Movies & TV / Columns

Editor’s Note 05.03.11: When Going to the Movie Theater Became Torture

May 3, 2011 | Posted by Chad Webb

In recent weeks, the announcement and debut of DirecTV’s Home Premiere, a premium video-on-demand service that offers $30 rentals of films that have been out of theaters for 60 days, has been the topic of heated debates. This project has been backed by major Hollywood studios like Warner Bros., Sony, Universal, and Fox. Numerous top filmmakers and theater chains have voiced their anger about this news, and in the case of the filmmakers, a passionate letter was written and sent to the studios. The National Association of Theater Owners criticized: “These plans fundamentally alter the economic relationship between exhibitors, filmmakers and producers, and the studios taking part in this misguided venture.” It’s been called “Hollywood’s answer to Netflix.” Who is right? That’s a tough question, and there really isn’t a clear answer. My argument is that each one of these groups is thinking about the problem in the wrong way.

I decided to write about this initially because I have grown tired of the movie theater experience. I wanted to write about my feelings, but once the bombshell of Home Premiere was announced, I found a current event with which I could tie into my existing subject. Everyone involved; the studios, theater owners, and filmmakers, is basically talking about the money factor. Obviously this is a legitimate concern. The filmmakers and theater chains are saying this service will cost them millions in revenue, while the studios respond that it will not because the movies that will appear on Home Premiere will have already been on their way out of theaters, due to naturally declining ticket sales. The fact is, On-Demand viewing has been increasing well before this. I’ve watched and reviewed 13 Assassins and Hobo with a Shotgun without leaving my living room. But those are smaller releases, independent or limited efforts, that would not make too much of a dent in the wallets.

But by tossing in wide releases, films like Just Go With It and Unknown, the game changes. They could mark a significant chunk of money, but then again, if the studios are merely offering the public a chance to watch these movies during their regular limbo period (that time after they were in theaters and before the DVD release), then the protests seem like whining. I do not disagree with the directors. Their films, which they’ve put so much hard work into, deserve to be seen on the big screen. And if this new option damages that, it is undoubtedly wrong. They also make the argument that this will increase piracy, not prevent it. The truth there is, piracy will be an issue no matter what. This service would simply speed up the process of movies appearing on illegal sites. But then again, the people that visit these sites will continue to do so despite Home Premiere. Some enjoy going to the theater, some prefer to wait for DVD, and others like going to the illegal sites and burning the film onto a DVD-R. Those groups are pretty well etched out.

I for one hope this $30 service catches on, and I’ll tell you why. Going to the theater these days has become an almost unbearable experience. I am just about fed up and burned out with paying anywhere from $9-$13 for a movie ticket, only to have the showing ruined by people who cannot stop talking, insist on using their cell phones, provide their own commentary on the film, or occasional projection malfunctions. Yes, the loss of money is a factor that should be addressed, but let’s say Home Premiere vanished into thin air. Movie attendance is down, and even when it has a solid period, it is not the same as it once was. So far in 2011, overall attendance is down 20%. That is huge. The result is that concession sales (how theaters make most of their $) nosedive and eventually many theaters will close. One of the causes is that people are sick of going to the theater. Yes, there are other reasons. For example, the small window of time of the movies arriving on DVD doesn’t help, nor do rising ticket prices, or outside problems like unemployment, gas prices, and so forth. But one of the main problems is the theater experience itself. If theater chains do not clean this aspect up quickly, they only have themselves to blame if the popularity of On-Demand movie watching grows.

I am a movie writer. I love movies. In the theater alone, I see upwards of 150 titles per year, but in 2011, that number will definitely see a substantial dip. Perhaps these directors and theater executives should stroll into regular, crowded movie screenings once in awhile. Witness for yourself what it’s like to sit in a room where everyone is so addicted to their cell phones that they absolutely refuse to put it away. Don’t get me wrong, if I had my choice, I would see every film on the big screen. There is nothing like it. The Departed, There Will Be Blood, as well as new prints of classic titles such as Planet of the Apes are among the titles that represented truly memorable theater experiences for me. Why should I pay an average of $10 just to be annoyed by people who evidently don’t care? I will never understand why these people pay money to enter a room, ignore the film, and pretend that what’s on screen is background entertainment. They’re wasting their own money, and more importantly, everyone’s time.

Sure, summer blockbusters and awards season will still see positive numbers, but theater grosses will continue to decline unless these chains take some time to enforce the rules they display. Maybe you think I sound like a broken record. Ok, the theaters remind everyone not to talk, not to use their cell phones, etc. sometimes 2-3 times before the film even starts! But people persist in disobeying these rules because just like the rule of no talking in class, we will not listen to the rules unless they are enforced. Have you ever been annoyed by fellow moviegoers? Well, if you wanted to do something about it, you’ll have to get up, leave the room, therefore missing some of what you paid for, and find someone that can help. Who can help? Certainly not the high school students who resemble half dead zombies more than employees. They get paid minimum wage, maybe a bit more, so they could care less. If you try to locate a manager, it will only soak up more time. In the worst case scenarios, a theater employee will come in, survey the room, and quickly leave, proving to you that they did something. Would it be so detrimental to theater chains if they hired some people who constantly monitored the audience, warned specific individuals about talking, and eventually asked them to leave if they knowingly break the rules?

If I can have a better experience by sitting at home, enjoying the film on a large TV, I will do so. Too much stress is involved in going to the theaters anymore. I have spoken to some people who say it doesn’t bother them, who can filter out the noise around them, and accuse me of complaining too much. If you can pay for the ticket and enjoy the film regardless of the irritating imbeciles around you, great. I applaud you, and wish I could do that, but many people can’t do this, and when they are bothered by the talking and cell phone use, they are too afraid to say something. Many probably bite their tongue, but it does wear on a person. Granted, collective laughter, cheering, and tears is a part of seeing certain films, but that is not what I’m talking about. By the way, anyone who isn’t aware, your cell phone acts as a headlight to everyone sitting behind or around you. Even if it’s silent, it is still a gigantic distraction. And when I mention this to friends, they all say the same thing: “What will I do in the event of an emergency?” Bullshit. For decades we entered theaters accepting the possibility of an emergency without a phone at our side. All of a sudden, we can’t? Gimme a break.

I used to have a system when people were bothersome. I implemented three steps: 1) Shhh, 2) Shhh, turn, and glare 3) verbally say “Shut Up!” This doesn’t go over as smoothly anymore. I have been in the middle of, and have witnessed, some pretty touchy incidents where a person was reprimanded for talking and got extremely upset that anyone would dare admonish them. I’ve never cared about simply telling people how I felt during a movie, but nowadays, I could endure this vicious cycle every time I pay for a ticket. It’s not worth it. Why should I pick a fight when I could avoid all of this nonsense by staying at home with On-Demand titles or exquisite Blu-Ray transfers? It might sound crazy, but there have been shootings just over disputes in movie theaters, stemming from situations just like I described. And the scary element is, I am beginning to wonder if most people who talk don’t even realize they’re loud, or that those who are using their cell phones, rarely stop and think about how it looks. It seems that reaching for that phone and texting is almost instinctive. “Well, I have to text back. I just have to.” During the theatrical run of Despicable Me, Best Buy was promoting a phone app where you could keep track of the minions language as you watched the movie, thus nudging everyone to use these bright glaring lights. Really? This makes it worse.

Not all theaters are swarming with pests. When I visit New York City, the odds of getting a polite, quiet, and obedient audience are great. It’s not always perfect there, but commonly, these are people who have some respect for the policies and what’s on screen. If you have a theater near you that does not suffer from these problems, I urge you to stick with it. But the reality is not everyone can get go to a major city for a superior viewing experience. And on a side note, when I go to the city, it costs even more money for transportation. The filmmakers and theater owners need to examine why a service such as Home Premiere could even conceivably be a success. If each of these parties only consider the bottom line, the overall theater dilemma will be allowed to percolate and swell. I’ve noticed that more AMC “Fork & Screen” theaters are popping up. These allow you to purchase a meal while you watch the film. I’ve only been to one, but the increased presence of employees helps diminish the noise. Then again, I haven’t seen a kids’ film in this environment, so I have no idea how insane they would be. While “Fork & Screen” can be pleasant, it is not cheap, so paying for it regularly would takes its toll on your pocket.

I’ve talked to many friends and acquaintances about Home Premiere since the news broke, and as soon as I mention the $30 price-tag, their eyes widen and they say “Wow.” I find this bizarre. As I said above, a movie ticket costs around $9-$13, unless you’re seeing a matinee, but even those prices have increased dramatically over the years, and if you work during the day like me, it can be hard to make those showtimes. Let’s say you have two people seeing a film. That’s around $20. Factor in popcorn and a drink. Presto! You have $30 already. How does the price sound now? If you invite more people to your house for a $30 rental, you’re actually saving money in the long run, and you can consume your own snacks, and even alcohol, which will be needed if you’re renting the first Home Premiere title, Just Go With It. You can also pause, rewind, and fast-forward at your leisure, and you have the title for 48 hours, unlike spending the same amount of money for a one-chance showing in hopes that the two hours you’re in the theater are noise free. I guess when someone hears the large number at once, it sounds steep, but it really isn’t in the big scheme of things. If the number still seems high, then you can just do what many people do, and wait for the DVD/Blu-Ray to own for a lower price, or access it on Netflix. Nothing wrong with that.

Another reason theater attendance is in the crapper is of course the quality of the films, which are getting worse. I see a lot of limited releases, and generally more titles than most, so the number of recommended films I see compared to the casual moviegoer is significantly larger, but let’s face it, mainstream movies tend to suck these days. The amount of remakes are through the roof, and if it’s not a remake or regurgitation of some sort (re-boot, re-imagining, whatever), it is based on a property with a built in audience, like The Smurfs, The A-Team, video games, or even board games. Or we have the endless string of sequels, or prequels, or spin-offs, because almost everything needs one now. Plus, it should be noted that the studio’s obsession with 3D has not turned out to be the cash cow they all wanted.

I always mention it in my “Best/Worst of the Year” columns, but I regularly hear comments like “Movies aren’t good anymore” or “They don’t make ’em like they used to.” I’m not going to rant about the quality of films. It’s been done, and I see enough satisfactory offerings as a cinephile that I will continue to watch. But I firmly believe that if the theater atmosphere was more comfortable, with less disruptions, attendance would improve. To make matters more depressing, Leonard Maltin wrote a nice piece on how 35mm prints will not be used anymore. This means that independently owned theaters will have to upgrade to digital projection systems, and unfortunately, many of these small theaters don’t have the $75,000+ in order to do that. It’s sad that many great, beautiful theaters, the kind that emphasize a kind, calming, and respectful atmosphere, will be disappearing. This will further open the wound. If you’ve ever been to an old theater, one owned by a family, or have marveled at a terrific 35mm print, you know how special these treasures can be. If they die out, this will force every one of the people who dislike huge, mainstream theaters, to either go there, or stay at home. I also feel like those who never get a chance to visit a great theater like I described will be missing out. It gives a viewer a higher sense of respect to go to a place where they care about the moviegoer, care about what they’re showing, and how the people feel when they leave.

The price of a movie ticket has never really irked me excessively because watching films is an activity I genuinely love. Unless the price gets really obnoxious, I’ll keep paying. But dealing with distractions is another ball game. Now I think twice about which movies I’ll see. One example is Your Highness, and I decided I could wait on that one. “But Chad, Natalie Portman is in a thong.” Well, I can look at the pictures. What if Home Premiere or a similar video-on-demand service, becomes a hit? There is the danger of it being a slippery slope. Right now they wait two months after the film has been in theaters, but what if that changes, and it makes going to the movies increasingly pointless? I don’t think that will happen anytime soon, but you never know. The point is, there are numerous factors to consider.

On the flip side, I’m amazed that these studios followed through with a mammoth decision like Home Premiere without meeting with theater owners and filmmakers, without hearing the other side of the story. It was more than a little inconsiderate, and they should have expected an instant uproar from people within the movie making community. However, if they keep bickering about how much money everyone is or is not raking in, the problem will not change, it will only get worse. The word is theater chains are threatening not to use movies from studios that will be shown on Home Premiere. I’m not sure how beneficial that would be, but we’ll see what happens. It’s true that some of the issues above have always been a problem, but it is undeniable that it has gotten worse over the past decade. If you don’t notice any disruptions when you go to the theater, you might want to take a look in the mirror. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.


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Chad Webb

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