Friday Afternoon at the Multiplex

January 15, 2007
A thought by James Berardinelli

It's multiplex bashing time again! This is a semi-regular event in this space because the more time I spend in multiplexes, the more irritated I become. At this time of the year, with so many general releases falling into the "not screened for critics" category, I spend a lot of time as a paying customer (although considering some of what I am paying for, the word "robbery" comes to mind).

Of the next nine movies I plan to review, only four have announced pre-release screenings (Catch and Release, Because I Said So, The Lives of Others, Norbit). Three appear to be on the "not for critics" menu (The Hitcher, Epic Movie, The Messengers). Two are on the bubble, which means no screenings have been announced but something could pop up at the last minute (Smokin' Aces, Hannibal Rising). If Smokin' Aces is pre-screened, I can probably fit in Blood and Chocolate, which is being hidden from critics. Irrespective of how things turn out, this means I will be spending a couple of hours during at least each of the next three Fridays (weather permitting) at a 24-plex in Hamilton, NJ.

My preference is to go to the first showing on opening day, which is usually around 11:00 am. There are several advantages to this strategy: it limits crowd interference, it gives me most of the day to write the review, and it's cheap. (AMC has a policy that on Fridays all matinees before noon are $5.) There's never a problem with seat availability, so I can arrive fifteen minutes late, thereby missing all commercials and most of the previews (which I don't enjoy as much as some movie-goers because of their tendency to give away the entire movie). This brings me to my last two excursions to a multiplex.

A few weeks ago, I wandered into the multiplex to watch Deck the Halls. It was showing in a nice, big auditorium - at least 450 seats. I was the only one there. So I sat in a centrally located seat and began viewing the movie, which started so out-of-focus as to be unwatchable. (In retrospect, it didn't matter, but I digress...) I endured this for a few minutes, hoping someone in the booth would notice. (Fat chance.) Eventually, I had to abandon my barely-warmed seat and go hunting for someone who could call the booth and let the projectionist know there was a problem. I returned to my seat. Several people had entered the theater in my absence and none appeared bothered by the lack of visual clarity. Five minutes later, when the problem was not fixed, I again went in search of someone. This time, the projectionist was alerted and the problem was resolved - nearly fifteen minutes into the movie. Is it too much for me to ask that a film be in frame and in focus? I can understand unexpected technical problems, but how much effort is involved in checking every film as it starts (or shortly thereafter) and make sure it meets certain basic standards? What am I paying money for if not that? I should not have to go searching the vast corridors of a multiplex looking for an employee to fix something that shouldn't have been "broken" in the first place.

Last Friday, I ventured out to the same multiplex to see Primeval, which the studio wisely decided not to unveil beforehand. Once again, the auditorium (a smaller one) was empty - at least to start with. The movie was in frame and in focus. I slumped back in my seat to "enjoy" the proceedings. Twenty-five minutes into the movie, a group of four entered, talking loudly and stomping up the stairs. Despite their being approximately 250 empty seats in the theater, they decided to sit directly behind me, continuing to talk and chomp on their popcorn. In the past, I have made polite requests for quiet from people like these (often to little effect), but the movie had already put me in a bad mood so I simply moved to a less desirable but more remote seat. They appeared offended. Thirty minutes later, they departed, still talking and stomping and leaving one of their number behind. I don't blame the theater for this - there's not a lot they can do to police the conduct of patrons (although it would be nice if they employed enough people to do this). I blame today's culture which says its okay to treat a movie theater like a living room and where the concept of "consideration" is beyond too many people's realm of experience.

Readers occasionally write to complain that I'm too "down" on theaters, but these are recent, concrete examples of why that's the case. There's nothing wrong with the theatrical experience in theory, but it's the reality that makes it something to be dreaded rather than embraced. For many of us, movie-going isn't enjoyable - at best, it's something to be tolerated. And these two incidents I have related are mild compared to some of the horror stories I have heard. One of my favorites was told to me by my wife about a woman changing a baby in the auditorium.

Today's multiplex lifeblood is the teen crowd. On non-school nights, teenagers flock there, using theaters as hangouts. (This has replaced my generation's gathering place, the mall.) Often, the film is of secondary importance - it's a social occasion. For as long as this trend continues, multiplexes don't have to worry that they have alienated childless adults and those who want a quieter, less frantic experience. But when the kids find something else to do, as is inevitable, that's when theaters will wish they had been more considerate to those patrons who have constructed nice home theaters where they no longer have to deal with the collateral damage that accompanies the average multiplex screening. It's harder to attract customers than it is to lose them. Theaters have accomplished the latter; it remains to be seen whether they'll be able to do the former.