Original image by Sailko
Original image by Sailko

The major movie exhibitors are still caught in the 1980s when it comes to location. For all their anxiety over the encroachment of high-def televisions and streaming video, they have yet to recognize that the key to bringing people back to the movies may reside in simply being closer to home, rather than feeling like one. These days, most of my movie-going revolves around a handful of local independent theaters.

In part, that’s a matter of convenience, since the nearest indie is so close to home that the hike across a multiplex parking lot would take me longer, even ignoring the drive required to get there in the first place. Decades ago, that neighborhood joint exhibited adult movies, but has since been converted into a two-screen theater, exhibiting a mix of cult revivals and contemporary indies. Calling the decor retro would be a bit generous, as the theater hasn’t been seriously renovated in a generation. With its current non-profit status and consistently low bottom-line, it likely won’t be for some time to come.

Thus our recent trip to an upscale mall on the other side of town was a rare pilgrimage. The occasion was our decision to catch a wildly mixed double feature: Seven Psychopaths and Wreck-It Ralph. We chose the theater, part of the American Multi-Cinema chain, both because of its mix of high- and middle-brow movies, and because the neighborhood tended to draw a more respectful crowd. Once upon a time, I had seen O, Brother Where Art Thou and Eyes Wide Shut there, not to mention revivals of Alien, North by Northwest and Kubrick’s Lolita, but it had been ages since we’d made the trip, which is why we were unprepared for the transformation the theater had undergone in the meantime.

Since at least 2006, AMC has been quietly renovating multiplexes in select markets. Gone, for example, is the traditional snack counter, replaced by self-serve shelves and check-out kiosks. Despite its resemblance an convenience store, the revised lobby’s flow struck me as a marked improvement over the old system.

The change in the theaters themselves were even more marked. There was a time when so-called stadium seating presented itself as the modern theater standard—high-backed captain chairs arranged in terraces, often before a screen curved to capture a larger image than the room was really built to house. These AMC has replaced with rows of faux leather loungers that recline at the push of a button, arrayed on a far gentler slope.

That means, in the first place, far fewer seats than before. Seven Psychopaths was shown in the complex’s smallest theater. Outfitted with old style bucket seats, it might still have held more than 100 seats, but in the new system it help a paltry five rows, marked A through E, with 11 seats in the largest row.

That numbering system is significant because some theaters are seated by reservation. Having bought our tickets at an automated kiosk, that’s a point we didn’t fully grasp until the movie’s opening moments, when an usher dressed more like a security guard came along and relocated us to the seats we had been randomly assigned. Unfortunately, while great care has gone into the remodeled seating, some smaller theaters still have the parabolic screens of stadiums past. Our new seats down at the corner of the bottom row made the distortion all the more noticeable—and galling, since the theater was only a little over half full. Closer to the center of the theater a patron snored soundly through half of the movie. Surely he could have done that just as well from seats A10 and A11 while we enjoyed the view from his seats.

That’s a minor gripe, though: the sort of confusion you sort out once and never make again. Wreck-It Ralph was shown in a theater with open seating, which came as a relief since we had bought both sets of tickets in advance. The glorified Barcaloungers were no less cushy, the incline no less gradual, and the screen, thankfully, 100% flatter. This new renovation was really starting to pay off.

But it was in this second screening that really aroused my skepticism. Off to my right, surrounded by the bags she had accumulated in what must have been one hell of a shopping spree, another viewer had dozed off. Here, too, there was more chatter than I recall the theater ever having indulged before. These, ostensibly, were the behaviors that movie-goers were increasingly staying home to avoid—but, it might also be said, the sort of behavior they stayed home to indulge.

That’s why AMC’s recent renovations are unlikely to save movie-going. Faced with the growing sophistication of home theater systems, the company is betting that audiences can be tempted back out by giving theaters more of the comforts of home. In fact, I was struck by how much the new seating felt like sitting on the couch at home. It is, in fact, far more comfortable than any other movie theater to which I’ve ever been.

The problem is that, the more the theater felt like home, the more inclined the patrons were to behave as they do at home—myself not excluded. And what do many of us do at home? We talk about the movie we’re watching. We pull out our smartphones to figure out where we’ve seen that actor before. Sometimes we sleep through the boring parts. Generally speaking, we make the worst possible environment for exhibiting a movie. The only reason it’s not so bad is that we have something we’ll never have in a movie theater—privacy, and control over the exhibition of the movie itself.

Put that same entitlement in the hands of a crowd of twenty to a hundred people, and the movie-going experience steadily degrades. Soon, the only major advantages the box office has over an actual home theater are, first of all, the rapidly dwindling ability to exhibit movies before they’re available at home, and secondly, a bigger screen. Even that second is a hard-sell when you might end up craning your neck to look at a screen distorted to cheat the size of the image into a smaller room.

The real message here is that the major theater chains are still unwilling to bet on the social experience of movie-going. Little wonder, too, since one of the most frequently cited reasons for poor attendance is the hell brought on by other people. When it comes to the movies, we are all Oscar Wilde.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. The design of a space can shape the social interactions that take place there. The most striking examples are highly ritualized spaces. There’s something about a well-designed church that inspires quiet and fraternity in people.

Once upon a time, high-end movies theaters were designed not like living rooms, but cathedrals. Some of my favorite movie-going experiences have been attending revivals at some of the country’s remaining movie palaces. Not only did the screens outmatch anything on offer in modern multiplexes, but the decor lent itself to a collective sense of place that’s entirely absent in nearly every theater built in the last forty years. We all seemed to feel the need to assert our individuality subside. For an hour or two we became an audience sharing an experience, instead of several hundred people each fighting to ensure our own enjoyment, even at the expense of others.

Nothing about the addition of expensive reclining lounge chairs would have enhanced that experience. If anything, it would have destroyed the communal feeling.

There is much to hate about the barely-cushioned, daisy chain of hard-armed bucket seats that were standard before movies moved into the mall, but they performed a function we barely noticed until they were gone. By packing us all in together, elbow to elbow with the hoi polloi, they forced us to recognize our fellowship with the movie-going crowd.

That on its own, of course, cannot restore movie-going to its former vitality, but nor will remaking theaters in the image of the patron’s den. The home theater sets us apart; it makes each of us special. Nothing could be more inimical to the environment that once made going to the movies a deeply social act.

is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
— Please submit all corrections, responses and rebuttals as letters to the editor.