This is the time of year when movie bloggers have finished chiming in on our Top 10 films of the previous year, and we’re knee deep in Awards season prognostication, or pronouncing our own personal award categories. I’ve done that before and I’m sure I’ll do it again next year, but right now something else is weighing on me: in short — Is movie-going dead? Is all that was good about sitting in a darkened cinema with a crowd of strangers simply vanishing?
Here’s what put this all-in stack of chips on my shoulder: I’ve been sneaking into movies for years. Not sneaking through the door without paying, but sneaking into a second movie when the first one leaves me hungry. I fancied myself so adept at theater hopping that I must have perfected the ninja secrets of invisibility. The truth from my years of working in movie theaters is this: on my first day my new coworkers taught me that unless a theater-hopper is being disruptive, minimum wage isn’t enough to risk potentially picking a fight. I have carefully heeded that advice ever since; I plan when one movie stops and the next starts, so that I could see the entire show without disrupting the paying audience, and because any proper nerd wants to see the whole movie! What I have pondered recently is whether a significant portion of paying audiences have become comfortable with accepting a theatrical experience compromised by fellow patrons who are incapable of or unwilling to differentiate between our cinema and their living room.
Last November I set out to break my personal sneak record by seeing 6 movies in 1 day. I tweeted days in advance that I would be attempting this, and tagged several theater chains, daring them to catch me. In hindsight that was probably a stupid idea — God forbid anything terrible should happen in one of the tagged chain’s venues, my Tweet might have been investigated as a threat! I also decided to live-tweet throughout the day, a choice that I was conflicted about, given my hatred of cellphones in movie theaters. I sat in the back row of each screen I visited to minimize my light-casting distraction to others. This had two unexpected benefits: first, several screens had electrical outlets on the back wall where I was able to charge my phone. The second benefit stems from my habit of usually sitting in the front few rows; by sitting in back, I was better able to see how moviegoers conduct themselves.
That back row perspective put an exclamation point on questions I’ve been pondering increasingly in recent years. For example … Has the effort it takes to read a movie’s reviews, become aware of its pedigree, and the skill to parse its marketing to arrive at a reasonable expectation of quality been lost? Has it been replaced by people who buy a ticket to ONLY GOD FORGIVES because they thought Ryan Gosling was so sweet in THE NOTEBOOK, or Kristin Scott Thomas was so tragic in THE ENGLISH PATIENT? You’ve seen these folks, they’re the ones who walk out and demand their money back after 45 minutes of good ol’ Refn-esque sleaze and soft-spoken rage leaves them feeling liked victims of false advertizing. Never mind how little attention they paid to advertizing, reviews, and other readily available information.
The first two films I saw provided perfect examples of this. Jackass Presents: BAD GRANDPA featured Johnnie Knoxville using impressive Oscar-nominated make-up to disguise himself as a cranky geezer on a roadtrip with his pre-teen grandson. Knoxville had done the dirty old man schtick before in skits for the JACKASS films, but this was the first time we see him carrying a whole story with unsuspecting real-world victims of his pranks. Sure enough about 20 minutes into the film, an elderly man sitting a few rows ahead of me got up and mumbled “This is fuckin’ sick” as he walked out. It is very likely he was unfamiliar with the Jackass show on MTV, and instead expected raunchy but comparatively safe entertainment, like BAD SANTA or BAD TEACHER. Never mind that there have been three Jackass films in the past decade. The information was out there, if he cared too look, as it was for the audience with whom I saw the first movie I sneaked into.
THE DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is the true story of Ron Woodruff, a straight man who contracted AIDS in the early 1980′s and became a sort of drug runner. Woodruff transported AZT across the border from Mexico when the American Food & Drug Administration was slow to approve the medication he needed, and he did so in distribution level quantities, to subsidize his own treatment. Matthew McConaughey delivers a career highlight performance as Woodruff, but some younger women in the audience seemed to have bought a ticket for the likable and charming McConaughey of romantic comedies. They didn’t want to see an emaciated redneck McConaughey forging a reluctant friendship with a transgender man played by Jared Leto. I can’t make this up: shortly after Woodruff began losing weight and looking gaunt, I heard these girls wondering if McConaughey’s muscular definition in MAGIC MIKE was CGI. Others in the theater asked them to be quiet numerous times, especially when they responded with homophobic slurs and giggles to Leto’s poignant character. One girl wanted to walk out within the first act; thankfully she got her way eventually, and took her friends with her.
Another chip in my stack: Have we as an audience also lost the awareness to find a theater where we are comfortable, and the openness to live in the moment enough to give ourselves over to the movie for 112 or so minutes? Has it been replaced by people who hate seeing a movie in a theater full of children, and yet choose a Saturday matinee in a shopping mall theater, right between Toys-R-Us and Chuck E. Cheese? Have audiences become so enthralled with the 4 inch screen in their pocket that they couldn’t conceive ignoring it for the duration of a movie? Yes, I’m aware of my hypocrisy on this particular day; more on that imminently.
The next film on my agenda was Gavin Hood‘s adaptation of Orson Scott Card‘s cold-war era sci-fi classic ENDER’S GAME. This is the story of an adolescent young man named Ender Wiggin, played by Asa Butterfield, whose unique intellectual skills are dismissed and ignored by all around him. Harrison Ford plays Colonel Graff, the one military recruiter who recognizes Ender’s skills as crucial for organizing battle strategies. We follow Ender through a science fiction version of FULL METAL JACKET, first surviving his training for war, and then then discovering that he is prepared to take action that the first-act version of himself would never have imagined possible. ENDER’S GAME is a stunning looking movie that both embraces and up-ends cliches of the sci-fi and war movie genres … and yet that was not interesting enough for the guy across the aisle from me. Here I am making an effort to sit in back so the light of my tweeting phone doesn’t annoy anyone … and this guy literally takes a friggin’ iPad out of his backpack and plays a videogame anytime an action sequence ends!! Was I distracted? Hell yes! Did I say anything to him? …Thought about it, chose not to. I’m 3 movies in, I already got my $7 worth, this was experiment time. I wanted to see how long he’d actually do it. And he didn’t stop; anytime a dialogue sequence with exposition and character and nuance and story and whatnot distracted from the fiery explosions and thundering booms, out came BackpackBoy’s Game.
The distraction of his iPad accentuated how distracted I was by my own Tweeting. Y’see my phone isn’t quite 100% — it has these annoying glitches with the U-I-O region of the keyboard. I don’t know what the problem is, but it hampered in my ability to Tweet without occasionally turning off and restarting my phone. So I’m distracted from ENDER’S GAME by BackpackBoy’s Game, and by my wanting to Tweet, and by my phone’s inability to Tweet, and next thing you know I’ve missed more screen time than I would have missed if I’d left the theater for a soda refill. I enjoyed ENDER’S GAME, but I knew that I was reaching a threshold with not only allowing myself to be distracted from movies, but with willfully contributing to my own distraction.
I recognize that I am pointing out a few bad apples and describing the whole barrel as rotten, as I’m aware that lacking audience civility exists anywhere there are audiences, but that should not excuse these same apples from souring the sauce. I’ve seen and heard it in a London stage production of Conor McPherson’s THE WEIR, where multiple patrons asked two oblivious people to stop debating the flavors of the colored wrappers in their crinkly candy bag, and a Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s THE RIDE DOWN MOUNT MORGAN where three elderly women swooned relentlessly over Patrick Stewart’s legs in a hospital gown. I’ve heard it in symphony halls, jazz clubs, poetry slams, and gallery performances, and in my estimation it has gotten worse in direct proportion to the rise of cellphones.
The next film I went to was Steve McQueen‘s 12 YEARS A SLAVE, adapted from Solomon Northup’s memoir by John Ridley. It stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as New York composer and musician Solomon Northup, who was abducted twenty years before the Civil War, and whose memoir of Louisiana slavery helped fuel the northern abolitionist movement. As I Tweeted during the movie, I’ve been a big fan of Chiwetel Ejiofor, ever since his flawless lead performance anchored the equally flawless DIRTY PRETTY THINGS. Since 12 YEARS A SLAVE struck me as the most serious movie in my lineup, making me extra sensitive to anyone not giving it due focus, it became the most distracting experience of the day.
It’s almost difficult to decide where to begin — but let’s go with the red herring. As the trailers were on, a group of roughly a dozen teenaged students came in together, with a woman who I’d guess was their teacher. My immediate reaction was that these kids would talk through most of the movie, but I was only semi-right; their unexpected nemesis spoke more than all of them combined. And here’s where this becomes really unexpected. Remember our elderly “fuckin’ sick” gent who walked out of BAD GRANDPA? He must have been rivaling me for hopping, because he showed up about 15 minutes after 12 YEARS began, which is an egregious violation of my personal code of hopper etiquette. But an even more egregious violation was his frequent passive aggressive mumbling and “Shoosh”-ing of these kids more loudly than any noise they made. He may have well used a shotgun to silence a housefly. I was aware of their conversation, but in fairness they were whispering, and what I could hear from them were reasonable questions that related to the movie. Sure I’d prefer those questions wait until after the movie, but at least they were engaged. Bad Grandpa was paying more attention to the students than to the movie; after about 45 minutes of Solomon’s ordeal, the old fella gave up shooshing and walked out. I’d be willing to bet this guy saw 20 to 45 minutes of every movie in this theater!
From my usual front row vantage point, this would have been the only interruption to 12 YEARS OF SLAVE, and I’d be ready to discuss my next film. But shortly after Bad Grandpa showed up, a couple came upstairs and sat a few seats away from me in the back row. They watched about 15 minutes of the film before she decided there was something else she’d rather see. Thankfully these two were not as joined at the hip as the gaggle of homophobic girls in THE DALLAS BUYERS CLUB. They fairly quickly agreed that she was going to another movie, and that they would meet afterwards in yet another movie. Suddenly, between this couple and Bad Grandpa, I’m beginning to realize that there is nothing special about me wandering from screen to screen. It seems more people do it here than in any theater where I’ve ever worked. But wait, there’s more… right after Bad Grandpa and half of the back row couple left … a woman showed up and sat directly in front of me, I guess because none of the other 200+ available seats were just right?
That in itself was fine … until she unwrapped a full-on picnic that smelled like Chinatown via McDonalds. Yes, movie theaters hijack patrons for far more than concessions actually cost thewm to produce. I’m well versed in the mark-up in popcorn & soda after working for three different chains, in three different markets, one of which I rose to a management level. I’m all for sneaking in a little something, but grazing from multiple smelly and noisy packages creates a multi-sensory obstacle from which no one could remain focused on any film. This perfect storm of distractions reenforced my affection for the front row. Anytime my back row neighbor or I shifted in our seats, buffet lady would shoot us a glaring stink-eye; how dare we disturb her feast?!
But I had not yet learned my lesson, because I went directly to the back row for J.C. Chandor‘s ALL IS LOST. I am a lifelong fan of Robert Redford. The first movie I ever saw more than once was THE STING; it was via Redford that I first learned that when you see a film the second time, it’s still the same story. Johnny Hooker in THE STING did not remember from my previous viewing that Lieutenant Snyder was waiting around that corner for him. Through Robert Redford I learned to dive deep into repeat viewings of movies and search for elements that I may have overlooked on first viewing. While watching ALL IS LOST, a story of a lone yachtsman adrift in a storm, I was not as emotionally moved as I hoped. At some point in during the movie it began to reveal itself as more of an existential metaphor than a character driven story, and then I began to thoroughly dig it.
Still another chip: Has the communal experience of sharing a movie with a room full of like-minded (and even not-so-like-minded) strangers, and letting that movie resonate deeply enough that you ponder it for the rest of the weekend, and devise some original thought of your own to drop on your coworkers come Monday morning — is that all gone? At some point in ALL IS LOST I fell in love with going to the movies again. If I allowed this day to do its worst, I could walk away bitter with the theatrical experience, and finally join Netflix. Listening to this audience vociferously scratch their head and wonder when some tired voice-over or overwrought flashback device would provide us the context to weep for Redford … actually became amusing. Some movies rely on how much of your own mind and soul you bring to the experience; some audiences deserve to be bewildered if they arrive ill-prepared. A few at a time they walked out, and toward the end all I heard was the rusty creaking of another person’s seat, which married very well with the sound design of Redford’s slowly disintegrating vessel. Yes there were distractions in ALL IS LOST, though not as loud as in the earlier films; eventually my communal experience here whittled down to just me and the person with the creaking chair and a couple who took turns falling asleep and snoring. I might have become so saturated with distraction that they barely registered.
I seriously weighed whether or not I had a sixth movie in me, given that my train might stop running before I get out of a late show … but THE COUNSELOR was right there, right when I needed it to be! And here’s where the tables turn: there were virtually no audience distractions in Cormac McCarthy‘s tale of wealthy and connected backstabbing drug dealers and partying hangers-on. There was just Javier Bardem doing his level best to keep a muddy story interesting, plus Cameron Diaz with the most auto-erotic moment since Cronenberg‘s CRASH, but they were not enough to counteract Ridley Scott‘s stylish, derivative, and ultimately dull film. I almost longed for a true master of audience participation to toss out some one liners to make THE COUNSELOR more interesting.
My first real experience with audience participation on the level of stand-up comedy was when my Dad took my brother & me to see CONAN THE BARBARIAN at the long-gone Rivoli Theater in Times Square. I’m not opposed to all audience interruption; if you’ve got something hilarious to contribute, then please by all means let it rip, and loudly enough to share with the entire class. But no one today had anything hilarious or interesting to say, nothing on the level of the two weed-infused gents behind me in 1982.
This leads me to my final conundrum: have movies become so accessible on so many platforms that we now regard the theatrical experience as disposably as a daytime talkshow or a SuperBowl commercial? Some students in one of the top 10 film schools in the country regard attending free movie screenings as a burden. [Full disclosure: Emerson College is both my alma mater, class of '91, and my current employer] If even those who want to be tomorrow’s filmmakers can’t be bothered with ol’ fashioned movie-going, what does that say for tomorrow’s audience?
Given that movie-going audiences are often as bland as the marketing plan driven tent-pole event movies they turn into hits, the future of the theater-going experience may be as homogenized as Hollywood and the increasingly formulaic “independent” film scene. Sadly this situation endures while one of the most ambitious and impressive American movies of 2014 barely limps from the red into the black. When I first began working with my podcast compadre Craig Jamison, he granted me carte blanche to write a guest article for his film site The GullCottage / Sandlot. I opted to examine 4 movies that were simultaneously available in theaters in via Video OnDemand after seeing all 4 both in local theaters and at home. I thoroughly expected to prefer the theatrical option, and was somewhat surprised by the results.
Happily, pockets of hope do exist, though you may have to go to the fringe of the theatrical spectrum to find them. Recently I attended the 39th Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival, the oldest running genre festival in the US, which concludes each year with a 24 hour marathon over Presidents’ Day weekend. The festival itself is always a pleasure, as are the dozen or so other fests I’ve attended around the country. But the ‘Thon is a horse of a different color. This is the ultimate communal experience: 500 or more nerds filling up the orchestra and balcony of the Somerville Theater for a dozen science fiction films, some classics and others yet to be discovered. I’ve seen this show a few times now, and it is always a bargain at twice the price; only about half of those who arrive at noon on Sunday make it all the way to noon on Presidents’ Day. Those who do make it are united by shared thrills and jolts and laughs and beer on tap and bottomless coffee and New England winter outside and audience participation that borders on call-and-response symbiosis with the films in the series. Yeah, downstairs gets to smelling a little like coffee farts, Dunkin Donuts, and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, but you can escape the con-funk in the chilly balcony.
It is likely that I am part of the problem. My early question about theater location may simply be something I need to accept when I go to a mainstream cinema. Aside from the Boston Sci-Fi Marathon and the Somerville Theater, I can think of several film festivals and revival and independent theaters that consistently give me hope for movie-going kind. Any theater that still promotes a film as being presented in 35mm (or even 70mm!), and any audience who actually responds to that as a positive thing, that’s where I find my happy place. For folks who live in an area where these options are in short supply, it makes perfect sense that they would embrace home video over a movie theater; movie nerds go where other movie nerds go, where we can all respect the film and each other. Sometimes that’s in an all-night balcony, some days its on your couch with a DVR loaded with your own personal festival.
Between my initial pondering for the GullCottage/Sandlot and these recent experiences, I think it’s safe to say that I prefer the big screen theatrical experience, albeit from my semi-solitary front rows. Movie-going may not be dead, but like Our Man in ALL IS LOST, it thrives best under very particular circumstances. Now that I’ve actually tested whether or not I like dividing my attention between a movie screen and my phone, I have no intention of repeating that … unless I try to break my record and go for 7!