceful transition from one world into another, and serious effort was taken to time curtain movement to ensure that patrons never saw a blank screen. Sound from surround speakers was heard but the speakers were rarely seen. That kind of thoughtful presentation is a good example of Showmanship. In yesterday’s lavish movie palaces - or even some nice “modern theatres” from the fifties and sixties - moviegoing was An Event. The experience was memorable. When you recalled seeing a film, your memories included the presentation and the theatre itself.

In the fifties, when threatened by television, movies responded by getting bigger and better. The square black and white pictures of early movies could now be seen at home on TV. Movies introduced wide screens, stereophonic sound, and star-studded epics – a bit of new technology, presented with a great deal of carefully calculated showmanship. Cinerama, Todd AO, CinemaScope, VistaVision, 3-D, seats wired to “tingle” and even Smell-O Vision, managed to lure patrons back into movie theatres, with an element of involvement they could not experience at home. Twenty years later, however, when movie theatres were confronted with cable and home video, “it’s the pictures that got small.”

The golden age of movie showmanship was swept away in the 70s and 80s, as cable TV and videotape brought movies home. Economic minded exhibitors began subdividing theatres, then stripped away everything grand and “theatrical” about the moviegoing experience. As handsome individual theatres were replaced with groups of identical cineboxes, theatre decor became uniformly bland. Theatre owners did away with what they considered expensive moving equipment, like curtains and projectionists. Film presentation was cheapened by automation, and the decline of cinema quality accelerated.

The special experience of going out to see a film presented in a theatre, was reduced to entering a plain room with a bare screen and loudspeakers hung on the walls. Mini-screens in multiplexes became the trend, and widescreen films became scarce, as movies were produced with an eye toward larger audiences viewing the video on a square TV. The superior picture quality of 70mm film had been used in special engagements, increasingly more for the multichannel sound than the picture detail. However, once Dolby Stereo introduced optical surround tracks on standard 35mm film, 70mm and its bright, sharp picture became a thing of the past.

Movies had been released gradually, building up word of mouth as a picture moved from long exclusive engagements in big cities, to shorter runs in smaller cities, then played out in neighborhood theatres and drive-ins. Some movies were in theatres for a year or more. The 70s began the trend of the Blockbuster film – opening a picture with huge fanfare in wide release – at hundreds of theatres at once. In the Great Multiplex Boom, exhibitors went into a building frenzy, closing hundreds of older single screen theatres, building multiplexes, and even megaplexes with 20 screens or more. The country became “overscreened” and there is now plenty of room for movies to open nearly everywhere on the same day.

Wide release of a film means that the number of prints being struck has multiplied into the thousands. Rapid printing in great quanities can cause a significant drop in print quality. In the common automated multiplex, the film feeds into a projector from a flat exposed platter, twisting and turning on rollers, through the often dusty air of unattended projection booths. That kind of exposure and wear can greatly increase the chances of dirt and scratches building up on the print, multiplied by the number of times it is shown. Picture quality in the average multiplex has reached a point where current moviemakers are often shocked at how bad their carefully crafted films look on the screen.

Cinema screens shrunk to a point where they were no longer “larger then life.” Often the relationship between the theatre screen and the exit sign became more intimate, because they became much closer in size. I have been in theatres where the exit sign was literally brighter than the picture on the screen, sometimes washing out the contrast. Certainly well lit exit signs are necessary in any public place, but we are there to see the movie, and this is another detail that escapes some exhibitors. You know you’re not getting the best show when the screen has to fight the exit sign for your attention. One popular LA multiplex has actually attached exit signs to the screens, so that the sign now sits in the corner of the picture you are watching!

While movie screens got smaller, TVs got bigger and wider, and movies on video have made big strides in features and quality. There really isn’t much difference left between seeing movies in public and watching them at home. The cheapened movie environment has ushered in a much lower standard of behavior. Years of cable and video have produced a new breed of moviegoers accustomed to watching movies sprawled in front of a TV, where they’re free to babble, gobble, belch and snort. Several generations have emerged who don’t realize that the difference between viewing movies at home, and in public, is the presence of others.

Advances in communication technology and advertising gall have also had a detrimental effect on the moviegoing experience. The inconsiderate masses around you are not only clueless to the fact that they’re distracting you with talking, gobbling and kicking, they are now using mobile phones, with screens bright enough to be seen from the moon, to text-message and chat throughout the movie. Cinema Etiquette is a concept that hasn’t occurred to these people. And with all those commercials now on the screen, well, remind me again, what am I leaving home to pay for?

I used to really love going to the movies. I looked forward to it. I enjoyed it. I remembered it. But that kind of experience is extremely rare now. Big prices, lackluster theatres, sloppy presentation, bad manners, commercials, and mobile phones, are why I rarely go to movies anymore. And there is plenty of evidence that I am not alone in that feeling.

I am one of a dying breed, with a passion for showmanship, and a more theatrical moviegoing experience. Once one of the cinema’s greatest fans, I am now among it’s harshest critics. In my view, it will take substantial improvements in picture quality, standards of behavior, finesse in presentation, and real showmanship, to make theatres worth leaving home for.

Today’s cinemas should be regularly reviewed and rated like restaurants. Maybe that will provide some incentive for theatre owners to improve their operations. Make the moviegoing experience classier, something people can’t get at home, then people may remember they’re not at home, and behave with more class. I know some exhibitors are already thinking about how to lure us back. Some of their ideas seem pretty interesting, I’m looking forward to trying them out and sharing my views.

Motion pictures are arguably the most popular art form of our time, and in the proper setting, they can be a memorably exhilarating experience.  That's why we're here.  Let’s explore that, shall we? 

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© 2007, 2012 - TJ Edwards,