MOVIEGOING, like roller-skating and rotary telephone use, is in decline. This is not to suggest that people don’t watch movies anymore. If anything, the ubiquity of screens today — on smartphones, on tablets, on laptops, to say nothing of cable television with its access to nine hundred channels — has made it possible for people to watch more movies than ever. Standing in line at the supermarket the other day, I noticed that a little boy ahead of me was watching one of the Iron Man movies on an iPad. A few taps on the screen would have given him The Great Train Robbery (1903), Gone with the Wind (1939), La Dolce Vita (1959), or Blue Velvet (1986), though I doubt he considered any of these options. Not all that long ago — within the living memory of people who are not yet 50 — if you wanted to see a movie from decades past, you either had to track it down at some far-flung revival theater or hope that it would play on television. But if technology has expanded our cinematic choices, it has circumscribed our cinematic spaces, mostly to our own private screens. In 1930, nearly 70 percent of Americans went to the movies on a weekly basis. Today, that figure has fallen below 10 percent. The average American goes to a mere five movies a year. What’s lost in the process is the experience of moviegoing, of actually leaving the house, fighting traffic to make it downtown, waiting in line, perhaps in the rain or snow, and then enduring 15 minutes of commercials so that, for an hour or two, you may sit in a dark room with a group of strangers and watch images flicker on a screen the size of a tennis court.
Of course, you could argue that what matters most is not where you see movies, whether at home or at the ArcLight or at 42,000 feet on the back of an airplane seat, but that you see movies and which movies — Westerns, documentaries, pre-sound, pre-code, bromances, blaxplotation, early Buñuel, late Tony Scott, or just The Sound of Music (1965) day after day, nearly a thousand times, as one woman in Wales claims to have done. But theaters aren’t merely film-delivery systems. They are cultural meeting places where art, commerce, and conversation cross paths. I once asked a friend why she doesn’t like watching movies at home. “Because you can’t talk at home,” she replied. This assertion, on its face, is clearly ridiculous. It’s a lot easier to talk through a movie in your living room than in a packed theater, surrounded by a hundred angry, hissing patrons. But I knew what she meant. One of the pleasures of going out to see a movie is talking about it afterward, over dinner or during the walk back to the car. It’s part of the experience — the first part, as soon as you step out of the theater — beginning with the inevitable question, “So, what did you think?” The question becomes much less pertinent in the seclusion of one’s own home, where your companion’s thoughts are more discernible, whether through comments or yawns or by the fact that, halfway through the film, she leaves the room to read a book. But in the darkness of the theater the answer becomes a genuine mystery: what did you think? And so begins the conversation, for movie theaters, as much as they are places we go to watch movies, are also places we go to talk about movies, and therein to learn more about each other and about ourselves.
Mind you, I did not always think so. It took me many years to develop a fondness for moviegoing, much longer than it took me to develop a fondness for movies. I was a second-year film student, with a second-year film student’s consciously recherché taste and arrogance about my own cinematic erudition, before it ever occurred to me that going to the movies might be an activity worth appreciating in and of itself. I went to the movies growing up, of course, but never with a sense of wonderment or awe. Cinephilia, in my case, came by way of VHS tapes and Roger Ebert. I refer here not to Ebert’s popular TV show, which he co-hosted, first with Gene Siskel and then with Richard Roeper, but to Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion, to which I was introduced, one evening, after watching a rented copy of Midnight Run with my father. The film was a favorite of mine at the time, and as the end credits rolled I asked my dad whether he knew when it was released. Today, nearly any child old enough to read would know to consult IMDB for such a query, but these were the days before Google searches, when one still heard the internet referred to as “the information superhighway.” And so rather than going to the computer, my father went to the bookshelf in his room and pulled down a collection of Ebert’s reviews. He flipped to the entry for Midnight Run and then handed the book over to me. There I found not only the year of the film’s release (1988) but its director (Martin Brest), screenwriter (George Gallo), and stars (Robert DeNiro, Charles Grodin, Yaphet Kotto) all listed, along with, of course, Ebert’s review. (He gave it three and a half out of four stars.) This delighted me. What a resource to have at one’s fingertips! Turning to the index, I found a list of the other films directed by Martin Brest — Going in Style (1979), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), and Scent of a Woman (1992) — copies of which I made sure to check out from the video store the very next weekend. Very soon the Ebert volume was dog-eared and thumbed to tatters, but it was quickly replaced by Video Hound’s much more comprehensive compendia of films, which I tore through with equal relish.
Cineastes of an earlier era would no doubt frown upon the indolence of such a film education. I sometimes wonder whether, if I had been born a generation earlier, I would have become a film fan at all. Before the coming of home video, the cultivation of movie knowledge took work, a lot of it. It meant waiting weeks or, possibly, months for old masterpieces to appear in revival theaters and then traveling miles, perhaps hundreds of miles, to see them. The pause and rewind buttons were unimagined luxuries. If you wanted to hear a line again or rewatch a particular shot, you had to wait for the next showing, if there was one. And yet, amazingly, there were film lovers whose cinematic erudition would rival that of any film buff today. François Truffaut used to see three movies a day, paying for a ticket and then sneaking into the adjacent screening room as soon as the first movie was over. Kevin Brownlow began collecting 9.5mm prints of silent films when he was 11 years old and interviewing aging, Chaplin-era stars while he was still a teenager, turning himself, in the process, into the world’s foremost authority on silent cinema. Woody Allen used to play hooky from school to see Ingmar Bergman films. Ingmar Bergman! I can understand a teenager ditching class to go to the movies, but how many teenagers ditch class to see Summer with Monika (1953)? Most 17-year-olds would find calculus more exciting. Would I have gone to such lengths to further my film education when I was 17? No less importantly, could I? My teenage years were spent in a relatively small town in Northern California, where, in a pre-home video age, silent movies and cerebral Swedish films would have been hard to find. Somehow I doubt I would have been up to the task.
I was a child of the VCR Age and, consequently, was both a beneficiary and a victim of all it wrought. The invention of the VCR, in a sense, returned cinema to where it began. The first movies were not watched collectively in a crowded theater, but viewed individually by peering into one of Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscopes. (Picture a steamer trunk, tipped lengthwise, with a pair of metal binoculars affixed at the long end and you’ll have an idea of what the contraption looked like.) This mode of viewing, however, was made obsolete when the Lumière brothers screened La Sortie de l’Usine Lumiere de Lyon in the basement of the Grand Café in Paris on December 28, 1895. In an instant, cinema was turned from an arcade amusement, like pinball and slot machines, into an art form for the masses, like theater and opera. It was also turned from a private experience into a public one.
From the very beginning, movie theaters were premised on equality. They were cheap enough — five cents a ticket in the early years of the 20th century, thus the name “nickelodeon” — that nearly everyone could afford to enter. Furthermore, there was no economic hierarchy within the theater, no private viewing boxes or reserved seats. Front, back, and middle all cost five cents. First come, first served. Rich and poor, migrant and Boston blueblood alike, all sat side by side. Indeed, immigrants came in droves to see movies, not only because they were inexpensive but because, being silent, they required little or no mastery of English to understand. (Integration of this kind did not pertain in the former Confederacy, where African Americans were segregated to the worst seats in the house, an inequity that stood out all the more blatantly thanks to the relative equality elsewhere.) Even the flatness of the screen was touted as an egalitarian innovation. Comparing films to stage plays, a 1916 article in Exhibitors Herald explained,
One is viewed on a flat screen which viewed from all positions is always the same — a picture; the other is composed of people on an actual stage, with a perspective, which changes to every seat. People in various parts of the house see it differently because of the angle of vision.
That’s stretching the point a bit. Clearly, the writer never tried to follow the action onscreen while sitting front row center. Nonetheless, movie theaters were more democratically constructed than just about any other public space at the time — and remain so to this day. Though we may carp about the exorbitant price of tickets (and 15 dollars per person is exorbitant), movie theaters, unlike playhouses, sports stadia, concert halls, airplanes, and certain choice clubs and restaurants, are not economically stratified … unless you’re a child or a senior, in which case you get a discount. Otherwise, 15 dollars buys you any seat in the house. First come, first served.
Movie theaters are, and have always been, stuck in an awkward place, trapped between technology and taste. They have the misfortune of being permanent structures — large and expensive permanent structures — in an industry that is constantly being buffeted by mechanical innovation on one side, and by the fickle whims of the public on the other. For this reason, they have a way of bearing the imprint of the age into which they were born, leaving, in their ever-changing architecture, a fossil record of cinema’s evolution.
For the first 20 years of movie history, the storefront theater dominated the landscape. The storefront theater was exactly what it sounds like: a former mom-and-pop retail store converted into a movie theater. Fearing that movies might simply be a passing fancy, exhibitors were leery of building new structures in which to show films and were similarly hesitant about investing too much in the properties they bought. The theaters, consequently, tended to be long and narrow, with flat, rather than inclined, seating, thus placing many a head in the way of many a sightline. As one-reel shorts gave way to feature films, the storefront theater began to seem too cramped for the growing grandeur of the medium. And so the movie palace was born. Enormous, exotic, and slightly preposterous, the movie palace reached its apogee right around the time that F. Scott Fitzgerald and Babe Ruth reached theirs. Specimens of the species include the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, the Roxy in New York, the Uptown in Chicago, the Fox in San Francisco, and, of course, Grauman’s Chinese. Grandfather to them all, though, was New York’s Strand, opened in 1914, the same year Griffith filmed The Birth of a Nation (1915), right as feature films were beginning to supplant shorts on movie screens around the world.
The palaces, tailored so perfectly to the rich, roaring ’20s, were, in turn, done in by the Great Depression, when the idea of building a giant, faux-Egyptian temple in which to watch movies seemed in bad taste. Even before the stock market plunged on October 29, 1929, the death of the movie palace was foretold — or, more precisely, foresung — the moment Al Jolson crooned “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face” in The Jazz Singer (1927). Giant auditoria may have looked impressive but they sounded echoey or, worse, inaudible, especially to people in the back rows. (Knowing little about acoustics, theater owners, for decades after the coming of sound, hid their speakers behind their screens, assuming, incorrectly, that voices had to emanate directly from the faces onscreen to make the syncing look and sound authentic.) And so theaters shrank in the Depression and then gradually grew again. In the 1950s, a decade of booming car ownership and federal highway construction, drive-ins became the rage. To counter the economic blow delivered by television, movie theaters jumboized their screens. This was the era of CinemaScope, Cinerama, and VistaVision, each of which offered bigger and wider images than audiences had ever seen before, built to upstage the puny, squircle-shaped screens now flickering in living rooms around the world. The problem for movie theaters today is that TV screens aren’t puny or squircle-shaped anymore, and they offer a wider variety of choices on any given night than a movie theater can offer in a year.
But even as the movies shaped the theaters, the theaters, in turn, shaped the movies. When films began moving out of storefront theaters in the teens and taking up residence in grander digs, they gained for themselves a new artistic respectability that they’d previously lacked. Audiences and critics who’d once shunned the “flickers” as an amusement of the uncultured and unwashed began to warm to the movies, now that they could be seen in fancier accommodations. So explained Professor Brander Matthews of Columbia College in 1915:
[An] excellent critic on one great New York newspaper some months ago announced in private that he would not review a great film drama because he considered it altogether beneath the dignity of his office as critic. Since that time he has undergone a change of heart and the factor that induced the change was the taking over of the Knickerbocker theater for the exhibition of Triangle plays.
The decision, a dozen years later, to place speakers behind movie screens meant that holes had to be punctured in the screens, 42 per square inch, each hole measuring 0.0005 inches in diameter. These perforations vastly cut down on screen reflectance, as well as making cleaning harder and future recoating of screens impossible. It is often assumed that the sharp decrease in wide shots employed by directors after the coming of sound resulted from the bulkier, more stage-bound equipment that they had to use when shooting talkies. This was certainly the case. But the reduced image quality caused by the perforated screens also forced editors to insert more close-ups, the better to distinguish faces. Anyone who’s taken a film class that spans both the ’20s and ’30s has probably noticed the shift. While silent films deal in bodies — brawny Douglas Fairbanks and leggy Louise Brooks; Harold Lloyd dangling from a clock and Charlie Chaplin dancing on a tightrope — early sound films deal in faces: Marlene Dietrich’s chiseled cheekbones; Peter Lorre’s bulging, frightened eyes; and Jean Harlow’s platinum tresses and bee-stung lips. Two decades later, when screens swelled horizontally to compete with television, wide shots began appearing in greater numbers again. Advances in widescreen in the ’50s made possible the massive, magnificent chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959); the vast, rolling seas of sand in Lawrence of Arabia (1962); and the dazzling symphony of lights in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).
Seeing a movie with an audience changes one’s perception of what’s playing onscreen. Lines that might elicit a chuckle in the privacy of your living room will, when heard in a crowded theater, suddenly sound uproariously funny. Kisses will seem more romantic, speeches more rousing, and deaths more affecting. Shoddy handiwork — bad acting, sloppy screenwriting, unconvincing special effects — will, likewise, stick out like a sore thumb. A few years back, I attended a showing of East of Eden (1955) at Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles. The graveyard, which holds the earthly remains of such cinematic giants as Douglas Fairbanks, Cecil B. DeMille, and John Huston, has, for the last 15 summers, been the site of an outdoor cinema, to which thousands of Angelenos flock each Saturday from mid-May to mid-September to watch classic movies. (“Classic,” in this case, includes everything from Roman Holiday  to Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2 [2003 and 2004].) The procedure is simple: you show your ticket at the gate, spread your picnic blanket on the grass, uncork your wine and open your chips, and, for the next two hours or so, watch Casablanca (1942) or Strangers on a Train (1951) or Dirty Dancing (1987) screened against the side of a giant mausoleum. The crowd skews young, mostly people in their 20s and 30s, and they are not shy about expressing their opinions to anyone who will listen. “Act away, Keanu, act!” an audience member near me once shouted during a showing of Point Break (1991). Exclamations such as these are generally reserved for newer releases or films, like Point Break, that one can only admit to enjoying ironically. Older films are, for the most part, treated with more reverence. Even a quiet crowd, however, exerts a social pressure on the individual, and though I’d seen East of Eden maybe two-dozen times over the course of my life, my impression of the film was different now that I was surrounded by a throng of other viewers. None of us likes to think that our emotions can be manipulated by the herd. We prefer see ourselves as impervious to groupthink, lone Henry Fondas voting not guilty while all the rest of the jurors vote for death. But there are times when being part of a crowd sharpens your senses rather than dulling them, bringing into focus things you never would have noticed on your own.
There is a scene in East of Eden in which Abra (Julie Harris) comes to talk with Cal (James Dean), who is eating lunch by himself in a field. Abra is engaged to Cal’s brother, Aron (Richard Davalos), and has, up until this point in the film, seemed to be somewhat frightened of Cal, who is the black sheep of the family, as rebellious and sullen as Aron is upstanding and sunny. Abra is a kind-hearted girl, though, and she clearly wants to get to know Cal better if she’s going to marry his brother. And so she sits and talks with him for a few minutes until Aron arrives. That, in a nutshell, is the scene. Watching it with a crowd, though, I noticed, for the first time, what only becomes explicit later in the movie: that Abra is attracted to Cal. She is, in fact, flirting with him. Her apparent fear of him, early in the film, is actually a fear of where her own desires might lead her — to the bad boy rather than to his angelic brother. As they talk, Abra toys with a yellow wildflower, at one point clamping the stem between her teeth. How had I missed all this sexual tension before? I sensed that the crowd around me noticed it, too, for they were, for once, completely silent, all two thousand of them. On the screen, Harris extended the wildflower and ran it down the bridge of Dean’s nose. The audience gasped.
One of the benefits of going to see a movie, rather than staying in to watch one, is that films cling much more tenaciously to one’s memory when they’re viewed on the big screen. At least they cling more tenaciously to mine. I can’t for the life of me remember the last time I saw Chinatown (1974), though I know I’ve seen it this year — I see it on DVD every year — but I can recall, with uncommon clarity, watching The Little Mermaid (1989) in a theater with my friend Danny when we were five years old. I remember watching Speed (1994) in a drive-in theater in Las Vegas on my birthday. (Despite being July, it began to rain.) I remember watching Broken Arrow (1996) at the Gaslight Twin Cinema in Durango, Colorado, on a sweltering summer day in 1997 and how, as I stepped from the air-conditioned theater, the sunlight outside actually seemed to press against my face, like a hot towel. I remember watching Ransom (1996) with my grandmother; Beverly Hills Ninja (1997) with my friend Mike from little league; Man on the Moon (1999) with my first girlfriend; and Redbelt (2008) all by myself, the sole person in a cavernous, multi-tiered theater. I saw Kingdom of Heaven (2005) twice in two days at a movie house near the Burggarten in Vienna after going nine weeks without seeing a single film. (If you’ve been in a desert long enough, the water in a horse trough can taste quite refreshing.) And I saw White Fang (1991) in a theater in Montclair with my mother less than a month before she died. Where, I wonder now, were my father and my two-year-old brother that day? It was unusual for my mother and me to go to films all by ourselves. Later, the fact that we went to that particular film struck me as ironic — my mother, like the mother wolf in the movie, died suddenly and unexpectedly — though, in truth, it’s completely typical of Disney fare, which is so often flavored with parental death or disappearance. (Dumbo , Bambi , Cinderella , and The Lion King  are all about children who, in one way or another, lose a parent.) The point, though, is not the irony. It’s the memory of seeing the movie with my mother, a memory that remains with me because we saw the movie in a theater.
Of course, what I’m remembering in each of these cases is not so much the movie on the screen as the trip to the cinema itself: the heat of the summer sun as I stepped from the theater in Durango, the July rain in Las Vegas, the fact that I was (unusually) seeing a movie alone with my mother in the middle of the day. The joy of moviegoing is as much the going as the movie. Thus the affection that cineastes have for particular theaters, an affection not unlike that expressed by baseball fans for Fenway Park or Wrigley Field, a fondness for idiosyncrasy mingled with nostalgia. You hear it in Woody Allen’s voice in Radio Days (1987) when he describes first seeing Radio City Music Hall (“It was like entering heaven”) and, conversely, you catch it in the prose of Vanity Fair writer James Wolcott when he wistfully recalls the bad old days of moviegoing in New York in the 1970s:
The prints may have been faded and scratchy, with vertical lines running down the frame along with random dots, they may have unreeled choppily because of bits missing […] but the theaters themselves offered an immersion course in the mysterium tremendum of cinema that contaminated the pores of the mind. You didn’t just watch a double feature but steeped like a tea bag in the contemplative dungeon atmosphere. Theatre 80 St. Marks, where I first saw Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers musicals on a big screen, had lousy sight lines and seats that kept chiropractors busy, but its very cheesiness complemented the operettas being projected. The Thalia was where the hard-core film addicts and fellow vampires holed up to escape the ravages of sunlight.
Wolcott is hardly the only writer eulogize the dilapidated delights of ’70s cinemagoing. David Denby and C. S. Leigh have offered equally rhapsodic reminiscences. “Sometimes you walked up three flights to get to these theaters but they still felt subterranean,” Leigh writes. “It was a fetid, human experience.” Of course, one could argue that this is nostalgia on the part of a certain generation of filmgoer, pining for a lost Eden simply because it’s lost, not because it was actually all that Edenic. I have, at times, felt the tug of such seedy sentiments on my own VCR-age memory. In my case, the lost Eden is a ramshackle little video store called the Turpentine Cat. It had filthy blue-shag carpeting. A mangy and equally filthy sheepdog named Sophie lounged sullenly by the counter. Jeff, the owner and sole clerk, was himself something of a mangy creature, with skinny, vein-latticed forearms, and a cigarette perpetually propped between his fingertips. The tapes were exactly the type you’d expect to find in such a place: midnight movies like The Beastmaster (1982) and Highlander (1986), and foreign films by Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Was the selection good? For the time, yes, but by modern internet-era standards it was pitifully limited, bounded by available shelf space and Jeff’s rather eccentric taste in film. My warm regard for the Turpentine Cat springs not from the breadth of choices it offered but from its ambience, an ambience that dates it to a specific period both in my life and in film viewership, post-VHS but pre-Blockbuster. And I suppose that, as the years go by, and video stores become a more distant memory to us all, reminiscences like mine will increasingly appear in print, eulogizing Hollywood Video the way Woody Allen eulogizes Radio City Music Hall.
My point is that we should be wary of letting ourselves get too moist or moved when we talk about a former era of moviegoing. It’s natural to look back fondly on the world of one’s youth, but, when doing so, one must be careful not to miss something merely because it has vanished. But Wolcott et al. are right to draw our attention to the unique pleasure of moviegoing, a pleasure that is independent of any nostalgia for a bygone era. One of the little treats of Paris, where I currently live, is the plethora of small, independent theaters it has to offer, many of which play old American movies. There’s La Filmothéque, tucked away in an alley between Place de la Sorbonne and Brasserie Balzar. There’s Les Cinéma Saint-André des Arts, where the second salle is separate from the box office, so that, after you buy your ticket, you must go back out onto the street and around the corner to find your screening room. There’s Le Brady, a little neon-lit island of refinement in a sea of graffiti and fast food restaurants near the Gare de l’Est; Le Desperado, with barely enough seats to accommodate an upper division film class; and down Rue des Écoles from Le Desperado (and not twenty paces from La Filmo) there’s Le Champo, its name emblazoned in gorgeous art deco type above its rounded, corner entrance. What’s wonderful about each of these theaters is that they are at once intimate and communal, the beau ideal of public space. None of them have popcorn stands or soda machines or touchscreen ticket dispensers. Le Desperado doesn’t even bother to play trailers for coming attractions. Attending these theaters, you feel not so much that you are watching a movie in your own living room as that you are watching a movie in your own private screening room, the kind film stars used to have built in their homes in the days before television. In the back rows, you can often hear the purr of the projector. It’s not uncommon to see patrons’ noses buried in novels while they wait for the lights to go down.
My all-time favorite moviegoing experience took place at Le Champo about six years ago. I was not then living in Paris but my father was, having decided to spend his first year and a half of retirement within walking distance of the Seine. When my brother and I visited in December, the weather was uncommonly cold. It’s unusual for it to snow so early in the winter, and yet, a few days into our visit, we woke to find pale petals softly falling into the courtyard outside my father’s window. Expecting that it would melt right away, we were shocked, upon stepping out the front door, to discover that the city was swaddled in a blanket of pure ermine white. Fluffy, virgin snow powdered the conifers in the Champ de Mars, piled on the balustrades of the Quai Branly, and carpeted the Pont Bir-Hakeim. By evening, the three of us were chilled to the bone, and so we ducked into Le Champo to get warm, resigned to watch anything but thrilled to find that the theater was playing The Dead (1987), John Huston’s adaptation of the short story by James Joyce.
I mention these details because they are, for me, inextricably linked with the experience of watching the movie itself, a perfect frame for it. Never, in all my trips to the cinema, have a day and a movie been so impeccably paired. As the film opens, the characters onscreen, too, are seen shaking the snow from their galoshes and unburdening themselves of their winter coats. It is Christmastime for them, as well. They have gathered for a dinner party at the home of three Dublin spinsters on a frosty evening in 1904. The plot, such as it is, is tied to the (mostly minor) emotional perturbations of one guest, a schoolteacher named Gabriel Conroy, as he navigates the social shoals of the party: extricating himself from a conversation with nasty old Mrs. Malins; avoiding a quarrel with bumptious Molly Ivors; and finally, after much apprehension, delivering a successful postprandial speech to the assembled dinner guests. It’s when he thinks he’s home free that he, so to speak, strikes the rocks, discovering at the end of the film that his wife remains in love with a long-dead suitor.
The heart of the movie, though, is the dinner party and its treasure trove of characters and customs: the playing of music, the recitation of poems, the attempts by all assembled to keep strong drink away from Freddy Malins, and the many tiny faux pas that occur over the course of the evening. These little gaucheries make the film quite funny. Part of the pleasure of seeing the movie with a French-speaking crowd was observing when they got the jokes, either before a line if the subtitle was early or after a line if the subtitle was late. Had a microphone recorded only the audience reaction, it would have most often picked up the laughter of three American voices, followed, a second and a half later, by the laughter of seven or eight French voices. Some jokes were lost in translation or, more likely, lost in intonation to the non-English speakers. Freddy Malins reply to his mother after she asks him doesn’t he agree the party was even better than the one last year (“Was I here last year?”) drew no chuckles from the French-speakers but plenty from the three Americans, demonstrating that screenwriting is an art more for the ear than the eye. And that, in large part, was what made this particular trip to the movies so special. It was the chance to see a familiar film in an unfamiliar setting, with a group of people who were seeing it and reacting to it for the first time — being surprised by its surprises, moved in its more moving moments — thus allowing us, in a way, to see it again for the first time, too.
One hears a lot these days about the inevitable extinction of movie theaters. Google the phrase “movie theater attendance” and your top hits will have titles like “The Long-Term Movie Attendance Graph is Really, Really Depressing” and “Cinema is Dying: How Movie Theaters Can Ensure Their Survival.” Grim statistics are invariably trotted out. Ticket sales are declining. Per-capita attendance has been sliding downhill for 15 years. More and more of the box office revenue is being sucked up by a few big blockbusters. All this, needless to say, is depressing. But will movie theaters actually disappear, going the way of telegrams, typewriters, and milkmen? It’s unlikely. Moviegoing is too multifunctional an activity, perfect both for first dates and family outings, for boisterous teenagers and white-haired retirees alike; a way of escaping the heat of a hot summer afternoon or getting out of the house while still staying warm on a cold winter evening. Just as sports stadia survived the advent of television, so too will movie theaters survive the advent of Netflix. Movies, after all, unlike sports, require no knowledge of arcane rules — like what the hell a balk is or how an offensive tackle is made into an eligible receiver — nor any knowledge of team standings. A three-year-old can be as enthralled in a theater as Pauline Kael or Quentin Tarantino.
What will vanish is variety. In 1995, Disney released 32 films. In 2015, they released just 11. With attendance declining and so many viewing options available online, smaller independent movies that would have once been released in theaters will, in the future, go straight to Comcast. You can already see this happening. One used to be able to tell the difference between a movie and a TV show instantly, the moment you turned on the television. TV shows were shorn of all sex and profanity, mostly shot on sets, and episodically self-contained, so that a viewer could pick up watching anywhere in a season without having to catch up on the plot. Cable and satellite television have sanded away these rough edges, so that TV shows, like movies, can now have story lines, arcing across seasons; characters who grow, develop, and even die; virtuosic camerawork and editing; not to mention sex, drugs, profanity, and violence. Meanwhile, more and more A-list movies are skipping theaters and going straight to television, including Game Change (2012), Behind the Candelabra (2013), The Normal Heart (2014), and All the Way (2016). The movies that do continue to play in theaters will, by necessity, have to attract as large an audience as possible to justify the added expense of distribution. Small, quiet dramas like My Dinner with Andre (1981), Before Sunrise (1995), and Blue Valentine (2010) will grow fewer and farther between. They may still get made. They simply won’t be playing as often in theaters.
And that’s a shame. Democratic institutions, like movie theaters, depend on democratic choices that draw in everyone, not just a narrow target demographic. If movie theaters are the places where conversations begin, then they must provide enough variety to make those conversations interesting, for it is in discourse that true artistic appreciation comes to fruition. Such discourse needn’t require a companion. We see movies differently when we see them with a crowd, and to see a movie in a crowd — even alone in a crowd — is to participate in a kind of collective conversation. While you sit alone in the dark, the people around you will heighten your perception of what’s onscreen, just as you, by your very presence, will heighten theirs. Maybe that’s why we remember the films we watched in theaters better than the films we watched on the couch. We know, if only unconsciously, that moviegoing is an experience worth savoring.