King of the multiplex: how to truly experience cinema

by Jason Madanjian / Beacon Staff • January 22, 2015

Last month, I celebrated my birthday by going to the movies with my girlfriend. After recounting my evening with some of my friends and family, I was greeted with a quizzical look: why would a 22-year-old spend his birthday at the movie theater?

A few years ago, I may have thought the same thing myself. In fact, I think the last time I went to the movies for my birthday was to see Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets with some of my second grade classmates.  

But as my passion for film has grown and my exposure to its rich catalogue and history has expanded, I knew what I wanted to do for my birthday this year.

Lonesome, a silent film from 1928, is about a man and a woman trying to find love in the hustle and bustle of (a then modern) New York City. With themes of urban isolation, technology, and of course, romance, Lonesome is a rarely seen but highly respected spectacle of cinematic history. And last month, the Coolidge Corner Theater screened the film with a twist: a live orchestra to accompany the motion picture.

Before my eyes, a decades old film awoke. Something about being in that big theater, all dressed up and watching a live orchestra serenade the film and its audience, made Lonesome so much more than just another movie. Watching Lonesome became an experience—one I’ll never forget.

Sadly, most trips to the movies aren’t this spectacularly memorable. And lately, it appears I’m not the only one turned off by the recent state of cinematic experiences.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, 2014’s movie theater attendance was the lowest it’s been in 19 years. Only 1.26 billion  tickets were purchased last year, down 6 percent  from 2013 and considerably down from the 1.57 billion tickets purchased in 2002 (which was, incidentally, the year Chamber of Secrets came out).

With hits like Guardians of the Galaxy  and Maleficent raking in globs of money in 2014, that statistic seems surprising. But for anyone who goes to the movies on a somewhat frequent basis, it’s not shocking. Going to a movie theater is becoming an increasingly less desirable option.

Ticket prices continue to swell, reaching as high as $14 for a non-premium ticket in some parts of the country. Then, of course, you’ve got the added fees; IMAX  and 3-D surcharges suck even more money from your wallet and a $7 bag of popcorn doesn’t help either. For most of my friends, it’s simply cheaper to wait four months for the movie to hit Redbox, or maybe even illegally download the desired film.

But, the experience of going to most movie theaters is even more deterring than the hefty price. Before the film begins, attendees are bombarded with a loud array of television commercials followed by at least seven movie trailers. By this point, viewers have already been seated for more than 30 minutes. Then, you have to deal with people texting on their cell phones, talking throughout the movie, and of course, those squeaky, uncomfortable chairs. It’s no wonder ticket sales are down. And such a shame to; as a trip to the movies can (and should) be so much more.

But the film industry doesn’t need to panic. In fact, a solution already exists. The Coolidge Corner Theatre and The Brattle Theatre are just two local examples of independent movie houses creating a rather opulent experience for their customers.

The selection of films played at these two locales is infinitely more interesting and diverse, the movie trailers played are kept to a minimum, strict cell phone rules are put in place, and even if ticket prices aren’t cheaper, at least you get more bang for your buck. 

Often, the theaters host special screenings with everyone from directors to scientists. In February, famed Canadian director David Cronenberg  (Scanners, The Fly) will be on-hand at the Coolidge for a Q&A following the screening of his latest film, Maps to the Stars. Also that month, Dr. Steven Schlozman, a psychiatrist, will provide an introduction for the horror film Evil Dead II,  giving an overview of the neurobiology of viewers’ attraction to scary movies.

All of a sudden, your typically mundane movie experience becomes much more engrossing, much more academic, and, arguably, a lot more fun—just like my experience watching Lonesome.

Naturally, Hollywood studios are still making bank, even with ticket sales down. But as more and more consumers become disenchanted with the typical movie-going experience, they should be much more willing and eager to create a richer cinematic journey for their customers. 

Of course, in the end, watching a truly great film is all you need to have a wonderful time. But with so many factors detracting from that goal, it’s worth supporting the theaters that go the extra mile in a crafting a truly memorable night at the movies.