At times, I think my dream vacation involves traveling the world and watching a movie in a theater wherever I stop. But despite the fact that I'm a theater geek (as Erik Davis recently pointed out), I do have other interests, and, surprisingly, moviegoing is not usually my primary objective when I take a trip. I am often curious, though, and occasionally I'll check out a cinema in another land, especially if it's a cinema unlike those I frequent at home (such as the El Cerrito Speakeasy). However, after my visit to a faraway theater this past week, I have an additional reason to consider my dream vacation to be something entirely else: cross-country moviegoing would be really, really depressing.
Because I've never been on a cinema tour, I can't say for sure, but I'm assuming that a lot of neighborhood multiplexes around the U.S. lean toward the side of dissatisfactory moviegoing experiences. Whether a corporate-owned or independent business, there are a lot of reasons that a movie theater may be underwhelming its customers on a frequent basis. Look at the usual complaints from Cinematical commenters: expensive concessions and ticket prices, dirty auditoriums, too many advertisements and ill-mannered audience members are constantly cited as excuses for why people don't go to the movies. But more than all these typical reasons is the worst offense of all: poor exhibition.
Since the early days of cinema, theatre owners have been saying some version of Marcus Loew's oft-quoted statement, "We sell tickets to theaters, not movies." But today, when the studios and the cinema chains can't agree on whose responsibility it is to equip auditoriums with digital projectors and 3-D-ready screens, it's apparently debatable the kind of business theatre owners are in. While it's constantly argued that cinemas make profit only on concessions, it must be understood that without the movies (or concerts, operas, baseball games, etc., as the case may now be), there is no reason for people to enter the cinema and purchase that overpriced popcorn and soda. Theatre owners may claim they're in the concession business all they like, but at the end of the day, if the popcorn is crummy (or crumby), the patron may come again, but he or she will sneak a snack in the next time, while if the picture is crummy, the patron is likely to find an alternative entertainment source altogether.
Last week, while visiting my father, I went to see Hancock at the Continental Cinema 5, located in Troy, Alabama. It was the worst moviegoing experience I've had in a long, long time. The specific movie had nothing to do with it, though. Unlike most of my peers, I actually enjoyed Hancock for the most part. And I probably would have enjoyed it more had I been able to see it correctly, in pristine condition. As for the usual moviegoing complaints, the ticket was fortunately very cheap, especially for a New Yorker like myself (I bought three tickets there for the same cost as two here in Brooklyn), the concession prices were relative to the region, the auditorium was immaculate and the few other audience members were extremely well behaved. As for the ads, well, I had to sit through way too many of the same commercials over and over again, but that's mainly because I got to the theater more than 30 minutes before the show began.
However, due to what I have to assume is laziness and lack of care, the projection of the movie was perhaps the lowest quality I've ever witnessed. And it actually began with the pre-show ads, which were exhibited separately via a video projector that was so bright, all the ads were disturbingly washed-out, and few words were decipherable (a big problem for the advertiser, whose phone number needs to be at least legible if not completely clear). As for the film projector, it had it's own issues. The most noticeable was the flickering bulb, which was a constant distraction throughout the movie. Considering the way Hancock is shot, almost entirely with extreme close-ups and a lot of out-of-focus objects in the foreground, there wasn't much onscreen not affected by this unfortunate projection error. And, though it was difficult to tell with those extreme close-ups, I'm pretty sure the masking (or framing) on the projector was off, as well. Additionally, the volume of the movie was so loud (projectionists rarely change a theater's volume depending on audience size, which is unacceptable) that I'm now blaming it for the earache I'm currently suffering. Continental's slogan is apparently "Going to the movies never SOUNDED this good," but loud does not equate good, and honestly I've been more satisfied with crackling speakers than this theater's aural presentation.
Most disappointing was the fact that there were scratches (plural) all over the print screened at the Continental Cinema 5. And this was less than a week into Hancock's run at the theater, which is completely disgraceful. Moviegoers should rarely even put up with one thin scratch on a print of a second-run film or a film that's been at the same first-run cinema for months. But multiple thick scratch lines on a new movie, all the way through, are never to be tolerated. It's the kind of offense that calls for getting one's money back, regardless of how much of the movie was watched (I chose to write this column in this public forum rather than complain directly and get my money back, because it will hopefully be more effective).
Could it be a coincidence that this blogger experienced an off night? Or is the management always so unmindful of its exhibition? The Continental Cinema 5 is the only cinema in the area (as far as I'm aware), with the next closest theater being at least 45 minutes away from my dad's house. So, there's a good chance that I'll be there again on my next visit to Troy (which is only twice a decade) to find out. But despite my will to return in five years, being a theater geek and all, if Continental Cinemas, which is privately owned and consists of only one other theater, a drive-in, thinks it can be sloppy because it holds a monopoly on Pike County, Alabama (which includes Troy, a respectable-sized college town), it needs to take a look at its attendance.
According to my father, the parking lot of the Continental is never filled, except occasionally when Troy University is in session, and the "crowd" watching Hancock with us that night (roughly 10 others) was the norm for a night screening. Obviously the theater is not raking in the dough due to its exclusivity. In this day and age, with so many other entertainment options, whether they relate to movie watching or not, there's just no claim on a territory for theatre owners. I wouldn't be surprised if the lack of moviegoers in Troy has a lot to do with Continental's poor projection, as well as other unsatisfactory practices.
That night, after I saw Hancock at the Continental Cinema 5, I literally dreamt that I was back at my old job as a manager-projectionist in Connecticut. I was in a meeting with my old co-workers, many of whom were just as lazy and uncaring as I assume the Continental staff to be (one co-worker was good at scratching up new prints of movies like X2: X-Men United the night before it opened), and I stood up and spoke loudly (yeah, I felt like Jimmy Stewart during a town meeting in an old movie) about why it's important that those of us employed in the exhibition industry need to take more pride in our work and think more about the movie and the moviegoer than the ticket and the customer (and the paycheck). Of course, in the dream, just as in real life, nobody else seemed to be with me.
Now would be a great time for a big chain like Regal to stomp through Alabama and put Continental out of business. And that's a shame, because as much as I like Regal, I'm also a supporter of small businesses. But here I'm thinking about the movie fan more than the movie theater, because everyone deserves quality exhibition in his or her neighborhood. And every exhibitor needs to deliver quality in order to keep people going to the movies (if Regal or some other big chain doesn't put Continental out of business, Continental will do it to itself). On Continental's website, the company claims its goal "was to create the highest quality presentation of film available with a physical operation size appropriate for the population of Pike and surrounding counties." Well, as far as I can tell, the goal has not been met, and that "was" should now be an "is."