The theater experience

It’s no accident that so much of my writing at GameSpite has been focused on issues related to home theaters. I’ve grown to prefer the home theater experience to actual theaters, and I’m certainly not alone in that.

[[image:vs090108_theater.jpg:Movie Theater Lights:center:0]]

This is probably a side effect of the fact that my local movie theater is shockingly bad. When I saw 300 there, the film was badly out-of-focus. Everything was so fuzzy that I felt like I was going blind. This is the same theater where I saw Anchorman, during which the projectionist badly misframed the movie. The cinematographer of Anchorman apparently decided not to block off the unused vertical areas of the frame, and consequently objects like boom microphones were visible on the print itself yet shouldn’t have been visible to audiences when projected properly. When I saw it, though, the boom mikes were frequently visible. Having not seen the film before, I thought it was some kind of bad joke. It wasn’t until close the end of the film, when only the barest top of the subtitles could be seen, that I realized what was wrong. Those are only two examples, as I could go on and on; the most recent travesty being when I took my wife to see Twilight a few days after the film’s release and the print they were showing was already badly damaged.

Despite these bad experiences, the main reason I prefer my home theater is that it gives me the ability to control the experience. Even when I make the long drive to a theater in a more civilized area of the world for big event pictures, I still end up having a bad experience most of the time. If it’s not the constant illumination of everyone around me using their phones throughout the whole movie, I’m inevitably seated next to a bored and energetic small child, or else someone incapable of comprehending on-screen events, prompting them to ask, “Who is that? Where did he come from? Why are they going there?” every few minutes.

Why bother with these distractions when the home experience has advanced so much? When I was a kid watching my bootleg Star Wars tapes (on Betamax, no less), I never imagined that I’d grow up to have theater-style surround sound in my living room. That the picture quality on my display would be as good as (if not better than) a movie being traditionally projected. I know there is some controversy about the innate qualities of traditional film projection over digital images, but if the choice is paying an obscene price to see a badly-weathered print splashed across a huge screen or staying home to watch a perfect digital transfer, the better option is easy to guess.

[[image:vs090108_batman.jpg:Just the… kitty… I’ve been looking for.:center:0]]

This does make me a bit melancholy, though. Some of my best memories growing up involve movie theaters. I remember my cousin surprising me by taking me to the opening night of Batman Returns. As a kid, I didn’t get to see many movies in the theater (being the first of five children made a movie theater outing very expensive for my family). It was in a majestic theater in Southern California, and the lines were incredible. Being there for that spectacle is something I’ll treasure forever, and the kindness my cousin showed me that day will never be forgotten. Instead of going to the movies, my mom would buy me the movie tie-in novelizations of all the movies I wanted to see. I was a big bookworm as a kid, and reading was how I first experienced Gremlins 2, a movie I was looking forward to so much that I wrote my own script for it.

More recently, being a part of the hype for Star Wars: Episode One is an experience I don’t regret in the slightest. I waited in line overnight for the tickets, and again for the seating. It was the first time I realized that there was a whole community of nerds out there, and that I wasn’t the only person in the world who not only knew who Mitth’raw’nuruodo was, but who could in these heady days before Wikipedia recite facts about the Chiss and the services he performed for the Empire.

[[image:vs090108_phantom.jpg:This image gave me chills the first time I saw it:center:0]]

So it is with some regret that I now rarely venture out of my cave to see films in a theater. The combination of high prices and the rudeness of other people has made the movie theater experience worse than I can recall it being when I was younger, and the convenience and quality of watching a Blu-ray on an HD set in surround sound negates any advantages that movie theaters used to have. The movie theater industry might scramble for gimmicks like 3D projection to try and give people something they can’t get at home, but I’d rather they figure out a way to deliver consistent quality in a quiet environment.

Movie Theater Image courtesy of Steve Rhodes

18 thoughts on “The theater experience

  1. I only want to go to theaters these days for movies I just can’t wait for or if I feel like they should really be seen on the big screen the first time (big action movies, mostly). My home setup isn’t amazing, but it’s more than adequate, so if it’s something I’m on the fence about or that isn’t so much of a spectacle I’d just as soon wait.

    Also, I thought I was the only one who watched Star Wars on Betamax. My dad worked at the Federated Group and would copy the demo movies off onto Betamax tapes. Good memories.

  2. On my list of things to do when I travel to America is go to the cinema. For the most part, I’ve had extremely positive experiences with the cinema, except for one cinema that decided they had to recapture the matinee experience, which apparently amounts to “make the stuff at the start of the movie before it starts last for an hour”. I guess Laurel and Hardy shorts were all the rage then, but guys, expectations have moved on.

  3. MarsDragon, the theater is a picture I snagged off Flickr. Check out the image credit for more info on where it was taken.

    Sarc, Perhaps my Blu-ray fandom is rooted in all the good memories I have of watching Star Wars and Disney Cartoons on Betamax as a kid?

  4. Damn, you seem to be stuck with the worst theatres…

    I don’t care how expensive and hardcore someones home theatre setup gets…I still go to the movies…I like being out in the world, I guess…

  5. Levi: For what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure it is. I was kinda hoping it was yours and there was a TTer I was actually close to, but I suppose not.

  6. I was going to say something about people talking in theaters, but I think I’ll stick with happy thoughts instead. That Episode 1 poster gave me chills, too. It’s so dark, and the juxtaposition is so jarring! If only Episode 1 had hit that same note, but alas, it didn’t.

  7. I’m still badly in need of a receiver/speaker setup, but my HDTV/PS3/Netflix subscription has all but killed my movie-going days. I saw The Dark Knight in the theater last year, and I think that was it. I’d rather stay home, cook something nice and not worry about fifty texters.

    There’s a casino theather here that is the worst, since it’s basically cheap babysitting for gamblers.

  8. When television was introduced, the theaters went to widescreen to combat it, to give people something they couldn’t get at home. I’m afraid there isn’t anything they can offer us now, to get us back into the theaters. 3D probably isn’t the answer — even good 3D gets tiresome after a while. What can they do? I think the customers they’ve lost are gone forever. They can blame piracy if it makes them feel better, but the real answer is that movie theaters aren’t offering us a compelling reason to spend our entertainment dollar with them.

  9. So, without mincing words, your problem with the theatre experience is the fact that you’re not in control of any part of it. I guess that’s understandable. You’re paying money, so you expect to have things your way. I look for something else in my movie experience. To me it’s similar to attending a concert, although it’s hardly comparable to a live performance. No, I go to be part of a crowd and experience some of the shared energy within the room. Sometimes that results in a shitty experience, but sometimes it’s great. I couldn’t have gotten through the dreck that was The Strangers without the audience turning it into a participatory experience.

  10. In my case, I just absolutely freak out when I am in a dark enclosed space with a bunch of mouth-breathing movie-goers. I can happily wait a few months for something to roll onto DVD or Blu-Ray (although my off-brand 1080i with composite cables and a cluster of dead pixels is far from doing the medium justice) to enjoy it on my own, and judge with it’s own merits.

    Plus, one of the people who really got me into cinema instilled some weird habits in me. I pretty much always have to have subtitles on (although I sometimes avoid this in comedies with especially sharp timing) and I need ready access to how much time is left. The ps3 is a godsend for that in I can have that running at all times without blocking too much off.

  11. Easily the most magical movie experiences I’ve had have been when the audience has felt free to participate. It made Tomb Raider tolerable!

  12. Yeah, sometimes audience participation is the highlight of a movie.

    For instance: Somehow I had been coerced into watching Anaconda and expected it to be a terrible movie (it was,) however, when they showed the snake for the first time, a very large African American woman jumped out of her seat and yelled “DAAAAMN THAT’S A BIG ASS SNAKE.”

    Best moment of my life, really.

  13. “the real answer is that movie theaters aren’t offering us a compelling reason to spend our entertainment dollar with them.” Levi, don’t you mean dollars (and lots of them)?

    This reminds me of the time I went to see the second Matrix movie and wanted to yell at people to shut up. … The people onscreen.

  14. I’ve always frequented movie theaters, even the horribly bad ones. Watching a movie on the big screen is, in my opinion, a totally different experience from watching something at home, and I’ll never really enjoy watching movies at home as much as at the theaters. I can sympathize with people who are rude in movie theaters, I’ll be the first one to get a manager though.

  15. You have my sympathies for a shitty theatre, dude. Here in Milwaukee, we have some shitty theatres, but at least 3 excellent ones, one of which periodically shows Friday the 13: Part 3D (and if you still have your 3D glasses from the last time they showed it, they don’t charge you again), along with many other “classics” at midnight on the weekends. I love going to the theatre, even if it’s to see a movie that came out 20 years ago, and I’ve owned 3 copies of (Evil Dead 2, anyone?).

    So, yeah… sucks that your local theatre sucks.

  16. There is something to be said for the communal experience of film-going — like I said in my article, when you see a movie with a good crowd, it enhances the experience. Seeing all three Star Wars prequels at Midnight showings was amazing. In fact, midnight showings of genre films are usually great. The theater is filled with fans who respect the material enough to not talk through the whole damn film. Dark Knight was another great midnight experience.

  17. “I know there is some controversy about the innate qualities of traditional film projection over digital images, but if the choice is paying an obscene price to see a badly-weathered print splashed across a huge screen or staying home to watch a perfect digital transfer, the better option is easy to guess.”

    Indeed. Straight to the movie theatre.

    Do you have idea how amazing it is to see a beat up copy off the Princess Bride on the big screen? Or even a digitally perfect (frankly just a DVD) Pulp Fiction at the theatre?

    I go to movie theatres because I like seeing movies at theatres. Sure, I could splash out five or six grand for a solid home theatre experience. But my TV would be 60 inches instead of 30 feet. My speakers would be a tenth the size. I couldn’t turn the volume up, because I’m an apartment guy.

    Shrug. To each to their own. Me, I’ll always go the theatre—especially for movies that I never got the chance to see on the big screen (seeing Alien a couple years ago was a million times scarier than at home).

    The one advantage I’ll give you at home concerns making out… but in the end you kinda stop watching the movie.

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