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Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Movie Theater Torture

I've become spoiled by years of seeing movies in press screenings.

The films are almost always shown on big, wide screens. I never have to worry about not having an available seat or standing in line. The other reviewers never talk during the movie or create distractions by taking out their phones midway through.

It also means that I get to see almost all of the movies I'm interested in (along with plenty of others that I attend just to have something to talk about on the air and on this site). The downside is that my Netflix queue is very small, because there aren't many titles I missed when they came around the first time.

However, every once in awhile, my schedule prohibits me from attending a screening and I have to catch the movie during a regular showing. Every time I do that, I'm reminded of how painful the experience can be.

The other night, I went to see "Wind River" (review to come) at the AMC theater a few miles from home. It was a matinee, so it cost less than six bucks. So far, so good. The scheduled start time for the movie was 5:40pm. I got there about five minutes early and sat through the commercials that are euphemistically called the "pre-show." Then, the torture began as we were forced to sit through trailers for upcoming movies.

I try to avoid these whenever possible, preferring to see the movie with virgin eyes, knowing as little as possible about it. Another nice thing about press screenings is not having to endure these spoiler-fests -- I never watch the trailers online beforehand because they kill the experience for me.

There was a time when movie trailers were a tease; they told you just enough about the movie to entice you to come back and pay to see the whole thing. Now, trailers are two-to-three-minute highlight reels that give away every major plot point. If it's an action flick, you see all the big stunts. If it's a comedy, you get all the punchlines. If it's a drama, you see the plot twists. In each case, the trailer tells you all the stuff the creative team would have preferred were kept secret until it's revealed in context. I'm often left thinking why I need to see the entire movie at all (e.g. the trailer for George Clooney's upcoming "Suburbicon" leaves nothing un-spoiled, rendering it unnecessary for me to view the full-length version).

As if that weren't bad enough, we were forced to sit through seven of these trailers, followed by the AMC reminders about where the exits are and how to guard our personal belongings -- things that used to fall under the heading of Stuff We Should Already Know -- followed by the time-waster that urges you to go get something at the concession stand. Counter-intuitively, that promo is run last in the package, right before the movie starts, when no customers are going to bolt out for a last-minute Coke or $12 box of Sno-Caps. Why not sell the snack bar before the trailers, giving the audience time to get their 128-ounce soda-and-popcorn combo without missing any plot points?

All of this took 20 minutes of screen time, so the movie that was advertised as starting at 5:40pm didn't actually begin until 6:00pm. Were I to wait until that movie came out on DVD, there would still be trailers popping up, but I could fast-forward through them and get right to the film. Yet with no such option available in a captured-audience setting, devoting that much time to coming attractions is nothing less than audience abuse.

Recent articles about Hollywood having its worst summer in a generation all mention that movie theater companies are in trouble because there weren't enough blockbusters to lure in audiences, plus they have to compete with on-demand content on our portable devices and on our home televisions. The part of the equation that isn't mentioned is that the experience of going to the theater, which can be wonderful with the right movie, can be too easily ruined by taking the customers for granted.

One last point. A couple of weeks ago, I witnessed an idiot in a movie theater repeatedly opening his iPad (not his phone, but a tablet-sized screen) during the movie, oblivious to the distraction he was creating for everyone around and behind him. He should have been thrown out of the auditorium immediately, but there were no theater employees anywhere in the room.

I flashed back to a column I wrote in 1998 entitled "The Beacon Of Shame":

There was a time when movie theaters actually employed people to keep order in their theaters. If you were talking too loudly during the movie, or making out with your intern in the balcony, or -- god forbid -- putting your feet up on the chair in front of you, the Usher would appear from nowhere and point a flashlight at you. Mind you, this wasn't just any flashlight. It had approximately the same candlepower as the Bat Signal. When the Usher lit you up, you were bathed in the Beacon Of Shame. Nothing more needed to be said. You were shamed into stopping whatever illicit activity you were involved in. You also missed the next 10 minutes of the movie because you were blinder than Mr. Magoo (which actually would have been helpful if you had found yourself in a theater showing the big screen version of Mr. Magoo, starring Leslie Nielsen...what were they thinking?).

Of course, wielding the Beacon Of Shame is a little more difficult these days. There's more than a small chance that after the Usher whips out the Beacon Of Shame, the offending 70mm-filmgoer is going to whip out a 9mm-usher-stopper. And soon thereafter, that sleeping infant in the reserved seat in front of you is awakened by the sound of gunplay, and then your whole moviegoing experience is ruined.
You can read that entire column here. But only during the pre-show countdown.