Friday, May 13, 2005

Seeing vs. Watching: The great movie dilemma

Both and Entertainment Weekly have run stories this week about the declining film box office returns of the recent months.

Kingdom of Heaven, arguably the unofficial opener of the summer movie season, was predicted to break the $30 million mark. It didn’t. While it still came in at number one for the weekend, it barely hit $20 million, and a $10 mill discrepancy between predictions and reality has gotten a lot of people talking.

Both articles put forth the hypothesis that with the prevalence of DVD’s and home entertainment systems, people now prefer to watch movies at home. The idea is based on the fact that people would rather sit in the comfort of their own living room, than trek out to the theatre, pay $10 or more, and sit in a big crowded dark room to see it.

As a professional movie goer, I beg to differ.

1)The Cost

It’s not that this argument doesn’t make sense to me, it’s that I think people look at a price of the movie ticket in the wrong way. I pay anywhere between $10 and $14 to go the movies depending on which theatre I go to (and they’re really only two, the Arclight Cinermadome and Grauman’s Chinese, though occasionally I will head out to the Grove or El Capitan).

If you think of the movies as a night out, and compare it to the other activities that you might do during the evening or even the day, its really not such a bad deal. On any given evening you might:

a)Go out to dinner – and I mean a sit down dinner, not a drive through. You’ll be hard pressed to get out of a sit down place under $10 a person once you add in tax, tip and all that. More realistically you’d spend $15.

b)Go out to a bar – even a dive will charge around $3 or $4 minimum a drink. Factor in tip for the bartender and a couple rounds, and you’re well on your way to blowing $20. Easy.

c)Go to a concert – If you want to get me started on expensive don’t even get me started on how much the price of a big concert has gotten jacked up to. If you’re going to see some big headlining tour at a stadium you can easily spend between $60 and $80 on a ticket. Smaller venues are $25 easy, and even if you’re going to see your friend’s band play at the local club – a $10 cover is par for the course.

d)Go to a play/show – If you go to an established theatre, (and I’m not talking Broadway here) tickets will go anywhere from $25 to $45 and up. Even amateur houses will charge between $10 and $15.

I could go on, rattling off the prices of Bowling, Mini-golf, Dance Clubs etc, but I think you get the picture. Even if you pay $10 for your ticket and get a concession or two, you’re still at around $15 which is not a lot to spend for “a night out”.


It’s happened to us all before. We’re watching a DVD at home and our cell phone rings. We move to silence it, but then realize its our Dad and pick up. You pause the movie of course, but you end up talking for half an hour, and by the time you go to restart it your DVD has powered off. Dag nab it!

You get up from the movie to make popcorn and discover you have a rodent problem in your kitchen that demands your attention immediately.

Your neighbor knocks on your door asking you if you have a copy of the menu to the local Chinese take-out joint.

Giant flying saucers surround the airspace above your block and start firing lasers at your house.

When you’re at home anything can happen. Its easier for your mind to wander, you have to deal with potential interruptions, and you are easily distracted. When you are in the plush velvety seat of a movie theatre your visual field is completely submerged in the huge screen in front of you. Everything you hear, everything you see….is the movie. This is the ideal of course, and every now and again we have to deal with the occasional buffoon who has forgotten to turn off their cell phone or the guy who is whispering commentary to loudly to his friend. But still, if you can seek out the movie theatre nearest you where you know the real die-hards go, I think you’ll find you can minimize that. If all else fails there’s always the usher. (don’t you wish you had one of those guys hiding in your closet at home for whenever you needed him?)

3)The crowds, the sights, the sounds

Unless you’re going to some crappy small mall Cineplex, even if you have a large TV, say 36” or even 42” you just can’t compare it to a huge movie screen. Even if you have an awesome subwoofer with surround sound speakers, its just not the same. Now I have seen a couple home theatre systems in my day that are quite impressive. Darkened windowless rooms, where you can sit and watch as though it is a private screening for you. Those are great, but most people don’t have those.

Film is an art made to be seen in huge proportions with enveloping sounds. It is made so that you feel as though you are in the world, and every where you turn your eyes you see and hear the world that is unfolding in front of you. Particularly when it comes to cinematography, and art direction, you do not get the same effect when you are watching it on a screen that is 1/50th the size.

Also, there is something to be said for watching a movie with a large group of people. Horror films, Comedies, big action-adventures; watching these kinds of movies with a crowd, is an essential part of the experience. In a comedy you might laugh at things you might not have laughed if you were alone in your home. Someone’s laughter may make you look at a moment in a different way. In a horror or thriller you feel the collective tension in a suspenseful scene, and you all laugh together after you have had a big scare. In an adventure, you cheer and clap when the hero has just decked the bad guy, or the villain’s spaceship has just been blown up. These shared emotional moments are things that are part and parcel of going to movies, and they have a great deal of value.

Both CNN and E-Weekly attempted to get down to the bottom of just why people haven’t been coming out in droves in the same way to the theatres these past few months. Both sources cited a combination of factors, some which I discussed above.

A movie studio executive was even quoted as strategizing that in the future films might be released in conjunction on both DVD and the big screen. I found this solution to be a bit odd. Going to the movies has become so entrenched in America’s culture. From Drive-ins to Cinerama, 3-D to stadium seating, movie theatres have been ever changinig, ever evolving, as they try to perfect the movie going experience.

What we need right now is a dose of big (and hopefully good) summer movies to kick up the activity at the box office. People love event movies, but besides Star Wars, which is coming up (finally) next week, there aren’t a lot of others. Batman Begins isn’t released till June 15th, which leaves a gap of almost a month without a big blockbuster.

What really needs to happen is that the studios need to get in the game. Just skimming over my own reviews on the blog over the past couple months, there haven’t been any films that really wowed me. Kung Fu Hustle was fantastic, The Interpreter was quite good, Kingdom of Heaven was eh, and the rest were forgettable.

“Hey Hollywood, if you make 'em (good) they will come.”


Blogger Patrick A. Reed said...

In reference to all this, I'm kinda shocked that you haven't yet discussed the whole thing with Soderbergh's new distribution dealie... Seems like wonderful fodder for the NYer.

OH! ALSO! Unrelated topic, but check this out, if you've not seen it before. Hidden Homestar goodness!

3:03 PM  
Blogger Elliot said...

I am quite proud to say that I am prepared to drive for an hour to visit a cinema that is acceptable to sit in.
Also - I disagree that the movies are a group experience.
I hate it when the cinema is full.
Other people ruin my movie experiences.

9:20 PM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

PAR, yeah I saw that thing about Soderberg...its very strange. I meant to find out more about it before I went off on it. Gotta do that this weekend...

1:16 AM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

People can ruin a movie experience, but in theory shouldn't. Besides, don't you really think certain films are the same when viewed together. Especially with a really big movie, like Star Wars? By the way, when is it getting released over on your side of the world?

1:17 AM  
Blogger Elliot said...

Revenge of the Sith is released at midnight this coming Wednesday.
I imagine it's the same over there.

4:53 PM  
Anonymous Crazy Monk said...

1) You have to remember how prohibitive the cost is for, say, a family of four rather than an individual. A night at the movies for them would cost at least $40, and perhaps $60-70 when you throw in food and drink. That's quite costly for a working class family.

2)As for our wealthier countrymen, HDTVs, netflix, bit torrent, and high-resolution computer screens are making the theater experience less appealing, especially for questionable looking movies (like Kingdom of Heaven, which I unexpectedly enjoyed much more than its trailer).

3) You like The Interpreter? Boy, did that movie drop the ball...

8:14 AM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

Crazy Monk,
I can see what you're saying. But I still say that even for a night out the price for movies is par for the course. Everyone always sights the concessions factor, but you don't need to buy them and you can always sneak drinks or snacks at home. If a family is going to choose to go out together to dinner, an amusement park, a show or concert, a movie is still on the cheaper end of options.

Also why did you hate the Interpreter?

9:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's hard to remember the details, since I mostly blocked it out, but it had to do with the different elements of the plot (the 'assassination,' nicole's character's unwillingness to be honest to sean p., etc.) not working together, and not leading to much suspense. Plus, the climax of the film was dependent on it being established that nicole's character knew her way around the UN very well, and knew how to hide out in a high security room for an entire night. I thought that was 1) far-fetched and 2) a cop-out. Plus, America's reaction to the bus terrorism was underplayed.

8:13 AM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

Yeah, I can see your point about America's lack of bigger reaction to the bomb on the bus. But I thought that chase sequence where both the agents end up on the same bus was pretty cool.

10:02 AM  

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