The Great Experiment -- The Ritz 12 and What It Means to Foreign/Independent Cinema in America

Commentary by James Berardinelli
October 9, 1996

One of the most overlooked aspects of movie viewing is the physical setting where the film is seen. How do most Americans choose which cinema to frequent? By location. Whatever theater is closest gets their money. Movie going has become so routine, so second-nature, that few patrons care about the quality of the experience. Convenience is more important than getting the most out of a film. How many people do you know who will drive an extra ten miles to see Twister in a 600-seat, digital surround sound theater as opposed to saving the time and effort by watching it in a 150-seat pillbox with a lone speaker in the front? It's not the same experience, to be sure, but try explaining that to someone who sees only a handful of movies in a year.

The multiplex is here to stay. It's well and good to wax nostalgic about the "lost movie palaces", but the day of grand, 2000-seat single theaters is long past. The edifices only still exist in places where there's an active effort to preserve them for posterity. Gargantuan theaters don't make money. How many movies can consistently pull in more than 1000 customers per showing, even on an opening weekend? Not many. This year, maybe only Independence Day.

Similarly, smaller single theaters and mini-plexes (two or three screen complexes) are dead or dying. For the most part, they're economically unfeasible. Not only do they lack variety, but they tend to be run down. There hasn't been a new duplex or triplex built in about twenty years (discounting palaces that were hacked up to provide multiple, smaller-capacity theaters), so, even when sound systems have been upgraded, the basic architecture is still old.

The new trend is toward megaplexes (multiplexes with 10 or more screens). You can find them all over the country now -- 20+ screen monoliths that are more like malls than movie theaters. (Remember when multiplexes used to be part of malls?) This past July 3, some of these places had Independence Day playing on as many as 8 screens. With staggered starting times, you could walk in off the street at any moment and be no more than 15 minutes away from the next showing.

The quality of these megaplexes varies. All have modern sound systems, but some exhibit better quality than others (this generally has to do with the care invested in setup and maintenance). Some seats are more comfortable than others. Are they padded? Do they have high backs? What about cup holders? Do they rock? Employees can be courteous and knowledgeable or rude and apathetic. How many projectionists are used, and do they actually keep checking the films? And what about the lines of sight? Can you enjoy a movie from the front and back rows, or do you have to be somewhere in the middle?

Still, even the cleanest, most modern multiplex will have trouble drawing customers if it isn't conveniently located. People are generally reluctant to change their movie-going habits. If they're used to attending an AMC-8 three miles away, they're not likely to start frequenting a Loews-14 ten miles away unless given a compelling reason to do so (like much cheaper ticket prices). I tend to be very picky about where I see movies, and I frequent more than a dozen theaters, but I know that I'm in the minority.

Most of what I've said so far applies to mainstream movies. This past summer, if I wanted to see ID4, I had about five choices, all within twenty minutes: one local 7-plex, with adequate sound and seating; a 10-plex with excellent sound and hostile employees; a struggling 3-plex with no surround sound; a new 10-plex with state-of-the-art everything; and a sterile 14-plex where the ushers act like zombies. However, the number of choices drops for "smaller" films, like Emma. And it often vanishes altogether for foreign and independent features.

For example, if I wanted to see Mike Leigh's Palme D'Or winning Secrets and Lies, what do I do? A conventional megaplex won't show it, because, even though they have an excess of screens, they're too busy showing The First Wives Club on 3, The Glimmer Man on 2, and The Mighty Ducks 3 on 2. There's no room for Secrets and Lies, not even in one lousy 125- person room. Why? The management says it won't sell tickets. The under-18 crowd makes up 75% of their patronage and hardly anyone in that age group will be interested in seeing Secrets and Lies. According to theater owners, they'll make more money from a 3-month old film like Independence Day than a brand-new, critically-acclaimed, offbeat feature. Still, someone must want to see it, otherwise October Films wouldn't be distributing it.

So, if I can't see Secrets and Lies in a local multiplex, what are my other options? There are a few nearby art houses, one of which is sure to be showing it. But there are problems. These aren't nice places to see movies. They have muffled sound, poor lines of sight, tiny screens, and the stink of stale urine hangs in the air. Sound appealing? No? I don't demand pristine conditions for movie watching, but there are limits to what I'll endure. Most of these art houses are run on shoestring budgets, so upgrading is impossible. Often, these buildings seem on the verge of falling apart; most of them were in their heyday more than thirty years ago.

If I reject this option, it means I have to travel. New York is a hellish one hour commute away. Philadelphia is the same distance, although the trip is more pleasant. Secrets and Lies is playing in both cities, in pretty nice theaters. And, as anyone who knows me will testify, I'll travel an hour to see a quality feature in a pleasant surrounding instead of settling for a 10-minute trip to a dirty, dilapidated theater where there's a chance the projector will conk out halfway through a showing. But shouldn't there be another alternative? And what about those who don't live close to a major city or don't have a nearby art house? Are they doomed to wait for Secrets and Lies on video?

A few of the larger multiplexes have begun to reserve a screen or two for foreign and independent releases. It's a modest step forward, but a welcome one. Across the United States, only 400-450 total screens offer this sort of fare (including art houses), comprising less than 6% of the total domestic monetary take. Still, with the number of small films coming out each week, a couple of screens isn't going to be enough. So that leads to the idea of the "high concept" multiplex -- a theater complex where every screen shows an art film (or at least something that isn't playing everywhere else). There aren't many of these cinemas, and almost all of them are in major population centers. Until recently, the largest in North America has boasted 8 or 9 screens (like one in Cambridge, Mass. or one in Toronto). Then came "the great experiment", as it has been dubbed -- New Jersey's Ritz 12.

When it opened three weeks ago, there was considerably more fanfare than accompanies the usual theater opening. Distributors and chain owners all across the United States were watching. This was a test balloon that would tell whether the idea of a major "high concept" megaplex was viable. If you live in Los Angeles, Chicago, or New York, you probably haven't heard about it, but, be assured, it may affect you. Because, if it fails, several similar planned complexes will revert to traditional megaplexes before their foundations are laid.

The $7 million Ritz 12 is the bigger, younger sister of Philadelphia's two Ritz five-plexes. Unlike the other Ritzes, however, this one isn't located in the city; it's in the suburbs, very close to three malls and five major mainstream multiplexes. Officially, the address is 900 Haddonfield-Berlin Road (Rt. 561) in Voorhees, NJ, although that won't mean anything to anyone who isn't familiar with the area.

Here are some specifics. As the name implies, there are 12 screens. The rooms, which seat from 185 to 437 people, all have "terraced seating [a 16 foot drop from back to front, as compared to the four foot drop in most theaters] to provide excellent sight lines, commodious legroom, rocking theater seats", and a full digital surround sound system. The projection room is over 300 feet long, with 12 powerful projectors. The 5000 square foot lobby has a cafe (with tables), a separate concessions area, and a lounge (with periodicals to read and sofas to sit on). In addition to the usual popcorn, soda, and candy, refreshments include espresso, cappuccino, cafe au lait, mineral water, trail mix, and pastries. The decor is designed to recall a European hotel lobby, and the hall leading to the theaters is adorned with portraits of dozens of renowned film makers. Ticket prices are $4 (first showings and Wednesdays), $5 (student and senior citizen discounted), $7 (nights), and $7.50 (Saturdays). This is the most impressive theater I've been in to date, and, because I do quite a bit of traveling, I have visited a large number of venues across the country (including some of the best in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas, L.A., and San Francisco). But that's a secondary issue.

During a special opening weekend film festival, the Ritz 12 showed the following features: Babette's Feast; Barton Fink; Cinema Paradiso; Citizen Kane; The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover; Days of Heaven; Henry V; Howards End; La Cage aux Folles; My Left Foot; Il Postino; and Raise the Red Lantern. Turnout was impressive (the 1200 space parking lot was full and the lobby was crammed), although free passes had been offered to just about anyone who wanted one.

Currently, the theater has moved to its regular slate of showings, which include Madame Butterfly, Grace of My Heart, American Buffalo, Big Night, Surviving Picasso, Synthetic Pleasures, Cold Comfort Farm, Il Postino, Lone Star, Emma, Basquiat, A Perfect Candidate, The Wife, and Infinity, with Secrets and Lies, Rendezvous in Paris, and Paradise Lost due to open in two days. Alas, the first chink in the Ritz 12's non-mainstream armor has already been pierced: The Chamber, a major Hollywood release, will also open there.

This may be indicative of the compromise the theater will be forced to make to survive. A quick survey of the peak crowds over the past two weekends indicates that, while the more mainstream offerings (Grace of My Heart, Big Night, Surviving Picasso, Cold Comfort Farm, Il Postino, Emma) are playing to better-than-average houses, many of the offbeat films (especially Synthetic Pleasures, A Perfect Candidate, and The Wife) are doing miserably. Planned showings of Aparajito and Apur Sansar were apparently pulled when last week's Pather Panchali tanked.

Demographics are interesting, although not surprising. The male/female mix is about 50/50. Racially, the audiences reflect the local population, which is predominantly white. A significant portion of the Ritz 12's patrons are over 30, and many are senior citizens. There are a fair number of younger movie-goers, primarily on Friday and Saturday nights, but not nearly as many as can be found at a traditional multiplex. It should be noted that the Ritz has a policy not to admit children between 6 and 16 into any feature unless they're accompanied by an adult. Children under 6 are never permitted entrance, even to G and PG movies.

According to statements made by owner Ramon Posel, the Ritz 12 is in it for the long haul, and the belief is that, in due course, the theater will turn a profit. When it first opened in Philadelphia, the Ritz 3 ran at a loss for a long period before becoming one of the city's most profitable venues, so there's reason for optimism. But if the Ritz 12 is slow to catch on, and if "common" movie-goers are scared away by titles they don't recognize, how will this affect the other, planned "high concept" megaplexes? No one is willing to venture a guess.

So what does this "great experiment" mean, especially to those who don't live anywhere near New Jersey? Success for the Ritz 12 could mean a proliferation of multiplexes catering to foreign and independent fare. Theater owners are notoriously unwilling to gamble, but if they think they have a sure thing, they'll sink money into it. If the Ritz 12 stays in the red, however, and is forced to show more and more mainstream movies to remain afloat, the outlook is dim that anyone else will try something similar. At the moment, all we can do is wait and watch, and hope that the middle-class denizens of suburbia aren't frightened away by subtitles and Hal Hartley.

The Ritz 12
Location: 900 Haddonfield-Berlin Road (Rt. 561)
Phone (Showtimes and Features): (609) 770-0600
Web site:

Next: "Boo!"

© 1996 James Berardinelli

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