Movie-going experience isn't what it used to be


February 13, 2007

The setting: a suburban multiplex on Sunday night. The cast of characters: A family of five, two adults and three teenagers. And, action: They file into a row of the theater, settling down with popcorn and sodas, and the kids promptly slouch down and sling their feet over the seats in front of them.

Fade to black thoughts on the part of a moviegoer sitting behind them.

When their parents didn't correct them, and no ushers materialized to be the grown-ups, I mentally tallied another losing score: Personal comfort, 1; public decorum, 0.

Seeing this at a movie theater this weekend, I began to fear even more for the Senator Theatre, the city's grand picture palace that is threatened with foreclosure. The Art Deco landmark is scheduled to be sold at auction next week unless its owner, who is $90,000 behind in mortgage payments, can somehow pull off a Hollywood-style happy ending. The culprits are the usual suspects that have kept the theater on financial tenterhooks in recent years - on one end, the economics of mainstream film distribution favor the chain multiplexes over family-owned single-screen houses like the Senator, while art houses like the Charles squeeze it from the other, indie end.

But the Senator also isn't helped by another trend in movie-viewing either - specifically, the way people increasingly prefer seeing films at home, and if they do go out to a theater, they treat it as an extension of their homes.

The Senator harks back to a more formal time, when movies were occasions. While it's surely gotten a few feet slung over its seats during its time, the theater's ceremonial bearing and dowager air have a way of inviting more respectful behavior. It's an event to see a movie there - you enter under that great, curved marquee and into a high-ceilinged, circular lobby of pastel murals and gold gilt and, finally, into the velvet and damask cocoon of the viewing area. The seats and the rows are narrow, and they curve to point everyone toward the widescreen; on special occasions, the curtains will be drawn over the screen, and their slow unfurling to reveal the screen is, well, great theater.

Surroundings matter. At the typical mall multiplex, by contrast, you churn through a cattle line to get to the ticket booth, make your way past noisy video games, candy machines and other clutter and through tunnel-like hallways to your theater, or rather, theater-ette, a rectangular box where the seats are huge, pillowy thrones in which, if you sink down low enough, you can imagine you're in your Barcalounger at home and not part of an audience of - eek - strangers. The seats are pitched high, so you look down rather that up at the screen. The effect is not so much theatrical as stadium-like.

Movies aren't opera, of course, but it's too bad that going to see one is increasingly just another trip to the mall. Wanna go to Macy's today, or a movie? If we go out at all, that is.

Here's an astonishing statistic, from a story in Fortune magazine last year: In 1946, movie theaters in the United States sold about 4 billion tickets, which translated into every American going to the movies, on average, 28 times in a year. Flash forward - past the rise of television and the advent of VCRs, DVD players, video games and the Internet - and by 2005, the number of movie tickets sold had dropped to 1.4 billion, and the average American going to movies less than five times a year.

Movie theaters aren't blameless in this - with the price of tickets and concessions higher than ever, it's particularly galling that you have to sit through commercials before the movie airs. You might as well be at home watching TV, where at least you have a remote to click past the ads.

Still, it's sad to see movie-watching become more of a private than a public matter, and audiences shrinking - from a Senator-like palace where hundreds have gathered, to a cramped multiplex theater, to a family room where a couple of people are watching a rented DVD together, to a single person downloading a movie onto a computer or iPod.

I'm trying to imagine the movie I saw Sunday night - the phantasmagorical Pan's Labyrinth - on a 2 1/2 -inch iPod screen. Or the big, splashy musical Dreamgirls that I saw at the Senator a couple of weeks ago.

It reminds me of that great exchange in the old movie Sunset Boulevard, where a failed screenwriter meets a faded film star.

Joe Gillis: "You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big."

Norma Desmond: "I am big. It's the pictures that got small."

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