by Hugh Gilmore
Let’s face it, Americans don’t go to the movies as much as they used to. Too much competition. At first, it was from television. Then it was video rentals. Nowadays it’s Netflix. Why go out when you can stay home and be entertained?
For most adults, life is so much simpler when they hit the sofa and pick up the large-screen TV remote control. No transportation needed, no parking competition, no ticket lines, much cheaper prices, cleaner bathrooms (I assume), full snacking (or even full meal) privileges, comfortable seating, good sight lines, no annoying morons distracting your eyes by their texting screens, no blockheads sitting in front of you, no strangers talking while you’re listening, no gum sticking to your shoes (again, I assume), and so on. Click, turn the TV on. Click, choose Netflix. Click, choose your movie.
Movie theaters had only a few advantages in this competition. First, they had the first-run exclusive: Build a big advertising campaign that makes everyone want to see the movie, and then don’t allow it to be seen anywhere except in movie theaters. Anyone who wanted to be part of the water-cooler conversation on Monday morning had to have gone to the movies over the weekend.
Second, for teens and young people, it got them out of the house and away from their parents. Third, it was still an acceptable way for a couple to go on a date – dinner-and-a-movie is a time-honored mode of being with your sweetheart, or someone you are interviewing to play that role in your life. Even your spouse. Cheaper than a theater date, and more choices.
Despite those few advantages, Hollywood has been hemorrhaging money trying to compete with home entertainment. The studios are hurting. The distributors are hurting. The exhibitors are hurting. Up and down the line, from the equipment makers to the popcorn providers, it has become a dying industry.
Yes, even for the flops there is money to be made through foreign rights and DVD distribution, but not enough. Besides, Netflix and its brethren are doing their best to go worldwide, and they will before long, as soon as the infrastructure is in place.
You might think: Why don’t the movie-makers create better movies? Give us all a reason to go back? The answer is: It doesn’t matter. Adults will still prefer the comforts of home viewing, so Hollywood might as well keep churning the drool that keeps teens and singles and daters coming to the theater.
But: never give up the ship, right? If the people won’t go to the mountain, perhaps we should change the mountain, make it have the comforts of home. Why not indeed? The AMC theater chain, and others, have remodeled their venues. A typical modernized movie house now offers fewer, but more comfortable seats. Oversized, leather, electric-controlled recliners await the moviegoer now. They even have separate armrests, so you don’t have to compete in silent fury with the stranger beside you for elbow space. They have large cup holders. In these big, soft, good-sightline chairs you can watch while eating much more than popcorn or drinking diet soda. In different locales around the country, people can purchase food as varied as lobster rolls, edamame and churros.
In some theaters, there is even table service. (See, for example, the Local’s Sept. 23 article about nearby Flourtown’s Movie Tavern.)
Not just food, but a different array of beverages, including alcohol, await today’s movie patron. A bar offering beer, wine and mixed drinks stands in the lobby. Your martini can be taken back to your seat. Now, one can go on a romantic dinner-and-a-movie-and-a drink-afterward date all in one building. Assuming those conveniences can override the idea that your evening on the Isle of Capri is happening in a shopping mall, the possibilities could be charming.
But then, the movies always did have that magic, didn’t they? I’m still shocked when the lights come on after a film and I walk out onto a city sidewalk. For now, the experiment has stimulated increased ticket sales. We’ll see whether the new enticements will continue to pull folks in once their novelty status fades.
In the meantime, what about the opera folks? How do they like these changes? I’m sorry to report this, but many of the opera simulcast folks are not happy with these new developments. When I went to the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD season premiere at the AMC Plymouth Meeting Mall 12 movie theater on Oct. 3 (Verdi’s “Il Travatore”), I overheard quite a few complaints.
First, the larger seats diminish the seating capacity of the theater used for Met simulcasts from about 120 to 81. Fewer patrons can be seated. Thus, opera itself, as an art form that needs every dollar it can earn to stay alive, stands to lose some patrons.
Second, the AMC theater now provides everyone with a reserved seat. For the average movie that’s not too big a deal since people can reserve with their smartphones en route, or get assigned when they show up. But for the opera simulcasts the policy had always been a Darwinian first-come/first-served. Some people, this writer included, would show up at 10 a.m. for the 1 p.m. show, just to assure that they got their preferred seat (last row, aisle seat for me). Now, for the popular shows it’s possible to show up very early and still get an undesirable seat because everyone else has reserved not just a ticket, but a specific seat.
Third: food-schmood. The operas run three hours, minimum. Sometimes five hours. Including waiting time, some folks are in their seats for an eight-hour shift. Of course they bring food. Who eats that lobby junk? At each intermission the lights come up a bit and out come the tote bags. Salad, tofu, deli sandwiches, celery, humus, whatever. It is like a Weavers Way company picnic. And drinks? Who drinks whiskey, gin, or wine at one in the afternoon? Who needs it? Maybe they should have their heads examined.
And finally: the Big One: Do you want to experience great art, involving strange, dramatic, often tragic events, told in song and music by the world’s greatest singers, singing from the depths of human emotion, telling the great truths of human passion and morality … lying down? In a leather recliner? How can that be? I mean, until now the question never came up. On the other hand, does great art require that we absorb it whilst sitting in a hard folding chair, cheek-by-jowl with our fellow patrons?
I guess not. Probably not. But lying on a leather, adjustable divan? Watching every so comfortably while Carmen gets stabbed, or Tosca jumps from the parapets to save her virtue?
Modern life is so confusing sometimes.
Hugh Gilmore is the author of the Kindle Top-100 memoir “My Three Suicides: A Success Story.” Available in paperback also, as are several of his other high ranked books.