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Robin Friedman : author and journalist

Now playing: Empty theaters

An illusion-based business faces bust at the box office.

By ROBIN FRIEDMAN | The Allentown Times | June 23, 2006

Seen a movie lately?

Like, in an actual movie theater, with popcorn and Junior Mints?

Or are you one of the growing numbers of consumers who are DVD-ing, Netflix-ing, iPod-ing and pay-per-viewing?

If you do go to the movies, you’re in a shrinking minority. According to a 2005 Associated Press/AOL News Poll, 73 percent of Americans prefer watching movies at home.

And it shows. For the third straight year, box-office numbers for the nation’s 36,000 silver screens display sharply declining attendance, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.

Are we entering an era of the end of movie-going as we know it? And, if we are, why?

Well, let’s consider the complaints, and there are quite a few: Bad movies, high ticket prices and above-market snack prices, a torrent of pre-commercials, competing technologies and the rudeness of strangers.

Bad movies

No less a media personality than Miss Manners has weighed in on Hollywood’s hard times. In a Feb. 18 column, the etiquette queen wrote: “The movie industry…has made an effort to discover what its erstwhile customers want. Better movies was not considered to be an issue, as nothing will dislodge the notion that one way or another, people will watch anything.”

Jeff Pooley, assistant professor of media and communication at Muhlenberg College, agrees. “People think most movies are stupid and inane,” he says. “Last summer we certainly had a crop of bad films.”

While movie studios are certainly hoping for better and blockbuster this summer, has a steady diet of formulaic plots, too-familiar special effects and endless remakes left movie-goers hungry?

“Films may seem repetitive, based on old TV shows and not original, but those are actually the ones that do well, because they have a built-in audience,” explains Paul McEwan, assistant professor of media and communication and associate director of film studies at Muhlenberg College. “If on opening weekend there’s a completely original film versus The Dukes of Hazzard, the remake will actually draw the bigger audience.”

Yet Hollywood’s golden age certainly does seem gone with the wind.

“We think of our older stars as being classy and glamorous,” McEwan says. “Whenever I see Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, for instance, I always think, ‘I wish I had a white jacket, and a place to wear it.’”

And yet, McEwan believes our collective movie memories are very selective.

“When we compare the great movies of the past—Casablanca, Rear Window, Psycho, On the Waterfront—with what we have today, we come up short,” he says. “But those films are out of hundreds. And don’t forget all the ‘B movies’ that have faded into oblivion. B movies were designed to be quick, cheap and easy.”

Scott Snyder, managing director of the Civic Theatre of Allentown, which dates to 1927 and features first-run and independent films, as well as stage performances, thinks television, ironically, may have raised the bar.

“It’s been said that we’re in the era of the TV writer,” he says. “We’re certainly celebrating well-written TV shows these days. TV has lost its taboo, its taint; in the past, to be a truly successful actor, you had to be working in movies. TV was the second tier, but there are more prestigious projects in TV now.”

The Civic Theatre, by the way, isn’t experiencing attendance problems, Snyder says, though he is very much aware of the trend.

“We’re a different kind of animal. At present it’s not affecting us. But we’re not entirely without concern for the future,” he says.

Allentown’s other movie theater is AMC Tilghman Square 8, which opened in 1989, and where general manager John Hellwig refers media inquiries to AMC Entertainment Inc. headquartered in Kansas City, Mo. The nation’s number-two theater chain, AMC owns 323 theaters and 4,556 screens nationally.

“We’re very bullish on the industry,” says Melanie Bell, AMC vice president of communications. “When there’s a good product—great movies like Titanic or The Passion of the Christ—people come out. This is a cyclical business with peaks and valleys.”

Movie-goers do respond to select films, such as the Harry Potter franchises, but in the case of The Passion of the Christ, millions of conservative Christians who do not ordinarily go to the movies were lured to theaters, infusing 2004 with dollars Hollywood cannot normally count on.

“There’s so much pressure on films to do well on their opening weekends nowadays,” McEwan says. “Every newspaper in America carries those numbers.”

And the numbers, unfortunately, do not lie.

“I’m not immediately concerned about us,” Snyder says. “But some theaters are not long for this world.”

High ticket prices and above-market snack prices

Five bucks for a candy bar?

Welcome to the concession stand at your local multiplex.

“You go to the movies and pay $20 for the privilege of eating $3 worth of food,” Snyder says. “You want to get your money’s worth, but it’s hard to get your money’s worth.”

That said, the Civic Theatre has raised ticket prices only once in 14 years, Snyder says, from $6 to $7. And that is a bargain. Nationally, ticket prices range from $8 to $12.

Movie theater owners are only too aware of the snub of high ticket prices on consumers. Which is why popcorn prices are so steep in the first place.

“The profits come from concessions and arcade games,” says Jim Brancato, associate professor of communication and director of the communication program at Cedar Crest College. “But it can be a lot of money, especially for a family, to spend an evening at the movies.”

Bell, however, doesn’t see it that way when you factor in other, higher-priced entertainment.

“We think going to the movies is a great out-of-home entertainment venue when you compare it to a sporting event, concert or theater event,” she says. “It’s a great value.”

A torrent of pre-commercials

Remember when previews used to be fun? Yeah, we know, it was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

“I get irritated too when it’s 25 minutes after show time and the movie still hasn’t started,” Snyder says. “We show advertiser slides in advance of show time, then trailers, but no commercials.”

Even movie critic Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times and TV’s Ebert and Roeper and the Movies was quoted as saying in a December 2005 Associated Press report, “Nobody wants to wait through 20 minutes of commercials.”

In a March 2006 report in USA Today, movie theater owners agreed they needed to cut down on pre-show commercials.

And Miss Manners declares, “It appears that audiences do not want to show up on time for a movie only to be subjected to a barrage of advertisements.”

Competing technologies

Perhaps the gravest threat to movies, though, are alphabet-soup technologies that only computer geeks and teenagers truly understand… DVD, iPod, HD, MPEG4, Mp3, not to mention plasma TV, flat-panel TV and digital sound.

“I love the movies, but it’s a hassle to drive to the theater,” Pooley says. “With new technology you have this enormous library at your fingertips with no inconvenience at all. It’s easier not to go to the theater.”

New technology has made it possible for every home in America to become a big screen unto itself.

“Every house has to have a theater,” Brancato says. “You’re losing out if you don’t have what everyone else has. It’s a sense of status to have the newest and latest. It’s a propaganda machine that convinces people to part with their hard-earned cash.”

Brancato, in fact, is extremely unimpressed with it.

“It’s close to a scam if you ask me. Every time technology changes, you have to replace something you just started. It’s the excitement of new technology, but it’s the repackaging of old content. They’re marketing to you to re-invest in what you already own.”

Meanwhile, the window between a movie’s release and its video debut continues to narrow.

“In the old days you had to wait four years for a movie to be on TV,” Snyder says. “Now it’s a few months. DVDs provide an attractive alternative if you’re willing to wait an increasingly shorter amount of time.”

New technologies represent a larger trend toward more and more personalization, whether it’s ordering a cup of coffee exactly the way you like it, creating your own screen saver or developing your own digitally enhanced pictures. But it’s possible to take individualism too far.

“New technologies discourage communal life,” Brancato says. “The public square is gone.”

Pooley agrees. “We’ve traded public spaces for private spaces, and that’s disturbing. That’s not to say democracy flourishes in a movie theater, but the wider trend is that when people don’t interact with each other, we don’t have a flourishing public life, and when we don’t have a flourishing public life, we don’t have democracy. We’re at risk of living in our own isolated pods, disconnected from our fellow- citizens, which is disturbing in the long run.”

Which brings us, at last, to the sticky state of…

The rudeness of strangers

“I love to be around people, but I want them to be quiet,” Brancato says. “It happens no matter where you go. It’s not just kids who do it.”

Experts attribute movie rudeness to home comfort overkill.

“It’s manners that are typical of living rooms—distractions, multitasking, doing several things at once, rarely using one media at a time,” McEwan says. “I don’t like it, but I don’t expect not to be disturbed.”

Once again, Miss Manners puts it best:

“Today’s movie-goers consider their films to be interactive,” she writes. “They talk, they shout, they make and they take telephone calls, they get up and move around. They eat and drink noisily. They allow their children free range. They pick fights with one another. They take up more than their share of seats. They vilify anyone who attempts to quiet them. Instructions flashed on the screen are routinely ignored.”

Roeper the movie critic writes: “You’ve got people behind you kicking your seat and talking on cell phones, do you think a lot of people might say, ‘You know what? I’ve got a great sound system. I’ve got a 50-inch plasma screen. I’m just going to wait three months until the DVD comes out.’”

So, in the end, is the movie theater destined to go the way of the T. Rex?

“Extinction is a pretty strong word, but there will continue to be shrinkage in this business,” Brancato says. “But if we lose movie theaters, is that somehow losing movies? It is a communal art form, an experience we have together, that’s part of its power. A large screen envelopes our senses. We lose quite a bit if we’re watching movies at home.”

Movies, though, have managed to survive successive rounds with various technological challengers, from television to cable to video cassettes to the Internet.

“And, you know what, we’re still around,” Snyder concludes.