I was curious about the opening midnight show of "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" on May 19 at the Laguna South Coast, so I went. Who would show up on a "school night" at the small, local theater when the megaplex has all the extra goodies?
Not surprisingly, it was about 20 or so older teenagers, mainly girls, with a few boys in tow. They headed straight for the balcony.
If there is any doubt, Johnny Depp is still a draw.
"You should have seen it for 'Sex in the City,'" said theater Manager Bob Lively, a nearly 30-year veteran of the movie business. "The line was around the block — all the females in Laguna were lining up for that."
Lively has seen his share of movie lines. He worked the opening of "Star Wars" at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, along with all of the major premieres for Mann Theatres.
Lively admitted the Laguna theater isn't as big, but he tries to make up for it with decent sound and better popcorn. Besides, he said, it's not all about flash and bang and smoke.
"To help preserve a theater like this is a privilege," he said. "At other places, the warmth and friendliness isn't there. People are strangers when they walk in, yet they're bonded together in this magical movie."
Magic and the movies. It is a universal experience. Everyone remembers their very first epic movie moment, which usually meant you were scared out of your mind.
For me, it was "The Exorcist," when I was about 10. I was truly mesmerized and frightened, feeling the expression, "evil incarnate."
The question is, are kids nowadays similarly scarred for life in the same way "we" were?
Are they filled with such realistic shock and awe, or are they so jaded from an early age by Xbox, YouTube and other realistic experiences that dreamlike movies have lost their luster?
According to Lively, the answer is no.
Even at small theaters, the movie experience is still positive and impactful.
"I'm a movie buff; I love movies," he said. "I love people and seeing people happy and their faces, their laughter. It's a good feeling."
Lively sees the joy, no doubt, from eager crowds, but it's no secret that the impacts on the "Xbox generation" have been studied extensively, with scientists wanting to prove that violence begets violence.
Interestingly, that's not always the case, and, in fact, some children may enhance certain skills, even with violent videos.
In a recent study on violent video games, which now resemble movies, Professor Christopher J. Ferguson of Texas A&M International University, says it depends on whether children are predisposed to negative behavior.
"Recent research has shown that as video games have become more popular, children in the United States and Europe are having fewer behavior problems, are less violent and score better on standardized tests," Ferguson said. "Violent video games have not created the generation of problem youth so often feared."
Meanwhile, in a completely unscientific poll of my boys, I was curious about their first "movie moment." Having been raised on realistic video games, I consider them "normal" kids and test subjects.
I have caved at Christmas like other parents when they asked for "Call of Duty" or "Left 4 Dead." I've watched with trepidation as they mowed down zombies or military bad guys, wondering if it was the right thing to do.
So when I asked if they remembered their first big movie moment, the answers were swift and unequivocal.
My oldest, 14: "'Harry Potter, Chamber of Secrets,' the snake," he said. The year was 2002 when he was 6.
My middle son, 12: "'War of the Worlds,' when the aliens were killing the humans," he said. That was the 2005 version of the movie when he was about 7.
My youngest, 9: "'Terminator,' the one with the bad woman robot," he said. Turns out the movie was "Terminator 3" when he was 5, and he saw an "unauthorized" viewing in the back of an RV with older boys.
Not scientific but probably common: 5, 6 and 7. Kids are seeing either scary or inappropriate movies at a younger age.
What does this mean? I don't know exactly.
I'm guessing there is less appreciation for movie nuances as they get older. A child certainly cannot understand the complexities of what he or she is seeing in a PG-13 or R-rated movie. They are only seeing what they can process.
Of course in our day, we had similarities — but distinct differences, too. While we shot asteroids or space ships and played pinball or Pac-Man, we also left our rooms and enjoyed playing outside.
I have to threaten my boys to get them outside.
So have we lost the game? Is the bar raised too high? Are pirates becoming too tepid?
For Lively, he sees the glass half full.
"I get customers from all over the world from different countries and they say the same thing: 'Don't change a thing. Don't change it.'"
Perhaps so. Perhaps we have to trust that the movies — and the movie experience — still leave us with a ringing truth, a validation of who we are and how we were raised.
In the end, maybe the story still matters.
DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at email@example.com.