Why The Cinema Experience Needs to Change [repost]

Via: zizzybaloobah on flickr

This is a repost from November 2010 but a recent post by Mark Mayerson over on his blog brought it back to my attention. In it, Mark points out that the distribution models for movies is about to rapidly change, and not necessarily for the better as far as cinemas go:

Just like record stores have mostly disappeared and physical bookstores are suffering, movie theatres may be next.  While they won’t vanish entirely, we could be looking at a drastic reduction in the number of theatres.

It sounds scary, but it’s not unavoidable, below is my post where I outline how cinemas can improve their business, and it doesn’t have to take a lot of effort either.

Almost as if on cue, Brad Bird also tweeted this morning about the current design of cinemas and his distaste for their bland design:

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/BradBirdA113/status/248420923210878976″]

What do you think? Does the cinema/movie theatre experience need to change? Leave a comment with your thoughts!


The other night I went to see Harry Potter (which contained a surprise animated sequence). It was a rather unique experience because we didn’t go to our usual cinema. Sadly, the 7 o’clock showing was all sold out there (and likely overrun with rowdy teenagers to boot), so instead we had to find somewhere else.Thankfully, The Senator Theatre was re-opened just in time and it turned out to be about the same distance away from the house too!

All in all, it was a great evening and the film was fantastic to boot. Normally we drive up, park, get gouged when we buy our tickets, get gouged again when we buy the popcorn and then have the pleasure of watching 20 minutes of commercial content followed by another 20 minutes of advertising before the film finally starts.

At The Senator, we got our tickets online for less than usual with the popcorn being slightly cheaper as well, and there was no beating about the bush when the lights went down. We got a rating certificate and then the film. I hadn’t seen start that quick since I was at a sneak preview for The Simpsons Movie!

Throughout the evening, what struck me most was how much different it was from our usual cinematic expeditions. It was more like a special event, an occasion even. Granted, it was Harry Potter, so things were slightly more electrified than normal although that did not cloud the overall experience.

All of this got me thinking and it made me a wee bit sad to think that going to the cinema is no longer treated as something special. It is now a run-of-the-mill chore that is forgotten as soon as we leave the building. How did things become so bland and mundane? Let’s take a look back.

The Golden Age of Hollywood between the 20s and the early 50s was also the greatest era for cinematic entertainment in this country. New cinemas were popping up all over the country and changed the face of evening entertainment in the US.

The cinema owners knew this and realised that the best way to earn business was to have people come to their cinemas, and come often. They achieved this through competition, either in size, features, luxury or price. Often it was a combination of them all. Yeah, the studios may have block-booked timeslots and owned the cinema chains but they still had each other to contend with.

There was a time when you could go to dinner at the theatre and then go upstairs to watch the show. You might have even been able to enjoy a drink at the bar afterwards and your movie ticket would have been all of 25 cents. Even adjusted for inflation, this is cheap by today’s standards.

The point is that owners made going to the cinema an experience. They wanted attendees to feel special, that they were being offered a glimpse into the Hollywood glamour; customers responded in kind by dressing up for the evening. The result of all of this is that they came back, again and again and again. In 1930, attendance was 80 million people, or 65% of the entire population! Since then, audience numbers have declined to the point that barely 3% of the population visits the cinema on a weekly basis.

Why is this? Television certainly has its role to play. Why indeed would you drive all the way to the cinema, cough up your kids college fund and then watch a film with a guy on the left who can’t stop farting and a woman on the right conducting a live directors commentary, not to mention the kid behind you kicking your seat. When you think about it, you really would be much more comfortable at home on your own couch, maybe even in your underwear and being all the happier for it.

The point here is that today, cinema owners and movie studios are under a number of illusions when it comes to why people go to the cinema, which I will now dissect:

  • “People want to see it first” – I can download it at home before it even comes out (legality aside)
  • “People want to see it on a big screen” – I’ve got a 50″ plasma screen with surround sound at home and I don’t have to worry about someone blocking the view
  • “It’s affordable entertainment” – YouTube is affordable entertainment
  • “Its 3-D” – This is a tricky one, because I cannot see things in 3-D (bad right eye) and the third dimension has been bandied about twice in the past without success.

As you can see, there is actually very few reasons why any of us should go to the cinema. It’s normally an expensive, cold, noisy hour and a half with very little to show for it in the end. I haven’t even touched on the strip searches some chains have implemented to catch “pirates”. Talk about pissing off the people who are handing over their hard-earned cash.

Compare that to the golden era when customers were treated like royalty. The expansive architecture (check out Uncle Eddie’s Theory Corner and his comparison post if you don’t believe me) , the awe-inspiring theatre chamber, the men’s lounge (seriously, the Senator has a men’s lounge you pass through on the way to the bathroom) and the feeling that you are doing much more with your evening than watching a film.

That way of thinking has been lost in this country. Today, cinema-goers are treated like cattle, “get them in, get them out” is the order of the day. Patrons somehow “owe” the cinema the pleasure of their business rather than the other way around. Why has it come to this? Why is it that as a film fan, I am forced to make choices about whether it is worth my while going to see a film or not? I shouldn’t have to, and the entire industry is worse off because of it. I may be just one person, but if one farmer in Iowa is judged by the Supreme Court to come under Federal law because of the corn he grows, then I am certainly not alone.

Instead, would it not be better if going to the cinema were treated like the occasion it used to be? Instead of being given the Wal-Mart treatment, we were enlightened by our evening and as a result, are far more likely to consider patronising The Senator again (definitely once they get that bar open though). In the past, the addition of more screens, stadium seating and better sound were thought to entice people from their armchairs. Now it’s 3-D that’s been given another crack at the limelight, and it too, looks to falter again. All these things cost a ton of money, which could perhaps have been better spent on giving the customer something they actually want.

Hundreds if not thousands of cinema gems have been lost over the years, the victims of growing suburbia, socio-economic upheaval in their surroundings and a general apathy towards history in this country. The March of Progress, etc. etc. The oft-quoted response is that such buildings are “a dime a dozen”. Sadly, there isn’t that many left.

Is there hope for the future? Perhaps. Cinemas such as The Senator are dependent on two things: continued patronage and the uninhibited ability to show the films they want. I fully enjoyed my little slice of American cinematic glory. Its time we all did.

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