Thursday, April 23, 2009

Notes from a "crank": on the demise of the moviegoing experience.

(By way of explanation: this was a post I made on Slashdot about why I have largely stopped going to movie theatres. It's not all about being broke and unemployed. It's about a very degraded experience. This is why whenever we have a podcast recording I hem and haw about not seeing the movie yet. It's just not WORTH IT in most cases to see the movie in theatres anymore for me. And here's why...)

OK, I'm one of those "cranks" who remembers how moviegoing USED to be, and considers the current "experience" extremely inferior.

It used to be, you'd go to a big, beautiful PALACE with thousands of seats and a gorgeous environment. Even if you lived in a small town, the local movie theatre was a glamorous, special place.

This was before mobile phones. And there would be a special room for mothers to take squalling babies or toddlers having a tantrum, called the "women's lounge."

In the 1960s, theatre owners, in an industry maybe didn't DIE because of TV but took a big, big hit, came up with the concept of the "cinemaplex." More choice! More people can go see movies suiting THEIR taste, not the programmer at the local movie palace. I live near where one of the first American multiplex theatres, The Americana 5 in Panorama City, CA, was built in 1964. It had one "big room" for what was then known as "road show" releases, the big movie expected to be the blockbuster of the moment. It also had four smaller rooms...and I really mean smaller. 200 seat shoeboxes as opposed to the 1,000 seat "big room." People went anyway, and the theatre chains realized they could make more money because they'd go to the movies regardless of the amenities or lack of them. They didn't really have a choice in the pre-home video and pre-HBO/Showtime days. You either saw the movie in the theatre or you waited for it to come on TV, and that wait would be literally years.

Eventually the "big room" was subdivided in two in the mid '70s, and the Americana 5 became, for a time, the Americana 6. It was only due to the decline of the neighborhood and the competition of cable and home video that the Pacific Theatres knocked down the thin subdivision barrier and turned the two theatres back into "the big room" again. Amazingly enough, the Pacific Americana underwent a bit of a renaissance for a while. They would have events, geared towards the local predominantly Latino populace, where Spanish-language movies, free concerts after the movie and appearances by local Spanish-language radio personalities would be part of the fun. Selena did one event and the immediate area surrounding the Americana was mobbed. The LAPD had to be called in to do crowd control.

Eventually the Mann Theatres chain put in the Mann's Plant 16 a couple of miles down the road at the big-box mall that replaced the long shuttered GM assembly plant. This was what killed the Americana. The Pacific Theatre Group unloaded it on a couple of locals who went indie. It got more and more run down, started playing second-run movies in both English and Spanish for bargain prices, and when things broke, they stayed broke. The last movie I saw in the "big room" there was Prince of Egypt. The movie theatre that every year around Easter would play "The Ten Commandments" had its swan-song with another retelling of the Moses myth. It was sad to see the place go. The area where the four small theatres stood is now a school of cosmetology. The old "big room" was once an indoor futbol arena where people would play pickup soccer games, and is now a banquet hall which, ironically, boasts a nice big movie screen. It is also more ornate than the "big room" at the Americana ever was.

Anyway, huge digression. The multiplex movie theatre encouraged a degradation of movie theatre etiquette. Going to a little shoebox theatre was less special than going to the community movie palace. People didn't have the same sense of "occasion" going to the movies. In a lot of respects, the experience of going to one of these theatres was like the drive-in experience. Often a theatre chain would knock down a drive-in and replace it with a mega multiplex. They could show more movies to more people and it was a more intelligent use of land. And with the competition of cable, home video, "sell-through" home video, and finally the DVD, there were now real choices about how to see a movie.

So yeah, theatres are not exactly rolling in the dough now. There has been a surge of moviegoing instead of other "family vacation" kinds of things to do, as people opt more for "staycations." But it will not and never will be the same.

Me? I just prefer to wait a little while, get the DVD, and enjoy it at my leisure. No assholes yakking on the mobile phone next to me, no crying babies or tantrumming toddlers whose moms haven't the decency to take outside to calm, no people doing their own, unfunny MST3K treatment of the movie. I don't have an awesome super-cool home theatre system here, but it's decent. Good size 4:3 CRT tube TV, 2.1 sound. And the popcorn is cheap and ungreasy. Go ahead and "enjoy" the current theatre-going experience. I'll just be an old crank and enjoy a more civilized experience right here at home. Oh yeah, get off my lawn, punk. ;-)

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