At the Movies

In my early years, going to the cinema was a rare treat.  I wasn’t raised on the Saturday matinee, but enjoyed a few. A movie with friends was something really special. Most of the first-run films I saw were family events at the neighborhood drive-in.

As a kid, money was pretty tight so going to a movie usually came after some begging and pleading. On a very rare occasion, there might be money for popcorn. Even then, buying food and drink at the theater was not in my budget.

Old style, not very comfortable seating.

When I got to college, going to the movies became a regular event. I had more money for recreation, and the university student union activities program offered films every night of the week, including afternoons on weekends. For a dollar or two, I had my choice of foreign films, documentaries, animation, old classics and films that were a year or more out of release. This was before the Internet, streaming, home video and proliferation of cable channels.

Today, going to the movies is quite an experience. The film is one thing, the theater experience is quite a different thing.

Analysts have been predicting the death of the movie box theater industry for years. One year it is up, the next year it is down.  The studios ride the wave of movie franchises, that gross in the hundreds of millions, to balance out the losses from under-performing films.  Back in the 1950s, the studios were reeling from television.  Then in the 1960s, studios sold off their lots and reduced overhead.  Home video, cable, streaming, it’s all a threat.  As the theater business has struggled, theater chains are now owned by a few huge conglomerates. Although there are independent theater groups, they have to carve out a unique experience to be successful against the mega-theater chains.

To make the experience unique, theaters have installed huge screens, systems with sound that moves around the theater, sound you can physically feel, 3-D optics, IMAX photography, heated seats, private rooms for families, special bars, and on and on. All of this naturally costs more per ticket.

Unless you live in a big city or in a university town, the opportunity to see a foreign film, documentary or independent film are fairly slim. That’s what Hulu, Netflix or Amazon Prime or other streaming services are for.

I am fortunate to live in an metro area where there are a few independent film theaters. If you want to see the recent documentaries about Mike Wallace, David Crosby, Linda Ronstadt or Echo in the Canyon, this was your best bet. Now, these theaters do not offer recliners or chair-side beverage service, and the ticket prices are a little higher, but these are locally-owned businesses and focus on their patron’s tastes.

A trip to the big theater chain recently, I noticed they changed their seating to all reserved, no doubt a way to milk a few extra dollars from movie-goers, even for sparsely attended films. Convenience, yes, for a price.

The other thing I noticed was more product advertisements before the previews. Shilling for a captive audience. Did movie goers ask for more advertisements? Doubtfully.

Fifteen minutes before the movie previews started, I was deluged with commercials. Here is what I saw: soft-drinks, video-apps, insurance, candy, automobiles, cable television series, professional wrestling, armed services recruitment, wireless phone company, restaurants, more candy, more cable shows, Party City costumes, more wireless phone offers, banks, Holiday Inn Express, more cable shows, more insurance, more candy.

Even after the commercials technically ended, there were more commercials for soft drinks.

Holy commercials, Batman!

I walked by the snack bar, but I hadn’t taken out a home equity loan, so I couldn’t make a purchase.  A large popcorn was $8.50 and a large drink $5.25. I didn’t seriously look at the Milk Duds or Juju Bees, but they more than $3 for a small box. Nachos or hot dog? Forget about it.  And this wasn’t the upscale theater with recliners, foot massage and a happy ending.

In the distant past, a friend and I went to one of the theaters where you bought alcohol. Two drinks later I couldn’t tell what was happening in the movie. I didn’t really care, but we could have skipped the movie and just went to the bar.

Like your preference in a coffee drink, or your Whopper, theaters cater to audience  pleasures. That’s why you can get living room comfortable seating, enhanced visual and sound options, upscale food and drink menus, and personalized space for noisy kids.

With the advent of home sound systems with surround sound and multiple speakers, large high definition screens, and soft, reclining furniture – it’s hard to get families out of the basement now.  Factor in your favorite snack food and beverages, no wonder theaters were hard pressed to compete.

With the popularity of home theater design, this isn’t your grandfather’s movie night.  Who needs an aisle seat, you can have the whole damn sofa.

No matter the cushy feel of the seats or the huge screens and pulsating sound, nothing can complete with the utter thrill of setting in the darkened theater about to have your emotions and imagination energized.  That’s what the movie experience is about, two hours of an out of body journey into a story and creative adventure that hopefully does more than just entertain. Movies are, the stuff that dreams are make of.


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