What does the word “cinema” evoke in you?
I’m going to take an educated guess: your mind wanders to a fantastical Hollywood setting where ladies and gentlemen of grandeur line the rows of a gold-trimmed theatre. They sit in silent admiration of the film they’re watching, only breaking into applause as the credits roll. Perhaps there’s an orchestra providing swelling accompaniment. In any regard, it’s a classically classy occasion.
This paints a picture of a time when going to the movies was a big to-do. It wouldn’t have been too unlike going to a Broadway play.
The heyday of the theater-going experience I just described is nothing like that which we experience today. Theaters are, on average, nondescript boxes with worn-out seats packed tightly into rows for maximum capacity. You have to sit through insufferable advertisement-driven “pre-shows” to then be further advertised to for twenty minutes through trailers before finally getting to watch what you paid for. By that point you just feel fed up and taken advantage of.
I’m not saying the pomp and circumstance of yesteryear is necessary. For many years after movie theaters became a commodity they remained a crucial and quality part of the film-viewing experience. For one, the big screen dwarfed what you’d have at home (where you’d likely be watching movies letterboxed on a CRT display). You also wouldn’t have minded the trailers as much because without the internet you’d likely be seeing them for the first time. And it’s just that, the internet, that’s the catalyst for what’s changed in the past decade.
We’re buried in content these days which means we have endless options. The inconvenience of going to a theater compared to streaming a movie instantly from your couch has kept audiences home more and more, as seen by steadily declining box office sales. You may also notice from this statistics that you’re paying more than ever to compensate for it. Meanwhile, theaters are doubling down on pre-show advertisements more than ever to create a diluted experience that’s somehow more expensive than ever anyway. It’s not uncommon for me to pay upwards of $16 for a ticket in New York City, which is crazy to me.
The experience you’re paying these high prices for is often far inferior to what you’d get at home. For example, you could end up with a botched projection. The Canipa Effect recently tweeted an image of the subtitles being cut off in his screening of Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale, which seemed to prompt a friend of his to leave the theater to get assistance. While the problem was likely fixed, the fact is that this mishap wouldn’t happen in your own home, and if it did you could just rewind the film. I won’t speak for Canipa but if this was my own experience it would’ve impacted my ability to enjoy the film (chalk that up to my OCD, I suppose).
But perhaps even more unfortunate is that people simply don’t value the moviegoing experience as much anymore. I’ve recently been to multiple screenings with talkative crowds but by far the most egregious was that for the recent “horror-light” flick Get Out. It baffled me how little regard people had for the film they paid to see. First you had a guy who insisted on talking on the phone through the first thirty minutes of the film which resulted in a near-fight between him and another audience member. Soon after this began a beat-by-beat commentary of the film by the person next to me. Add to that the natural noise made by those around you plus inopportune reactions (people laughing at the graphic violence kinda ruins the thing) and you’ve got a recipe for constant immersion-breaking. Film is a passive medium that you give yourself over to for a few hours but these distractions prevent that.
And you know what? While I think it was pretty inconsiderate of those people to act the way they did, I also know it’s a symptom of people not appreciating film in the same way they once did. Streaming has commoditized film to the point of being disposable. New media such as YouTube and Twitch are often more appealing prospects to younger generations. This isn’t to say that people don’t go to movies at the theater with the intention of not appreciating them but the mentality of media being disposable carries over whether intentional or not.
It does sadden me as somebody who went to school to write screenplays and still hopes to one day “make it” in the film industry (my ambitions are many to a fault). It’s an art form I hold in the highest regard and as such end up in denial of people losing interest in it. However, it’s increasingly difficult to remain willfully ignorant. As nearly every other visual medium is growing, film is becoming seen as antiquated. New blockbusters are increasingly cynical and, again, a commodity. There will always be those like myself who appreciate quality filmmaking but the general audience are content showing up for the latest superhero romp and calling it a day, even if they’re watching the same stories play out again and again.
I want to make it clear that I don’t begrudge people for this despite what my film school stereotype might lead you to believe. It’s just that the prospect of going to the theater for anything that I’m not dying to see is becoming increasingly diminished. It’s just not worth the price for what could end up being an inferior experience to watching at home. In fact, it’s almost antithetical that I’d be more willing to go see the films I cared about at the theater. Sure, seeing them on the big screen is a thrill but the potential tradeoff isn’t worth having my enjoyment hindered.
So, where do we go from here? The answer is obvious to me and I wish was obvious to the industry: studios should be offering a streaming alternative to new movie releases. I’d happily pay the ticket price to watch a film the way I want to (at home), when I want to (whenever). No more having to schedule around a specific time. No more having to leave the house at all (okay, maybe this is an upside of the theater, getting me out of my hidey hole).
And wouldn’t that be financially better? It removes the barrier for people who don’t want to go to the theater or can’t find the time, and the studio’s cut of the profit would likely be higher by cutting out the middle man. In all fairness this approach has been toyed with over the past few years for niche releases but mostly abandoned by studios. As such, I’m sure there are business ramifications I’m not considering or aware of but ultimately this needs to be figured out to secure a place for film in the future. And that future is now. This is the type of move that the industry needs to embrace in order to remain relevant.
Alright, a few more jabs at the theater experience before I go: you can end up with a bad sightline. If you need to go to the bathroom in the middle of the film you’re screwed whereas at home you could pause it. Sometimes the theater smells like popcorn butter. There are other people there. (But it’s also okay sometimes I guess.)
Box office numbers will only continue to decline as people decide watching at home is a better experience and you can’t really blame them because honestly: going to the movie theater these days just sucks like 80% of the time. At least for anything that isn’t a special screening where audiences are generally better.
I can only hope that the industry can find new avenues for film to prosper.
The real takeaway? I’m a grumpy film purist who wants nothing but the perfect experience. I’m sure you’re rolling your eyes at this point. I probably deserve it. This whole thing was an exercise in pure pretentiousness on a scale this blog has never seen before. I’ll own it.
On a more important note, please let me know what you think of this stream-of-consciousness format. This is barely edited for content or coherence. I just kind of let it out without a filter. I can more easily produce these alongside more stringently edited content.
UPDATE: I wrote some follow-up points to this piece on my Twitter. You can find the thread here.
11 thoughts on “Why the theater-going experience is the bane of modern cinema”
Glad you wrote this instead of me, because it would’ve just been articulated through a more stream-of-conscious-y angry rant than calm and collected evaluation of the film industry on top of the problems circulating the movie-going experience. So yeah, definitely agree on everything here. I’ve certainly had my fair share of terrible cinema experiences (especially in the past few years): people on their phones, talking / whispering over the movie, and essentially anything to do with kids and family interactions (crying, kicking chairs, asking questions, making noise, etc.).
And I eagerly await the day we get new movies straight to home media upon release (or shortly after). Rather pay an extra bit of money for that than have to tolerate any movie-ruining distractions.
Great post! Already off to a good start with the new format!
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“Direct to streaming”
*cough* Koe no Katachi *cough cough* Kimi no Na wa
It would have been nice! FWIW I do think niche screenings bring in more respectful audiences who are there for the movie rather than just as a thing to do.
I like going to the cinema because I like the experience of watching with others. Whether they laugh at things I don’t think are funny or talk doesn’t bother me because that’s part of the shared experience. Though I did once see a movie where the projector wasn’t actually pointed at the screen and about twenty centimetres of it was playing on the roof. Leave cineam, complain, they moved the projector but didn’t restart the film. They did however give a discount on the next ticket at the cinema at the end of the movie so that was nice.
That said, I live hours from a cinema, so to me, the opportunity to go is still exciting. It’s something that I get to do so rarely I make the most of the experience, whatever that experience might end up being.
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Interestingly, in the town where I live, cinema prices have reacted in a totally different way, and it’s cheaper to see a film now than it was when I was a teen. You’d be crazy to go to a cinema which costs more than $10 (Aus) to see a film, unless you want special features like 3D (do people even watch 3D movies still?), or a more ‘luxury experience’ with recliners and food delivered to your seats instead of having to balance popcorn on your lap.
I’ve never been a cinema person to be honest, I have some serious difficulty engaging with just watching a film because not enough happens, at home I’d probably be working on a handcraft project or similar, or at least be able to get up during the movie and do something else for a few minutes. I also find that in general the cinemas are far too loud to the point where I can find it uncomfortable, except for the tiny independent cinema in my city which I don’t know that film buffs would even consider a real big screen experience. I used to go with friends sometimes, but I now know that I’m a terrible person to go to the cinema with, and as such I really only see kids films, which I enjoy and have a run time of less than 2 hours, 2 hours being my hard deadline for how long I can sit still during a film I somewhat enjoy. Also, I love kids asking dumb questions during the film and laughing at parts which are questionably funny. That’s something that I can’t get at home.
It’s a very different age than it used to be, with there being more bigger titles available to enjoy than ever and better quality set-ups for the home enthusiast. I think that there is still a unique atmosphere to the cinema and a fun social quality that watching at home doesn’t have, but I don’t know how much the atmosphere will continue to appeal over the considerations of comfort at home for the average person.
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This is a really good comment. I’m actually going to address a lot of this in an addendum I’m writing. But yeah, I can totally understand your difficulty watching film, especially once they exceed two hours. Even for people like myself who can be whisked away by a (good) story, once you get to that length it becomes a more contentious experience unless what you’re showing me is outstanding. And movies like The Godfather Seven Samurai which fall in that 3-4 hour mark need to be watched in two pieces with a break in-between, something you would have gotten in the olde days of cinema but the modern days of movie theaters wouldn’t allow for (which is also a reason why you don’t see movies that length anymore, I’m sure).
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You definitely tend to see less films of the Gone With The Wind length without the benefit of intermission, although films close to or just over the 3 hour mark definitely are still produced. I have learnt my lesson, these are not for me. Then again, the cinema or ‘the pictures’ as my grandma calls it used to be the place to go not only for epic films but also for news and serials rather like what we’d see on TV today. People didn’t have access to any screens at home, let alone the cornucopia of titles on disc or streaming services available to us now. They were different times!
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I mean sure, there are still movies pushing the three-hour mark but they’re increasingly rare. You have your Boyhoods and Hateful Eights but in general movies are trying to compact more stuff into less runtime. I’m not saying that movies need to be long (quite the opposite, I’d argue that everything should be only as long as it needs to be) but there are times when I can’t help but feel the opportunities for a modern Gone With the Wind or Godfather or Seven Samurai (basically, any epics) are slim.
And yeah, what you’re referring to there are nickelodeons. One of my fondest memories of my late grandfather was when he told me about nickelodeons and I was utterly fascinated. In retrospect, it probably sparked my fascination with the fantasy of cinema and Hollywood. Anyway, It’s obviously a concept that has become replaced by in-home television but definitely an important part of film history!
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I can relate a lot to your experiences here with my own.
Growing up, the cinema used to be a magical place for me to experience films, but with the revolution of streaming and our recent binge-watch culture, people no longer seem to have the consideration nor appreciation for cinema as they once did.
The amount of times I’ve been to see a movie and had people laugh out loud during moments of “terror” or make some stupid criticism while the movie is still playing really takes you out of the moment.
I even had a time where someone had the audacity to shout “Well, this movie was complete shit” with 10 minutes left to go.
I’d love for there to be a streaming service for new movies as they come out in theaters. That’d be great. I don’t think it will happen for a very long time though, if ever.
Excellent post. I never actually considered this much until now. I guess I now know why I rarely bother going to theatres nowadays 😛
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I don’t think you’ll get a streaming service that puts up new movies for a fixed monthly price but I do think it’d be fair for a new movie to be rentable digitally for, say, $10 US? Or whatever the reasonably fair price is. Of course, the problem is that multiple people can watch for that one price whereas they’d each need to buy a ticket at the theater so… I dunno. There isn’t an easy solution here. I just think the industry needs to adapt to a new market soon or they’re going to start hurting.
Watching movies at home, regardless of downloaded or streaming ones, are better than watching movies at cinema in a lot of ways, in my opinion. But if I want to go to cinema to watch movies, I do it to support the creators behind the movie. Piracy is so damn prominent at here.