Are movie theaters going to be around in 10, 20, 50 years? Are they, at some point, finally going to be done in by Netflix/PlayStation/YouTube? Who knows. It’s like asking if God exists.
The more pragmatic question is: Are they worth the trip now? It’s time to play Buy or Sell: Movie Theater Edition. Your hosts for this game will be Thomas and Jesse.
Thomas Viehe: I think everyone can agree that food options at movie theaters are a rip-off. You not only get to the cinema to find only junk food waiting for you, but then you have to fork over another $12-15 for some greasy, stale popcorn. It’s ridiculous!
I think that cinemas across the country are really failing in their duty to their audiences. Their duty is to offer customers the movie magic experience. But I don’t think they care about the magic anymore.
Are they still interested in inviting me into their homes to watch movies? I mean, would a host ever invite someone over and then hand them a stale bag of popcorn with a puddle of butter at the top? Would their food options consist only of junk food and nothing else?
A few months ago, I went to the movies to catch a blockbuster and because I was in a hurry, I decided to just eat dinner at the movie theater. Their menu had some options I could live with: pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers. I ordered a slice of pizza and a hamburger (I was hungry.) Twenty minutes later, someone came out of the kitchen and tossed my meal across the counter. It sank into the crusted cardboard, a reheated memory of a meal you’d find in trashcan at a middle school. Gross.
Give me a fast casual bar. Sure, you can still give me popcorn. And a coke. But I want to be able to get a burrito. Or a noodle bowl. You can partner with Chipotle, Tom Yum, Vapiano, Noodles & Company, even Boston Market. Just don’t employ the same chef I had back in middle school. Please. It’s beneath you.
Jesse Stone: Some folks (cough, Thomas, cough) will say the movies are a rip off – it costs $20 for popcorn and a coke! But I say, you aren’t paying $20 for just popcorn and a soda – you are also paying for the excuse to eat a gallon of popcorn or an entire brick of Sour Patch Kids without being judged. I mean, what other choices do you have? The small soda is only 10 cents cheaper; it’d be economic malpractice not to upgrade to the ROLLING SUITCASE size.
To be honest, I’m not sure why this sort of indulgence system isn’t more common in our society. Most of us would be happy to pay that kind of service fee to feel less shamed in other domains of our lives. Don’t feel like taking the stairs but feel societal pressure from the Fitbit cult to do it? No worries, Take an Elevator, Save a Seal charges $20 for an elevator ride, and $2 of each sale go towards preventing baby seals from being clubbed in the Arctic. You get to be lazy while using a love of nature as cover. It’s a win-win!
Thomas: Your fellow moviegoers can change the movie experience. A buzzing crowd can make the theater feel electric. But more often, you get the careless movie companions whom you wish you could block or mute or have thrown out. It’s the cell phones, sure. The screen glare from somewhere below me always tears me away from that gripping chase sequence. But it’s also the talking, the phone calls, the laughing in all the wrong places.
An audience can make or break a movie experience. One of the best movie experiences of my life was watching Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade at a midnight showing. But I don’t need or want the audience to go see a movie. More often, they distract, like they did when I saw Avatar, Vanilla Sky, and Seven Pounds. Okay, maybe those are bad movies and deserved bad audiences. But think of the alternative: sitting on your couch, watching an episode of a television show (because we’re in the “Golden Age of TV,”) and following people on Twitter! Hmm … that actually sounds pretty good. Maybe it’s the introvert in me.
Jesse: Look, you aren’t going to find a bigger introvert than me. I can barely be bothered to sit next to my wife when catching up on This Is Us episodes, despite the fact that my marriage never seems so central to my life as when I’m watching that show. But maybe because I’m so introverted, I can appreciate the sort of forced socialization that one encounters in the theater-going experience. This was brought home to me many years ago when I went to see a movie with my brother and a friend of mine. After selecting a choice set of seats in a deserted theater, my friend and I went out to get food, leaving my brother behind. When we came back, one new person had entered the theater. That person had decided that in a completely empty theater, with likely at least 100 stadium-style seats, he should sit RIGHT NEXT TO MY BROTHER.
Here’s the thing, you might feel like you’ll be alright sitting at home to watch movies on your 80-inch projection screen for the rest of your life, but what about that fellow who sat down next to my brother in the middle of an empty movie theater. Do you really think he’s going to be OK if Netflix were his only option?
Thomas: As malls are dying because they no longer offer a desired shopping experience to their customers, movie theaters that do not work to create a lasting impression should die. Theaters have failed us.
Sit back, relax, and let your imagination unfold. But they’ve become the decaying dreams of a demented demon. Year after year, people talk about how no one is going to the movies anymore. But with good reason. Why go to a theater that smells and feels like a second-hand suit? Why force yourself to suffer the overly air-conditioned room, the talking of the audience, the overpriced concessions, the uncomfortable seats? Theaters have failed us. They’ve failed to remain temples, to cultivate a wondrous experience. They feel cold and flea-ridden.
The best movie experiences I’ve had have been at old theaters that work to make the experience a spectacle, that take time to charm their customers with nostalgia, or that work in a good meal, some solid drink options, and/or comfortable seating. I went to see Tailor of Panama at a diner-style theater and am still charmed by the film in part due to the quality service and drinks. My mom, fresh from a hospital visit, insisted that we go to a theater close by because it’s so charming. When I visit her, we’d usually watch something on Netflix, so she can retire early while I stay up. But now that she’s found a theater close by that offers charm and comfort, my mother wants to go out and see something.
Let them become carcasses of a lost time, cast aside by a world that can find better experiences online. Let them become indoor walking tracks for senior citizens to get their exercise in the winter. Let them get destroyed and replaced with a “live, work, play” concept development. Because right now, they’re not adapting to become any better. They don’t deserve our pity. They deserve what they’ve got coming.
Jesse: Movie theaters arguably really only serve one vital function in society these days: anchoring malls that haven’t been popular destinations for two decades. The idea of going to a buffet restaurant called Pizza Ranch out of the blue sounds utterly disgusting to me. But, ask me if I’d like to grab a quick dinner at said Pizza Ranch, which happens to be right next to one of our theaters in Iowa City’s “Sad Mall,” just before catching a 7 p.m. showing of Avengers: Infinity War, and I’ll bite.
Likewise, ask me if I want to leave my house to take a trip with you to the Hobby Shop, so you can peruse their overpriced drones and novelty puzzle selection, I’m going to take a hard pass. But ask if I want to pop in to the same store, which happens to be a five-minute walk across the mall from the theater, to look at the variety of electric train set decor during the 10 minutes we have to kill before the matinee, and I’ll say, “Yeah, sure, and let’s grab a giant gumball while we are over there.”