We paid $99.95 for this?
Lately I've been listening to a podcast called The Business, which I highly recommend. It's not new, but it is new to me. Hosted by Kim Masters on KCRW, which is a fine public radio station in Santa Monica, The Business is essential listening for anyone interested in the business aspect of Hollywood (hence the title). Ms. Masters, along with a fine stable of partners and guests, talks dollars and sense, dissecting why both are in such short supply in Hollywood these days. One of the more interesting and (to my mind) misunderstood topics that has come up frequently in recent years has been the slow death of the movie theater business.
In case you haven't heard, the number of admissions for movie theaters has been falling steadily for years now. Despite those ever growing grosses you keeping reading about online and in newspapers (which are a sort of bloggy thing that you can hold in your hand), the movie theater business has actually seen a marked drop in the number of people attending films, and thus in the gross revenue they are making. Those big dollar figures ("HIGHEST GROSSING MOVIE OF ALL TIME!!!") which keep getting trumpeted by the studios are actually the result of inflation, higher ticket prices, creative accounting, and, recently, 3D surcharges. They are not, however, the result of actual people going to see actual movies in actual movie theaters. The actual number of movie tickets sold just keeps shrinking year after year.
There are numerous theories as to why this is. The internet (which you may have heard of) gets a lot of wholesale blame, as it does for pretty much all things, but there are plenty of other opinions. Some people cite the improvement of home theaters, which has caused people to increasingly turn towards staying home and watching films on DVD. The theater owners themselves would have you believe that this is all primarily the fault of the movie studios, as the big studios have, according to theater owners, aided and abetted home viewing by shortening the window between the theatrical exhibition of movies and their release date on DVD. This has been done in an attempt to save studios money on marketing costs, as the quicker a DVD release follows a theatrical exhibition means the less money studios need to spend to make the public re-aware of the film. But the movie theater owners contend that this saved money is simply coming out of the theatrical exhibition grosses. And since theater owners make more money the longer a movie stays in the theaters, quicker DVD release dates hurt theater owners more than they do studios.
Additionally, the theater owners have been in an uproar recently over what they see as a conspiracy to cut them out of the equation altogether, because some studios now have plans to begin releasing films to Video-On-Demand as soon as possible (including some plans to do so on the same DAY a film is released to theaters). And this is all coming on the heels of theater owners having spent a butt-load on upgrading their screens for 3D exhibition (at a cost of as much as $100,000 per screen), with little to no money coming from the studios to help defray costs (despite the fact that the studios cash in big time on those 3D surcharges).
All of these reasons are valid, and there is no doubt that brick and mortar cinemas are in dire straights all over the country. Many have closed in the past few years, and many more are lining up for Chapter 11 even as you read this. But while the theater owners' screed against the big studios has some merit, the truth, as is usual, is getting lost in the shuffle. And that truth is something that theater owners, like most people (myself included), have a hard time dealing with when it reflects back on them.
So, while you have more theaters in this country than are probably needed (the number of screens has doubled in the past ten years, while the number films being released each year has actually shrunk dramatically); and while you have the internet, DVD's, Video-On-Demand, and the DVR; and while you have people with televisions in their homes that are now bigger than some of the screens at the local googleplex; and while you have studios now talking about shrinking the theatrical window down to zero, there remains one argument I fail to hear being articulated anywhere. So, while the board members of Regal, Cinemark, Tinsletown, National Amusements, and the like are all decrying external factors they claim are beyond their control for destroying their business, I'd like to add another argument to the fire, if I may.
Going to the movies sucks!
Last night I attended a screening of Chris Nolan's newest headache inducer, Inception (more on it another time), at the local Regal Cinema near my home. This particular Regal was built during the boom of the last decade, and it's the largest of any multiplex within 30 miles. It has 14 screens, and it's clean and new-ish, and it consistently provides some of the worst theater going I've ever experienced.
Inception is a brain bending film filled with exciting visuals and numerous epic shots of Ellen Page's gigantic forehead, so of course I wanted to see it on the big screen. Generally, this is why I go to the movies these days. I want to see the slam-bang pictures on the silver screen, and I wait for anything else to come out on DVD. So far this year, Avatar, Iron Man 2, and now Inception, are the only movies that have been able to drag me away from my 52-inch plasma screeen and surround sound receiver. And, sad to say, each and every one of these experiences left me saying the same thing: "This is why I don't go the movies anymore."
Yet that feeling had nothing to do with the actual movies themselves
For Inception, Mrs. Schmoker and I took in the 4:40 Sunday afternoon showing. But thanks to commercials and previews, the film itself did not actually began until roughly 5:00, by which time it had become apparent that we were in for yet another disappointing experience. The sound was turned up to 11, and that discomfort was enhanced by the fact that Inception is wall-to-wall sound to begin with. It's laden with a thumping Hans Zimmer score that wants to assault your ears from the word go, extracting your future ability to hear various registers of sound in much the same way that Leo and Ellen go about extracting secrets from people's dreams. That the theater had apparently turned the volume all the way up and ripped the knob off made it even worse. Within an hour of arriving, I already had a splitting headache, and I still had another 108 minutes to go (thanks to those 20 minutes of commercials and previews).
The worst thing, however, was that the prime reason I was in the theater in the first place
So, too loud, out of focus, and with the picture spilling off the screen and onto the drapes. There is just nothing like the communal movie experience, eh?
Additionally, the thermostat was set at a temperature level somewhere between too cold and let's-store-meat-behind-the-screen. So, too loud, out of focus, the picture spilling off the screen, and arctic winds ripping across my body. Mrs. Schmoker and I considered having sex right there in the theater just to warm us up, but then we decided against it because we are married and try not to have sex more often than we absolutely have to.
Finally, seated right behind us were Mr. and Mrs. Rude Clueless. At first I didn't notice them talking, so perhaps I should thank Mr. Zimmer for all that bombast on the soundtrack. But eventually Mr. and Mrs. Clueless managed to cut right through the wall-to-wall Dolby wah-wah clutter. While Mrs. Schmoker said later that she heard them sooner than I did, the first I noticed was when I heard a discussion behind me regarding Mrs. Clueless' inability to understand how they managed to shoot the zero gee sequence in the hotel. It was apparently very important for her to know right-that-fucking-second the intricacies of green screen work and CGI, and how it all fit together into the weightless ballet that was fuzzily unfolding on the screen and the drapes before us.
Just as I was about to shoot them The Look (you know, the one that tries to politely convey, "Would you people kindly shut the fuck up?"), they actually shut up on their own. Unfortunately, as the picture continued to become more and more fractured and mind-bendy, Mrs. Clueless apparently found she had a lot of questions about what was going on, and apparently she needed to voice them right the fuck now. And since the music was loud and incessant, and since the theater had the sound system turned up to sterilization levels, she had to voice them at the top of her lungs.
So, I tried using The Look.
This was then followed by a minute or so of my turning around and asking, "Would you please be quiet?"
Unfortunately, Mr. and Mrs. Clueless continued to be totally oblivious to the fact that other people were in the theater with them. Or maybe they just couldn't hear me from twelve inches away over the sound system pumping out at Atlas rocket levels.
In any case, after several minutes and several entreaties, I finally cut loose with a "WOULD YOU PLEASE SHUT THE FUCK UP!!!"
That finally seemed to break through both the aural assault coming from the speakers and the fog that apparently enshrouded Mr and Mrs. C's sense of decency. Mrs. Clueless tried to keep talking, but Mr. Clueless finally started to shush her. Eventually, the only thing that continued to yammer against my eardrums was the movie itself.
By the way, Mr. and Mrs. C both appeared to be in their fifties (at least), so we can't label them as typical disrespectful yutes. No, they were just typical moviegoers these days, as I see it. They were just part and parcel of the movie going experience as I seem to experience it each and every time I venture out from the cave below the mountains where Mrs. Schmoker and I live.
So, too loud, out of focus, the picture spilling off the screen and onto the drapes, arctic winds ripping across my body, and two clueless chuckleheads seated behind us and having an intense and LOUD film discussion for all and sundry to hear and appreciate.
Man, why is it again that I don't go to the theater more?
So, theater owners, if you want to know why admissions keep falling, perhaps you should worry less about DVD release dates and more about actually projecting movies. Perhaps you should worry less about people with big screen televisions and actually police your theaters. Perhaps you should worry less about Video-On-Demand releases and check your sound levels. Perhaps you should stop hiring projectionist from the Academy for the Blind. Perhaps you should provide parkas at the door.
Perhaps you should look in the fucking mirror, because I don't go to the theater much anymore not because I can wait for the DVD to come in the mail in a few months, but because going to the theater anymore simply sucks eggs.
Oh, and did I mention having to hit the bank and cash in one of our CD's prior to the show in order to buy a box of Twizzlers? There was approximately a 400% markup on all candy, and a 10,000% markup on the popcorn.
Actually, we just brought our own snacks and drinks. I wouldn't mind paying a bit of premium at the theater, especially if the experience of actually watching the movie was actually made enjoyable again, but I'm not paying extra to get yelled at from both the front and back while freezing my testicles off. But, hey, keep raising the price of those snacks. I'm sure the six people who forget to bring their own are always going to be willing to forgo their kid's college tuition for one semester in order to keep you in business.
Yeah, that's the ticket.