The Case Against Theater Viewing

January 10, 2004
A thought by James Berardinelli

There are really two separate problems with seeing movies in theaters. The first has to do with the setting; the second has to do with other patrons. Many theaters have extremely poor quality control. They do not properly calibrate their sound systems; they turn down the projector bulb wattage in a misguided attempt to save money; they employ minimum wage workers who care only about getting a paycheck; and they don't have trained projectionists. Older theaters offer additional drawbacks - poor sight lines; seats with low backs, uncomfortable padding, and insufficient leg room; and floors that seem to have been lacquered with melted sugar. Put all these things together, and the movie-going experience can be decidedly unpleasant.

Let me hasten to add that good theaters don't have many of these flaws. The Ritz 16, which I mentioned yesterday, has excellent sight lines and comfortable seating. It employs legitimate projectionists who constantly roam the projection room, checking to make sure everything looks and sounds the way it should. The employees are, at a minimum, polite. Some of them also have a fairly well-rounded knowledge of film. If you ask for a recommendation, many will be able to give it based on first-hand knowledge, not hearsay.

But, no matter how good the theater is, the experience will only be palatable if you see it with the right crowd. To borrow the cliché, one bad apple can ruin the bunch, and one discourteous patron can turn an otherwise enjoyable evening into an unpleasant one. We all know these people: the idiot who forgets to turn off his cell phone; the jerk who won't stop talking; the loser who gets up fifty times to empty his bladder, stepping on your feet each time without so much as an apology; the kids who kick seatbacks; the mother who brings her screaming too-young-to-be-there children to the movie; and the teenagers who laugh at inappropriate times and make snide comments throughout. Generally speaking, the rule of thumb becomes that the fewer people who attend a screening, the less likely it is to be interrupted by one or more of these offenders. So much for the "communal" experience.

It's a terrible idea to attend any movie, especially one at a multiplex, on a Friday night, Saturday, or Sunday. (This assumes that you have any desire to actually see the film.) Weekday afternoons are the best choice for those who have the opportunity. Weekday nights will also do in most cases. There are discourteous people all over, but the biggest offenders are teenagers, so avoiding times when they are likely to be at the theater offers the best bet to have a decent experience. Of course, it's no guarantee. When it comes to manners, the guy in the three-piece suit can be a bigger ass than the bubble-gum popping 13-year old. (My apologies to the teenagers who observe proper decorum when attending movies. They are out there, and they don't deserve to be lumped into the group as a whole - but they're probably just as annoyed with their peers as we are.)

Oh... then there's something I almost forgot (because the Ritz doesn't have them): commercials. Assume for argument's sake that you arrive 10 minutes early for a 7:00 showing. So, for 10 minutes, you get to watch a slideshow of ads and lame trivia questions. Then, the lights dim, but instead of the movie starting, there are five minutes of commercials, followed by 10 minutes of trailers. If the movie starts by 7:15, consider yourself lucky. If you go to a "brand name" multiplex, plan to arrive at least 10 minutes late... unless you actually enjoy all of the pre-show material. I find it to be a waste of time, as I remind myself every time I mistakenly arrive on time for a multiplex movie. Meanwhile, steel yourself to inhale the "aroma" of what theaters call "buttered popcorn," and, if you're remotely hungry, prepare to pay through the nose for anything bought at the concession stand. Although I don't advocate moving from one theater to the next to see a movie you haven't paid for, I'm not against sneaking in a few outside snacks. Not only are they more reasonably priced, but the odor is unlikely to offend someone sitting nearbye.

On Monday, I'll look at some of the alternatives that a home theater does and doesn't offer to these problems, and where things might be headed in the future (both near-term and far-term).