Op-Ed: Can movie theaters make a comeback?

Former Rialto Theatre (now an Urban Outfitters store)
The Rialto Theatre in downtown Los Angeles was converted into an Urban Outfitters store, making it one of a growing number of former movie houses to be re-used for retail purposes.
(Los Angeles Times)

It seems that the surprise cultural zag back to pre-digital experiences may hit the movies. That’s right: Movies in the theater, like Grandpa and Grandma used to do it.

You know those vintage or maybe just soggy cinema strongholds (both indies and cineplexes) with the smushed Milk Duds, frescos of Humphrey Bogart, and tickets that — for a family — can make a solo seat at a “Hamilton” matinee look affordable? It’s those theaters that might enjoy a revival with the newly refreshed MoviePass, a company that just got a gung-ho CEO in Mitch Lowe, an early executive at Netflix. Following Netflix, MoviePass works by subscription: Thirty dollars lets you gobble as many movies as you can, on tens of thousands of screens throughout the nation, every month.

“Refreshing” the cinema experience has been a goal of movie-makers and theater operators for years.

Of course “refreshing” the cinema experience has been a goal of movie-makers and theater operators for years. Making big-screen movies a little bit blurry and nauseating with 3-D — and pretending that 3-D is awesome — has yielded some success. Last year, while box-office revenue in North America was up 8% from the previous year ($11.1 billion, up from $10.4 billion), 3-D box office went up 20% — and made up 15% of the box-office total. And even as many independent movie theaters stateside continue to close, cinema screens continue to open all over the Asia Pacific region, where they increased by 19% last year.


Despite these gains, however, it’s clear where the cultural momentum lies. Forget dinner and a movie, “Netflix and chill”— slang for sex while the TV hums obliviously in the background — is the signature date of the Tinder generation.

VHS used to furnish a convenient alternative to theaters for ’80s “cocooners” reluctant to leave their sectional sofas. Now, Netflix (and Amazon and Hulu) offer a fundamentally different consumer experience. Binge-watching is more often than not a laptop, lean-forward affair. Moving pictures are inhaled at close range. When you invest dozens of private hours in a heavily plotted series such as “Bloodline” or “Orange Is the New Black,” you may yield to feelings of intimacy. Viewing becomes closer to reading, often done in bed and after-hours; the viewer’s mental line is suffused with dialogue and intrigue that demand concentration, interpretation and memory.

If a show doesn’t grab you, you quit early on. But when hooked — and these virtuoso shows know how to bring that rapturous trance (think: “Game of Thrones”) — you’re less inclined to give a detached and dispassionate review. With movies in theaters, viewers — farther from the screen, distracted by other viewers and under the imperative to fight glassy-eyed absorption in public space — are more likely to dislike what they see. And review it badly.

A Netflix binge feels personal, while a movie in the theater is a programmed spectacle.


But Lowe believes that theaters can compete — that, in fact, there’s nothing like the majesty of a big screen. “Seeing a movie in the theater is absolutely the best way to see it,” he said recently. This doesn’t mean he wants to bring back the single-screen gilded movie palaces of yore; that ship seems to have sailed. Lowe is talking substantial modernization of theaters. “The experience of going to the movies has just started to get innovative. We’ve got digital film being distributed now. We have theaters upgrading the environment — great seating, they deliver food.”

What Lowe really wants to change is the business model. Subscriptions, such as the ones at MoviePass, may encourage audiences to take more risks with what they try — and also to reject movies that don’t interest them, and even change movies and theaters without paying.

Lowe even imagines a return to half-days spent in theaters, as when midcentury moviegoers regularly got a newsreel, two cartoons, intermission in the lavish decor, and a double- or triple-feature for 50 cents. And of course there were ashtrays for the roomful of smokers, and even “cry rooms” for women with babies who wanted to listen to films over a public-address system. During the Depression, movie theaters further drew patrons with gimmicks such as “dish nights,” when, yes, they gave away dining sets. It’s much harder to dislike a movie (or three) when it comes with a saucer or gravy boat.

No wonder old-timers rave about those larger-than-life midcentury movies that often disappoint when streamed on a laptop. Theaters were practically paying audiences to see them.

For now, MoviePass may be up to the same thing. Lowe says the company ensures that theaters make as much as they would on tickets, and that they’ll also fill more seats, which should benefit Hollywood too, by adding to box-office figures. In the usual way of tech companies bent on user acquisition (well before profits), the company’s focus is on acquiring subscribers for now, meaning it’s throwing freebies at anyone who signs up. Watch for dish night 2.0 — or maybe special theaters for babies who cry and millennials who vape.

Virginia Heffernan is filling in for Doyle McManus. Her new book is “Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art.”



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