The Bad Movie Report

Evidence of a Decaying Mind

The Death of Theaters

This article has undergone more mutations than an anime villain.

It started out as a little ditty called Why I Need To Own A Movie Theater, and eventually it became Why I Need My Own Cable Channel. Both began with the same anecdote, so we might as well get it out of the way:

The job I was working at the time was having trouble with its power grid - too many electricity-sucking editing devices online at one time - and it was decided to start a night shift. As the guy who was not working with a Big Ass Money Client, I was the one who got bumped to the 7PM shift. Being suddenly cut loose on a Monday, with my wife and child already on their way to Oklahoma to visit her parents, there seemed only one logical course of action: it was time to finally go see The Phantom Menace.

Surely, I thought, it's been a couple of weeks since it opened, and the theater would not be crowded, especially at noon on a Monday. I discovered that, as usual, Moviefone had lied to me and I arrived a half-hour early, so I partook of about twenty minutes of Episode I's major competition, the new version of The Mummy. I would have been happier had I stayed in that theater, but I had to form my own opinion about the much-lambasted Lucas film... or at least have my own rocks to fling during conversations with fellow movie fans. So I took my leave of Brendan Fraser (who was being a damn good action hero), purchased my popcorn and Diet Coke, and settled in for Jar Jar and company.

This is not the place to talk about the movie (I would have preferred more Jedi ass-kicking and less Ben Hur and virgin births); but I had been correct about the crowds. I took my customary seat about a third of the way back from the screen, in the middle of the row, and had no real company around me. Except, of course, for the contingent of young prats who hung around in the very front row for the first thirty minutes, running up the stairs to the back of the house and then back down again, seemingly at random. At some point they migrated en masse to another theater, because there were no more young bodies running up and down the stairs every few seconds, their overpriced athletic shoes sounding a dull thump thump thump as they hurtled through the dark to whine for their guardians to buy them some Chocolate Covered Bug Nuts or whatever it is the young'uns feel is movie food these days.

And there was one fellow like me, who was there alone. Middle-aged, like me, he sat in the middle of the row, perhaps halfway up the house - possibly dead center, for all I knew. And like me, he sat through the entire movie - including the end credits. And after the film was well and truly over, we both rose and carried our empty drink and popcorn containers to the nearest trash can and disposed of them, rather than leaving them in the seats or littering the floor. Unlike me, however, his bladder was apparently not at the bursting point, because he did not join me in my brisk walk to the restroom. But there was a moment that we recognized in each other a kindred spirit, a vanishing breed. Someone who actually respected not only the movie, but the theater.

I had already been trying, as one of those self-aggrandizing little mental exercises, to figure out what sort of practices I would put in place to bring the movie-going experience more in line to what I wished; past the obvious things, like changing the manner in which the business is run worldwide, altering the lop-sided economics which eliminated the sacred practice of the double feature and requires theaters to charge exorbitant fees for refreshments simply to stay alive - past these simple gestures, I found most of the changes I wanted to wreak required controlling the environment within the theater itself; specifically, the behavior of my fellow patrons.

There was a time at which ushers had some power. That - and the ushers - went away when the design esthetic of the movie theater moved away from roomy auditoriums to several shoeboxes crammed together in the same space. Like overcrowded rat cages stacked atop each other, the mood in these tiny theaters (where you could frequently hear the soundtrack in the adjoining room) got ugly, and the experience lessened; at times, it was less like watching Escape from New York than actually being in it. At that point, too, television had been an integral part of our home life for decades, and the movie experience became an extension of TV-watching, along with the accompanying conversations (at normal volume levels) and, more recently, phone calls.

I'm not even going to get into the same behavior bleeding into the performing arts. If you are ever at a show involving live performers and somebody in front of you takes out a phone, hit them. Hard. Tell 'em the Doc sent you.

So basically, at the point where my fantasy movie house requires the employment of armed guards empowered to rough up the clientele... well, it's time for a more peaceful fantasy.

This is not news to some of you, but bear with me, for the sake of the childless among us: becoming a parent entails a dropping-off in frequency of previously spontaneous things like going to movies; they suddenly seem to involve the coordination of enough personnel and schedules to warrant military aid. In my case, however, that drop-off had hit quite some time before, and the drop-off has only become steeper in more recent years, due largely to three little letters: D. V. D.

In my house, I can act the Nazi when a movie is playing, and have done so numerous times. Very easy equation: my house, my rules. Most willingly abide by that. My television is large enough, and my sound system adequate enough, that I wince when I see people watching 19 inch mono TVs. I was an early adopter of the Laserdisc, and though I grumblingly resisted this young upstart of a medium, I now embrace the DVD revolution wholeheartedly, traitorous wretch that I am.

To return to the theatrical venue: the last time I actually paid to be admitted to a movie that did not have Disney somewhere in its title was Godzilla 2000. Yes, that long ago. It was opening bloody day, again I was there in the afternoon, again sparsely attended - and I was witness to the single worst print I have ever had the misfortune to see in a first-run venue. There was a terrible amount of damage running down the left side of the frame for the entire movie. And did I mention this was opening day?

I haven't purchased the DVD of G2K - Chris and Scott are the real kaiju fans around here - but unless a whole lot of somebodies, somewhere in quality control were out at the local CrackMart, the transfer of that movie is going to be pristine. Any movie made in the last couple of years looks stunning on DVD, where the elements are not subject to the wear and tear imposed on a physical piece of film.

Not to mention that the cost of renting one of the blasted things is still a fraction of the price of a theater ticket. And for that, both my wife and I, my son (if he can coaxed away from his Digimon) and any friends who might come over can enjoy it. As long as they keep quiet.

Given the growing user base of DVD players out there, will this mean the death of theaters? Not likely - theaters have withstood much, much worse challenges, challenges that were free, like television. There will always be a need for a communal experience like movies, always a need for a place for innocent men to be subjected to Julia Roberts tearjerkers. But for this lone movie fan, the enticement of the size of the screen and the ear-gouging brilliance of a state-of-art multi-speaker sound system is no longer enough. As the Bard said (out of context) "The play's the thing;" and as long as I can enjoy the play in the comfort of my own easy chair, shared or not with others of my ilk... theaters are dead to me.

When they finally get those armed guards, drop me a line.