In Defense of Going to the Movies

According to an article published by Amy Kaufman and Richard Verrier on 31 December in the Los Angeles Times, 2012 was a pretty good year to go see a movie. Ticket sales were projected to land somewhere around the $10.8 billion mark by the time the year’s totals were calculated, and when compared with a relatively abysmal 12 months at the box office in 2011, attendance numbers were on track to finish at a little more than 1.3 billion ticket-buyers. (“Movie box-office totals for 2012 projected to set record”.) High-definition televisions, Internet-based streaming services and absurdly expensive ticket prices be damned — statistics show that yes, going to the movies is still fun. 

I was reminded of as much last weekend when I found myself confronting a couple days filled with nothing to do for the first time in a long time. Having become a fan of cinema only relatively recently (say, the last five years or so), I did something I’ve never done in my life: On Friday night, I pulled up Yahoo’s search engine, looked at the listings for the theater I typically frequent, headed over to YouTube, and simply began watching various trailers for films. The next morning, I woke up, drove to the theater, and watched the first showing of The Company You Keep, the Robert Redford-led pseudo chase thriller that features an outlandish number of acclaimed actors and actresses who keep popping up even as you begin to think the cast can’t become anymore ensemble. 

The movie was good, not great — something was lacking from either the story or the performances, though I can’t quite pinpoint what it was — but whether or not I was inspired to leave the building and immediately call 63 people to babble about how unforgettable it may or may not have been wasn’t really the point, anyway. Simply going to a movie theater to buy a ticket, get some popcorn and sit down in a dark room to watch a big screen project a story to a faction of people who were all presumably interested in the same thing, however, was. All I really wanted to do was take part in the movie-going experience, regardless of if The Company You Keep was either award-worthy or more bland than butter-less popcorn. And much to my delight, that’s exactly what I did.

Turns out, what I was feeling wasn’t particularly novel. As Daniel Bergamini of the movie blog The Deleted Scene wrote in August 2010, there is nothing quite like taking the time to venture out and see a film in a movie theater. 

“I have heard over and over on film blogs and podcasts, that going to the theatre is no longer worthwhile and viewing a film on a big screen TV is easier and with less likelihood of annoyance,” he wrote. “This has always bothered me; the idea that the real film fans, the ones whose main passions are film, are no longer going to the cinema, yet the average film goers are still going en masse. As much as the insensitivity and general ignorance of other people which sometimes bubbles to the surface during movies bothers me, I could never pass up seeing a great film in a theatre … I do not believe that going to the theaters is only for tradition. … We go because we love film and nothing is as enjoyable as sharing a great piece of cinema with your fellow film lovers.” (“Why Going To The Movies Doesn’t Suck”.)

It’s hard to imagine a fan of film who can’t at least appreciate the romance of watching a movie at an actual movie theater. Sure, the practice has become increasingly hard to stomach in recent years due to inconsiderate texters or obnoxiously loud cellphone-users, but even the most jaded or cynical enthusiast can’t deny how the spectacle of the movie theater ritual played at least some type of role in his or her initial infatuation. 

Such is a communal experience, the way crowds laugh together during a comedy, scream together during a moment of horror, cry together during a dramatic turn or think together during the confusing parts of a plot-heavy thriller. Audiences can make or break one’s own interpretation of a film, and while some may consider that aspect detrimental, it would be unfair to discount the theater-going tradition merely because of two or three bad experiences — experiences, remember, that anyone who has ever claimed to enjoy watching movies has undoubtedly had. Much like everything else in life, procedures are defined by perceptions, not the external factors that color our own personal realities. The minute we allow those outside elements to overtly control our choices and actions is the minute optimism and acceptance becomes an impossibility. 

Actually, the shade of those external factors is part of what makes the whole thing so magical, anyway. Take, for example, the preview portion of the practice: Sneak peaks of movies you know you’ll never actually see hold almost as much clout as previews of movies you can’t wait to watch. Why is that? Because as anyone who has ever ventured into a theater can attest, viewing an extended theatrical trailer for a film on a big screen is a completely different animal than a 30-second spot that shows up on cable television during prime-time hours.

From both an aesthetic and intellectual standpoint, previews become far more interesting whenever they have the time to spread out and explain themselves for a few minutes before the main attraction. Rom-coms seem more detailed. Action flicks seem more explosive. And blockbusters seem more unavoidable. Previews hold far more purpose than a simple grace period for late-comers who don’t want to miss the opening credits, and without them, a significant portion of the exclusivity that goes into seeing a movie in a theater would feel incomplete. 

Then, there’s the food. Try as we may, we all know how impossible it is to replicate movie theater popcorn. The butter (or butter-flavored stuff). The salt. The extra butter. The extra salt. It’s like a bucket filled with kernels of how Heaven would taste if it was edible. The smell movie popcorn exudes only furthers the attraction. Sure, anyone can go out and buy a gigantic white sheet to project moving pictures for all in the back yard to watch … but how many homeowners can duplicate the constant smell of freshly popped popcorn floating through the air like a strongly scented, buttery yummy candle?

And don’t forget the posters. Taking one look around the walls of a movie theater’s lobby is kind of like taking one look around a museum filled with artifacts that have yet to be determined valuable. The plethora of imaginative promotional materials crowd every corner of open space one could find and the result is always nothing short of visually fascinating. Some of them even rival the actual movies themselves (remember the Reese Witherspoon/Chris Pine/Tom Hardy-starring This Means War that utterly flopped at the beginning of last year? Those posters were absurdly massive and impossible to ignore). Merely walking around the hallways gives spectators the feeling of experiencing a fun-house for the first time as an adolescent. And, come on — who above the age of 30 doesn’t yearn for a feeling of adolescence every now and then?

“Moviegoing is, at its core, a social experience,” Alexander Huls, of The New York Times, wrote in May 2012 while lamenting on his affection for midnight showings. “The moment those lights dim and the film reel rolls, you’re no longer an individual sitting in an auditorium; you’re part of a mass of people who are connected through a shared event and the desire to be entertained and transported. In that moment, when you turn from a solitary viewer into an audience, you form a trusting and reciprocal relationship not only with the movie but also with those around you… Every time we go to the movies, we need to be reminded again why we love to do so; otherwise we might stop bothering to go to the movies at all. A hushed theater reminds me why I love movies. But a midnight show reminds me why I love going to the movies. It’s an event I can’t recreate anywhere else. A great movie is a great movie whether you see it in a packed auditorium or on your own couch, but at the midnight show, a great movie is enhanced by the experience around it.” (“How to Enjoy Going to the Movies Again”.)

Indeed. Seeing a movie in a theater can make a good movie seem great or a bad movie seem good. It has become one of the very few healthy hobbies we can enjoy that hasn’t fallen victim to technology advancements or big business apathy. The music industry still can’t figure out what to do with the Internet, more than a decade after it first came around and completely turned the business on its head. Television is currently undergoing its own mini sea change as the notion of appointment viewing has increasingly become moot and practices such as binge viewing and DVRing have overtaken what was once the traditional way to consume the medium. And without the aide of a tablet or E-Reader, literature seems more and more archaic to some bookworms as collections and libraries have been labeled too impractical by readers and too costly by publishers. 

Movies, though — movies will always have the theater. Unlike its entertainment brethren, cinema was built around offering a unique form of consumption that benefits from having a reputation akin to important events and intensified experiences. Watching movies in movie theaters is a time-honored tradition that can both bring families together for a few hours and provide an escape for those searching for some getaway moments of loneliness. “For me,” the actor Will Smith once said, “there is nothing more valuable than how people feel in a movie theater about a movie.” He was on to something, you know. The theater, remember, is the one venue dedicated solely to being the quintessential place for people to view film in its purest, most enriched form. If a film can’t come to life in a theater, it can’t come to life anywhere. 

For that, the movie theater should never be dismissed or devalued. For that, the movie theater should never be unappreciated or underrated. And for that, movies as bland as The Company You Keep will forever be worth seeing … as long as we remind ourselves to be sure we see it in the right place.