Sooner or later, cinephiles debate with themselves or general moviegoers the merits of seeing films on the big-screen, also known as “the theatrical experience.” These discussions may be more or less frequent depending on the quality of local theatre chains (e.g. Alamo Drafthouse), the quantity of peers’ streaming subscriptions, people’s general tastes in genre or dramatic cinema, and/or one’s proximity to regional film festivals. These conversations usually divert to one of two conclusions: (A) Movie theatres are how movies “were meant to be seen,” as numerous over-privileged, out-of-touch celebrity auteurs and snobbish film critics advocate, or (B) Let’s just watch something on Netflix! While I often gravitate toward the middle of those two responses, I now lean more to the latter than the former. I also consider myself a film snob, need I remind you?
The arguments for seeing movies in theatres are usually parroted by cinephiles, which makes sense given how theatres are — or used to be — the hallowed ground on which filmmaking is first introduced to the masses. Aside from the general excitement of appreciating film in public, especially with friends, you’re treated to an ostensible state-of-the-art film-viewing experience with a giant screen, concert-level audio, stadium seating, a variety of guilty pleasures via the concession stand, and the quiet, dark, artistic experience in which filmmakers intended their projects to be seen.
The arguments against threatrical movie-going are that you can have all or almost all those aforementioned pleasures at home with or without streaming services. Whether you’re an avid disciple of Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, or whatever the hell Disney’s cooking up, or you’re a weirdo like me whose viewing library primarily consists of physical media (ahem, Blu-Rays, 4K HDR, etc.), you can watch new or recent movie releases in the comfort of your living room, with your own concession stand (i.e. your kitchen, and a far cheaper one, at that), on a big screen, with impressive audio, and with as many or as few peers as you please. Whether you blame the rise of streaming services or Hollywood’s oversaturation of rebooted/remixed/remade content for the modern decline in theatrical attendance, my point is the self-righteous diatribes of Christopher Nolan or Steven Spielberg are more akin to grandpas yelling, “Get off my lawn!” than wise old sages warning about some sort of impending cultural doom.
Whether you prefer old-school theatrical releases or love Netflix’s thumbing of its nose to the Academy Awards et al. with its expanding original content, my point is watching movies in public is not as fun or as rewarding as most filmmakers and film buffs argue it is. At least for the majority of the public, and speaking for myself as a die-hard film enthusiast, the overwhelming majority of my theatrical experiences have been remarkably lame. I have attended countless theatre chains both corporate and independent, at home (the United States) and abroad, in small towns and big cities, and the vast, vast majority of them suck donkey balls.
I “hate” to be the cynical killjoy, here, but unless you’re privileged to attend movie theatres where the concessions aren’t overpriced, where you’re not bombarded by 15 minutes of advertisements before the official previews, where you’re not subjected to 15-25(!) minutes of actual previews, where the 4K digital projections don’t look like shit, or where people aren’t constantly on their phones and shut the fuck up… you need to remove the rose-colored nostalgia glasses from your eyes. Stop The Phantom Menace (1999)-esque denials. My guess is the likes of Spielberg, Nolan, and Quentin Tarantino have access to nice theatres with actual film projectors or polite, professional attendees.
In any case, let me describe in excruciating detail why movie theatres are no longer — if they ever were — the romanticized museums of modern art/entertainment many have described:
- Most films in most theatres aren’t worth the price of admission — With the proliferation of modern pop culture, the Internet, international film companies, and multiplex theatre chains, more and more major studio productions are either rebooting established intellectual properties or appealing to the widest audiences possible (i.e. producing films that play to the lowest common denominator), or both. That’s not to say Hollywood hasn’t always been a shallow, profit-driven industry or that bad movies are a modern phenomenon, but the fact of the matter is most screens in most regions of the world are dominated by a few types of movies made by a handful of studios.
- If you live outside a major metropolitan area, forget about film diversity at your local theatre(s), in part thanks to the predatory corporate practices of companies like Disney, who make outrageous demands on theatres to show their content, further monopolizing their hold on market shares. Consumer choice is becoming less of an option in the modern theatre, in other words, especially outside urban areas. If you do live in a major metro area, then be prepared for sharp increases in average ticket prices.
- Most audiovisual projections aren’t high quality — True film projection (i.e. physical 16mm–70mm film stock) may have justified the arduous, inconvenient trip to the theatre once upon a time, or still today on rare occasions like Tarantino’s 70mm Roadshow version of The Hateful Eight (2015), but the average modern digital projection is of no higher resolution than the latest home theatre system. I can recall three times in the past decade where I was impressed by the presentation of a public film theatre: (1) A “GTX” theatre in Brunswick, Georgia showing Ant-Man (2015), an “XD” theatre in Champaign, Illinois showing X-Men: Apocalypse (2015), and the aforementioned 70mm Roadshow in Houston, Texas. That’s three times in 10 years of theatre trips!
- SO. MANY. ADVERTISEMENTS. — I include both the standard, full-length trailers shown prior to feature presentations as well as the newer, modern ads played as patrons trickle into a given theatre before the lights dim. As a universal rule, customers who have paid for a service or product do not want to then be further patronized. I find it insufferable how I must sit through a minimum of fifteen minutes worth of previews if I arrive at a theatre precisely when a showing begins — not an option in urban theatres, mind you — but may be forced to endure upwards of forty-five minutes of cringe-worthy ads if I arrive well before the official start time of a blockbuster on opening weekend (higher profile features tend to show more trailers).
- This is unacceptable. If studios must shove additional product placement down our throats, pick two to three previews related to the feature presentation at most, and then get on with the show. Not even YouTube or Amazon FireTV services are that obnoxious.
- Obnoxious theatre patrons — This is perhaps my biggest complaint regarding theatrical films, and it’s not exactly a novel criticism. Sure, things have deteriorated with the brightly lit screens, buzzing notifications, and literal verbal conversations allowed by modern cellphones during movies, but sharing a theatre with unpleasant, immature, and distracting strangers has been a universal, historical problem within film culture.
- I can’t recall how many times I’ve had to exert effort to watch a film in public whilst trying to ignore fellow patrons conversing with each other, controlling (or failing to control) their small children, loudly consuming overpriced snacks, controlling their coughs/sneezes/flatulence/belches, making out, or narrating — out loud — the entire fucking movie. I purchase weekday matinee screenings whenever I can whenever I do go to the movies to avoid these scenarios.
Put in blunt terms, I am a cinephile who doesn’t enjoy going to the movies, and am at a loss to explain why most other film buffs claim to enjoy it. Theatrical releases are of such consistently poor quality that most films I enjoy watching in public are in spite of my theatrical experience. Oftentimes I wonder if most film gurus advocate the theatrical milieu out of some misplaced sense of artistic political correctness, as if they feel they’re supposed to support public film-viewing due to tradition, peer-pressure, or industry brainwashing. Maybe certain audiences in certain regions of the globe have consistent access to quality theatres I just don’t, in which case I’m happy for you.
With the rise of both home-theatre technology and modern streaming subscriptions, the latter of which offer a plethora of exclusive, original high-quality content that’s often more cinematic than foreign or domestic major studio productions, there are fewer reasonable arguments for the theatrical experience. Most viewers, myself included, require more justifications for putting up with theatrical inconveniences, from limited movie options to rising ticket prices to lackluster presentation formats to the distracting, irritating audiences themselves. At this point, I would gladly pay more for a new release film if it meant I could enjoy the latest festival release, quality blockbuster, or worthwhile Oscar-bait in the comfort of my own home. I would pay more to avoid the theatrical experience altogether. How about that for a “convenience fee?”