The End of the Cinema?


By Tim Alberdingk Thijm

Picture the experience of “going to the movies.” Picture seeing the original Star Wars, or Gone with the Wind, or Snow White for the first time. In your mind you might see glamour and ceremony, excitement and enthusiasm, hundreds of excited people lined up while some of the stars may even mingle in the mixing multitude. See the bright neon lights, the big cinemas with names like “the Capitol” or “the Royal.” Imagine the interior: a popcorn machine popping kernels behind a counter surrounded by happy patrons, a well-dressed man or woman at the door taking admissions as people enter the theatre. Imagine the crowd masking the glass window around the ticket booth, where a smiling staff member passes the admissions through the center hole of the glass panel to the eager masses who shove their money under the glass’s bottom slot. Past the admissions-person at the door, the audience clusters sporadically about the room, whispering to each other in excitement as they sit in the red felt chairs, removing coats and hats. Everyone politely rises when someone has to reach their seat in the middle of the row, and the theatre’s audible buzz is arrested as the lights go black, the audience silencing themselves before the film, containing their emotion as behind them, a young man or woman loads a hefty roll of film onto the projector and starts the show.

That’s what going to the movies is all about, right? Isn’t that the experience we’ve all had at recent shows as well? Not exactly. Just as movies have changed, so has the experience of going to the movies. The theatres are not quite as full. The food lines are comparatively short, as few want to double the cost of their visit just for a monstrous bag of popcorn. Some theatres have a large audience – Fridays, the ubiquitous movie release day to claim that “box office weekend,” can be packed – but most nights there are still plenty of empty seats. After fifteen minutes of advertising, public service announcements on cellphone usage, and a certain amount of boasting about the online services of the theatre franchise you are visiting, or the audiovisual qualities of the room you are in, the previews start, before the film ultimately begins twenty minutes after the advertised time.

Both of these past paragraphs could have essentially been advertisements by the two sides that are sparring off as movie theatres dwindle and disappear: the pro-cinema groups and the anti-cinema groups. Whether either of them has anything right can often depend on the theatre itself and the circumstances surrounding it, but let us attempt to take a holistic approach and confront the issue from a general vantage point, regardless of the imprecision of such a stance.

What do these messages have in common about the movie theatre, and what are the differences between them? In both, you find yourself at the cinema, sometimes with a bag of popcorn and a monolithic sugary beverage, watching a film among other people. Sometimes you laugh, sometimes you cry, sometimes you stay the whole time and sometimes you leave early. This general scenario shows that, most times, situational aspects are what change the cinema experience: the theatre is noisy, the lights are too bright, the sound is bad, the food is poor-tasting, or the movie is garbage. Yet most movie-goers would probably not complain that the lights are always too bright or the sound is always bad or the movies they see are always garbage. They might complain about conveniences, or the high cost of a ticket, or the use of cellphones in the theatre.

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