Image: Adobe Stock
Image: Adobe Stock

Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Movie Line

Generation TikTok’s easy access to entertainment makes them miss a defining character-building rite of passage of my generation: the movie line.

My 11-year-old son didn’t make it to the end of The Batman when we went opening weekend. Granted, it was a school night, the movie is shot with a purposefully dark and brooding motif, and it is a three-hour spiraling detective story that’s difficult for a fifth-grader to follow. But his head was on my shoulder with 45 minutes left to go. 

“I’m sorry dad, it was just so long and I couldn’t stay awake.” 

“It’s no problem,” I told him. “It was long.” One of the longest of any superhero movies we have seen together. 

But what I didn’t tell him was that BACK IN MY DAY movie experiences like this would have easily been a five-hour marathon. Why the extra two hours? Well, kids these days just have no idea the mental and physical toll it took to get a decent seat at the movies. The tickets instantly appear on their phones like it’s some kind of Hollywood movie magic. 

Generation TikTok can’t fathom what it’s like to call Moviefone, navigate the maze of showtimes, dial all your friends on the landline, set a time to meet, and then show up three hours early just to buy tickets to be able to get in line for the opening-tonight blockbuster. The destination was worth the journey on most nights. We loved it. But it’s becoming increasingly clear – as my kids inch closer to the days when they want me to drop them off a block from the theater – that they will never experience one of the defining rites of passage of my generation: the movie line. 

Did I wait in an hours-long line three times to see Titanic in the theater? Of course, I did. That’s what 17-year-old boys do when they have mixed groups of friends and you want to be the closest warm body when the opposite sex starts to feel the penetrating glow of Leonardo DeCaprio onscreen. I likely spent about ten hours in that movie and six hours just waiting in line during the prime social time of my life. I didn’t care. Why? Because the movie line is where shit happened and where shit got done. 

Needed to plan your weekend with the guys? No problem, we’ll do it while we wait in line. Want to decide between Chili’s and Macaroni Grill for the next date? Let’s do it while we’re standing in line. Complain about Ms. Glanville and the pre-cal homework? Line. Normally that line had no parents.

That movie line is where we learned some stuff, too. We learned how to be patient, how to communicate with one another, how to forge new relationships, and how to navigate conflicts. We also learned how to stand our ground and defend ourselves against injustice. God help the group of seven who tried to cut in line because their one friend was holding a spot for all of them. GTFO and sit yourself in the front row!

Looking back, it’s nostalgic to think of all the lessons we learned while standing in the movie line. 

I’m convinced that any organizational efficiency I have in my career is partially due to the gauntlet of just creating the opportunity to be in that line. Gen Xers remember getting the whole slate of movie times from Moviefone on the home phone and then calling eight friends to try and determine the best time for all. But then you’d get to friend number seven and they can’t do the time everyone else can because they have to go to Great Aunt Oder’s 85th birthday party. Scratch it all, start over. 

Once you finally got in the line, the planning was over and it was time for the real opening act to start. We said we hated it. But we actually loved it. 

The movie line, it has been shown, often leads to a better cinema experience. It increases our anticipation and enjoyment of the film we are going to see. Consumer behavior researcher Minjung Koo told The Verge ahead of The Force Awakens premiere that people “make inferences about value from other available sources.” What are those available sources? It’s those people who are also willing to stand in line for hours to see the next best thing in the just-right seat. The collective hive-mind of anticipation heightens our enjoyment of what is to come and confirms the camaraderie when we finally share the movie together. 

Legion M‘s Paul Scanlon wrote in Huffington Post that waiting in line is the movie-lovers version of a tailgate party. Just like Sunday afternoon before an NFL game, film devotees willingly gave up their evening or weekend to spend time in line with like-minded strangers, united by a common theme of drowning in a technicolor story for the next few hours. We might have had nothing else in common but a shared square of carpet or sidewalk, but we knew we were all there rooting for the same thing. 

Back then, we actually looked people in the eye and had conversations with words coming out of our mouths. Today, that seems quaint and unusual. My kids don’t comprehend the statement “speak to someone you don’t know.” For us, the anticipation and excitement were bubbling up for weeks, and the day was finally there. We couldn’t help but share our theories and expectations with the people stationed near us.

“You hear about this new guy, Jar-Jar? He’s gonna be bigger than Chewbacca for sure.”

Indeed, sometimes those expectations failed miserably. For every “I’m the king of the world!” moment, we got Matthew Broderick and Hank Azaria in Godzilla. By the finalé of those flops, we wanted to be one of the lizard offspring getting nuked out of existence in Madison Square Garden. But by the merciful end, we had 250 other battle-hardened comrades with whom we could give just an eyebrow raise and a head shake and know. We have suffered together. 

In the movie line, there were also only two guarantees: First, you were guaranteed to get in line at the absolute dirtiest spot of carpet or sidewalk. Second, it was a stone-cold certainty that the most annoying stranger you could imagine would be in line near you. Or the I’ve-Seen-It-Twice-And-I’ll-Tell-You-About-It guy was next to you. It gave new meaning to the term endure.

The last piece of these movie lines that shaped us was critical. There was an end goal in sight. We were working toward a goal. A shared goal. We knew that when the time on our paper ticket came, we would be in that seat together when the lights began to dim. You would be hard-pressed to find something today that would elicit a more visceral reaction than when the doors to Con-Air opened and people started to file in. It’s our turn to see that plane full of convicts, brothers and sisters. With that goal in sight, we learned how to endure, how to cope, and how to be patient. 

We know that today’s portable, small-screen-obsessed generation has trouble focusing on tasks, lacks interpersonal connection, is seeking instant gratification, and doesn’t communicate well. Could my kids handle standing in line for two hours? Would I even ask them to? 

Before we could find out if Harry Stamper’s deep-core drillers could navigate the iron graphite surface of an asteroid, we waited. Despite what my kids may think today, it wasn’t Armageddon to sit there phone-less and wait, talk, speculate, and endure. 

We don’t have time for movie lines anymore. Maybe if you take a trip down to Disney World you’ll stand in line, but even then, paying extra to Lightning Lane will get you out of it. We have learned to DoorDash-ify our lives and we wonder why children have a hard time connecting and empathizing with others. 

“A wait is a psychological state,” Don Norman of The Design Lab at UCSD recently said. “You have to develop a sensitivity to it or realize why it might be important.” It sure is important. It’s also a psychological, behavioral, and social benefit when done with others. We all need a little more of that. Let’s get in line for it.