BLOG: The Audience for Theaters

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by Ken Bakely

Off the news that last weekend (August 25 – 27) delivered the worst domestic box office returns in 16 years, heads have been spinning all over the industry. This particular example is justifiable: in addition to the usual end-of-summer slowdown, viewers across the country tuned into the latest “Fight of the Century” (a title which seems to be doled out at least five times in a decade), and the United States’ fourth largest city has been battered by flooding of biblical proportions. Simply put, the movies are at the very bottom of our collective priority chains. Next week is expected to be as bad, or worse. Should I belabor the point by adding that the eighth most popular title at multiplexes this weekend was a simulcast of the Mayweather/McGregor match?

But such poor numbers, while explainable in the moment, have made me think about ongoing trends which have changed how we perceive going to the movies. Once an unassailable pastime, right up there with baseball, our options have been divided up. Why drive out to a theater, spend $12 on a ticket, and sit with patrons who may not recognize basic public decorum? If you want a communal viewing experience without the hassle, consider how many people were watching and live-tweeting Game of Thrones this past summer. Think about the content available on streaming platforms. Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu add new stuff all the time.

As a reviewer, the ability to watch things at home has made my life a thousand times easier. Last week, I reviewed two movies for Film Pulse, the other place where my writing appears. Both titles were new releases, and I was able to see them and file my write-ups long before opening day. In a previous era, this would have only been doable by heading out to a press screening, which may have been held at a time or location that wasn’t very convenient. But I received screener links for both – password-protected video files from the studio – and so I could view at my leisure. It so happened to fit my schedule best to screen Clash, an Egyptian political thriller, at 8:30 on a Monday morning. So I did. No fuss, no wait, and I had it out of the way long before the eclipse that afternoon.

Yet by streaming, you lose something. Your home entertainment setup, no matter how good, can’t compare to the experience of going to a theater, where the screen is bigger, the sound system is better, and the size of the room adds to the whole thing. Sure, there are too many trailers. Yes, your fellow patrons may not always be on their best behavior. But it’s not worth forgoing it altogether. What happens when you watch a film at home? Diversions are everywhere. When I’m reviewing something, I take special precautions to leave my phone in another room, and only watch when there’s almost no chance that I’ll be interrupted. Otherwise, it’s easy to sneak a peek at my Instagram feed, then check Tumblr, then read some emails… oops, I missed a half-hour.

Notice what I do in that instance. In order to have as “pure” a viewing experience as possible, I emulate the environment of a movie theater. The screen is the only vital object in the room. Distractions away, lights down. In terms of the ideal element to experience visual art, the setting has been solidified in our cultural consciousness since the first time people got together to watch their fellow humans put on a performance. It’s a sign that something special is about to happen. I can’t tell you about the first movies or TV shows I may have seen at home, on overplayed VHS tapes. But I could tell you all about the excitement and wonder that came when I went to a theater as a little kid, and saw a big stage, or looked up at a skyscraping screen. We all have memories like that.

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In a few decades, if streaming saturates the market, theaters will still be around. Maybe they’ll be advertised and operated as a kind of luxury. And in that case, all the better to recognize what’s gained by going to one. The regular moviegoers of today will go only a handful of times a year in the future, because it may be more expensive. If a movie theater should equal luxury in that hypothetical tomorrow, then my point still stands. (With all that extra revenue, no more worries about bad maintenance or sticky floors. And if people are paying for a smooth ride, every theater will be more like the Alamo Drafthouse than your local AMC megaplex.) We recognize that we can have an experience there that we can’t have by watching a movie anywhere else.

And this model won’t even affect the excitement that surrounds a hot new movie. It will carry over, even if the locations themselves are limited. People will want to take the time and see it on a big screen. We already hype up Broadway shows, and they only play in one venue at a time. Remember how a certain musical about the “ten dollar Founding Father” swept the nation last year? See, you’re already singing it to yourself, and I didn’t even have to say the name! I can hear you. The internet may have brought permanent changes to how we consume media, but it also serves as a great way to hear about new things. One of the most charming films of the past few years, The Way He Looks, was adapted from a short subject that would have never been noticed had it not been a viral hit on YouTube.

Whatever happens, the process of going to a theater to watch a movie will remain unique. Whether it be a 30 screen compound or an old rep house, there is a value which can’t be replaced. The death of traditional media will neither be as total or abrupt as apocalyptic predictions would have you believe. Right now, hardcover book sales are on the rise, and vinyl records are no longer a speciality of longtime collectors. There will always be an audience for theaters, as long there is something for them to go see. It is said that the François Truffaut, the great French auteur, believed that the most magical thing about a theater is to go down to the front and watch the audience’s upturned faces gazing at the screen, the light from the screen coming down on them. Isn’t that something? A movie illuminates its viewers. There’s only one place where you can understand that.

TL;DR summary: Cinema Paradiso would be terrible if it were called Netflix and Chill.

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