The Case for Theater Viewing

January 09, 2004
A thought by James Berardinelli

This represents the first of three parts of an essay I'm writing to discuss the pros and cons of watching a movie in a theater versus watching it on home video. With the advent of excellent home surround sound systems and bigger widescreen TVs, the experience of viewing a movie at home is becoming closer than ever to that of seeing it in a theater. The root of this article comes from a comment made by an acquaintance of mine. He's a big "Lord of the Rings" fan, so I asked him if he had seen The Return of the King yet. His response: "No. And as much as I want to, there's no way I'm going to traipse to the mall to see it. I'd rather be tortured than have to go through that. I know it will be out on video in another six months, so all I have to do is wait, then I can be comfortable."

That got me thinking about a number of things, not the least of which is, if I was given the choice, would I see a movie in my home, or still go to a theater? The question isn't as easy to answer as it might initially seem. So, over the next three days (actually four, since I'm not publishing a "ReelThoughts" column this Sunday - have to watch the Eagles game), I'll ponder this issue. Today, I'll look at the pluses of theatical viewing. Tomorrow, I'll look at the drawbacks. Then, on Monday, I'll draw a few conclusions.

Every year, I see about 400 movies, more than half of which I watch at home. My theatrical diet varies between 160 and 190 films. About 75% of those are shown at press and/or publicity screenings. (Press screenings occur in normal theaters, but with only a sparse crowd of journalists. Publicity screenings are the circus-like "free giveaways" from radio stations.) I attend the rest in multiplexes and/or movie houses, just like everyone else. I tend to despise AMC and Loews for their poor quality control. The seats are comfortable and the sight lines are good, but God forbid anything should go wrong with the picture. The untrained employees have trouble fixing even minor problems, like an out-of-focus picture. If the film breaks, ask for your money back. At best, it will take them 30 minutes to figure out that they need to splice. My favorite theater is the Ritz 16, part of a local chain of art house theaters in the Philadelphia area. It's a beautiful place to see a movie, with courteous employees. And, wonder of wonders, they care about things like projection and sound! The seats are nice and any problems that occur are quickly fixed. Unfortunately, the Ritz tends to specialize in less mainstream fare, so if I want to see The Return of the King, it has to be elsewhere.

At a place like the Ritz, seeing a movie can be an enjoyable experience. There's something communal about going to a movie theater. Yes, watching the film is a personal experience, but you're always aware that there are others on the same journey. For dramas, we cry together. For action films, we cheer together. And, most importantly, for comedies, we laugh together. TV executives long ago figured out that laughter is contagious; hence, the "laugh track" for sit-coms. The same is true in a movie theater. You're far more likely to have a good time if everyone around you is laughing. I can recall guffawing my way through Noises Off until my sides hurt when I saw it at a multiplex. Watching it again, a few yeas later on video, I tried to figure out what was so funny.

Then there's the spectacle and majesty of it all. The screen is big. It looms over you. I have never been a proponent of the "rule" that states you should sit a distance of one and one-half times the height of the screen. I want to be closer to the action - as close as possible without experiencing neck strain. I want to be overwhelmed. If I'm going to sit that far back, I might as well stay home. The idea is for the experience to be immersive, especially if the movie stylizes itself as bigger-than-life. The Return of the King is a good example - no matter how good someone's home theater is, it's not going to be able to duplicate what it's like to sit in the sixth row of a stadium theater and gaze up at Mount Doom.

There's something esoteric to be considered here, as well. It's the state of mind that a movie puts us into - a so-called "reverie." Watching the same images on video doesn't do the same thing. It has to do with the way the mind processes the image. (Film flickers as 24 frames per second; video requires the constant "repainting" of the picture from top left to bottom right. The rates are fast, but the subconscious is doing more work.) We are not as engaged at home as in a theater. Distractions come more easily. Of course, it's crucial to have the right audience around you, and that's where the problems begin, because all-too-often, your fellow movie-goers don't feel the same way you do. And that brings me to tomorrow's topic: reasons why it might not be so bad to stay home and watch a rental from Netflix.