The End is Near: Is the Movie-Going Experience on Life Support?

The American Movie-Going Experience is Dead. Long live the American Movie-Going Experience.

What used to be The Strand Theater back in the day, is now a souvenir shop in the Ocean Beach community of San Diego, CA.

It was the summer of 1983, and I couldn’t have been more excited. As was often the case with big releases then, the entire family was crammed into a Subaru en-route to the Deptford 6 Cinema. We had watched the previews on Siskel and Ebert, a positive review from both, and were beyond anxious. We had left the house for the 15 minute car ride a full hour and fifteen minutes before showtime.

When we pulled into the parking lot, and I could not believe my 9-year-old eyes: a line snaked across the front of the cineplex, and through the parking lot. There was a buzz in the air – we knew, my family and I – that this was an event, one that we would talk about all summer long.

It was the opening day for Return of the Jedi.

From that day in 1983, there are only a handful of times I have experienced such a feeling…Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Back to the Future, The Phantom Menace, and Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring are the few that come to mind. But that’s it.

As I have gotten older, that 9-year-old wonder has been replaced with adult responsibilities: summer blockbusters gave way to career, and family. Truth be told, the bulk of films I see these days are primarily animated, or star the latest Nickelodeon or Disney Jr. flavor of the month. Such is life as a Dad.

So, it is not with much shock or outrage that I came to find the sentiments of Ian Grey’s lament on IndieWire last week – Show Stopper: The End of the American Theatrical Moviegoing Experience. In his commentary, he outlines why the movie-going experience is dead; he writes:

The business model here is contempt: as long as a certain amount of people show up who are willing to have their wallets and handbags stripped, it’s all good. That is, until a summer of no business-saving Avatars or Avengers. When it’s all John Carters.

But this isn’t a business known for planning ahead. Or at all.

And yet the abusive audience/exhibitor relationship continues to be championed—by film writers whose experience of it couldn’t be farther removed from that of ordinary citizens, who enjoy perfect prints in cushy screening rooms with plush chairs and high-end sound systems. There are no texting teens, no phones beeping, no snack bags crinkling.

As I read Mr. Grey’s piece, I couldn’t help but find myself agreeing. He paints the picture of what the costs are if you leave the kids at home. I love movies so much, I want to share that experience with my children. The math gets steeper:

  • 2 Adults = $22

    The AMC Theater at the Fashion Valley Mall

  • 2 Kids = $16
  • Popcorn, drinks = $30
  • TOTAL = $68

A pretty conservative estimate if you ask me. On top of that, the last time I went to the theaters, I counted at least 9 different people texting, and in one recent trip 2 people actually answered their cell phones and carried on a full conversation. So, Grey’s ire is not too far removed from what I have seen as well.

Add to the increased cost in the average trip to the movies with the growing availability of OnDemand services as well as streaming content – and the home theater experience is a very real threat. God knows, in our family it is much more economical to rent a movie OnDemand, heat up the popcorn in the microwave and settle in our PJ’s for the night.

That said, unlike Grey, I don’t think that the movie-going experience is dying, nor is it dead.  I do think it is undergoing a metamorphosis and is still trying to figure out its next iteration. That is to say, exhibitors are close to determining what that next phase will be.  You see – I don’t think that we are ready to give up the experience of gathering together to share in the struggles, highs and lows of a story. And I think Hollywood knows that too.

Cinepolis San Diego

Knowing full well that people enjoy the communal aspect of experiencing stories, there is now the growing trend of new, boutique theaters. From the ArcLight Theaters in Los Angeles (coming soon to La Jolla-UTC), to the Alamo Drafthouse theaters in Texas, to the Cinepolis Theaters in Mexico – and now, San Diego – the movie-going experience is undergoing an upgrade. While the average ticket at a Cinepolis in San Diego is double that of a ticket at AMC, there are some “luxury” trade-offs.  Whether or not this is a long-term solution is not known. But after watching a movie there, I know I desperately want to return.

And if money weren’t an issue – this would be the only way I would want to watch movies.

At the end of the day, the movie-going experience of my 9-year-old self is dead. After experiencing a place like Cinepolis, the movie-going experience is so far removed from life support. So…

The movie-going experience is dead. Long live the movie-going experience.

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