Week after week, I focus on the good and/or bad concerning moviegoing and the movie theatre industry. But as passionate as I am about the subjects of this column, I've never really felt strongly enough to label any one person either a hero or a villain to moviegoers. Perhaps the closest I've come to calling someone a hero was when I finally had my first experience with an Alamo Drafthouse cinema. On the other hand, I've certainly wanted to call a lot of people villains, including whoever was responsible for my worst moviegoing experience in years and whoever came up with the awful idea to produce scented pre-show ads.
So, it was by some sort of coincidence that last week actually brought news of both a remarkably heroic moviegoer and a terribly villainous theatre owner. Of course, you're welcome to disagree with me as I celebrate the former and castigate the latter. The interesting thing about these two individuals is that some of you may see my hero as a villain, and vice versa. In fact the law has deemed the former a criminal, and meanwhile tons of moviegoers in the UK are championing the actions of the latter. No wonder film exhibition is in such dire straits when there's such disagreement about how to improve the moviegoing experience.
First let me tell you about my new hero, David Anthony Vaughn. Beforehand, though, I must point out that I don't encourage others to do as he has done. To me, a hero is someone who sacrifices himself for the greater good of the people, and this man has somewhat technically done this. However, if we all sacrificed ourselves for a cause, there'd be none of us left to enjoy the effects. Plus, what he did was destructive and illegal, and therefore I need to be careful not to inspire copycat incidents.
Vaughn went to see Iron Man on August 5th at the Eastridge Movies 4, located inside the Eastridge Mall in Casper, Wyoming. Unfortunately, during the movie, the projector "malfunctioned" -- it's unclear in the news report what the exact problem was -- and so afterward, my hero wanted his money back. Of course, as is the custom, Vaughn was denied a refund and was instead given a readmit voucher. As the theater management explained their company policy, he yelled at employees and to his fellow moviegoers that customers were being ripped off. Finally, he grabbed a computer monitor from the ticket counter and threw it through a glass door -- it landed in the food court outside the cinema -- before running off to hide in J.C. Penney.
The damage was estimated at $1,250, according to the local press, but fortunately nobody was personally injured. Vaughn apparently considered his act heroic, telling police "he had done the right thing in the war against injustice in the world." Ironically, or stupidly, Vaughn cost himself more than the price of a movie ticket, as he was arrested and now faces charges of felony property damage and disturbing the peace. Also, there's a good chance that Eastridge Movies 4 won't be changing their policy in response to the incident (the policy is shared by all cinemas I'm familiar with). But his sacrificial act of protest may hopefully motivate other moviegoers to complain -- more peacefully, of course -- about poor projection and the lameness of readmit tickets. I will say, though, that if readmits are the best a cinema will do, it ends up being worth it if you receive them following every movie you go to, whether you walk out or stay for the whole thing. Believe me, there is pretty much always a reason to complain, and most chains will accommodate your issue if you seem honest enough and adamant enough.
Now, onto the villain: Daniel Broch, owner of London's Everyman Cinema, who recently purchased 17 more locations, all of which he's making popcorn free. His exact words, as quoted in UK's The Observer: "I will de-popcorn every new venue I acquire. It has a disproportionate influence on the space in terms of its overwhelming smell, the cultural idea of it and the operational problems created by the mess it produces. I'm not saying no popcorn is better than popcorn. But I am saying there is no way in which it fits with the culturally sophisticated brand I wish to sell."
This news was enough that I received a whopping 12 Google alerts about it, as apparently every media outlet in Britain picked up the story (for TV coverage, check out this clip from BBC News). And because villains often work in teams, there are more bad guys quoted, too, such as the artistic director of Tricycle Cinema and Theatre, Nicholas Kent: "Popcorn is horrible stuff and I won't have it anywhere near my cinema. It's a form of junk food and that encourages junk entertainment. Its smell is all-pervasive, it makes huge amounts of mess, and it distracts and annoys people intensely."
And owner of the Rex Cinema, James Hannaway: "Popcorn is hateful stuff. It is the anathema of everything I want the Rex to be and the decision to ban it was one of the first I made. It's trashy, it makes a mess and it smells. The multiplexes have to sell it because their ambition is to make as much money as possible. My ambition to make a night at the Rex a glamorous, dignified and civilised affair. People dress up to come here. It's special. Popcorn isn't."
Other fancy pants popcorn haters include the independent chain Curzon, which only offers popcorn at three of its five locations (because customers asked for it), and Picturehouse Cinemas, which is trying out special popcorn-free screenings at one of its locations on Tuesday nights -- with the expectation that they'll be popular enough to expand into a permanent fixture throughout the company's 19 theatres. According to the Daily Mail, even Sir Paul McCartney has endorsed the Everyman in a company brochure, stating the cinema is "too posh for popcorn."
Of course, this snooty-seeming ban on my favorite food is not the end of the world, or even the end of England. Tons of profit-seeking multiplexes will continue to keep popcorn a staple of moviegoing in the UK. But what makes me angry is not the fact that some cinemas won't sell it; the true villainy is in how these theatre owners view the snack as being food for lowbrow moviegoers. Sure, maybe I'm more likely to buy a bag when going to see Tropic Thunder than when going to see Tell No One, but I at least like the option, and I definitely don't like being looked down upon if I do want popcorn with my highbrow French thriller. As Den of Geek's Sarah Dobbs puts it: "Popcorn itself is irrelevant; this is all about elitism. And, being an essentially contrary person, all it does is make me want to eat popcorn more than ever. My choice of snack food has sod all to do with my level of intelligence or indeed sophistication. Popcorn has no inherent morality."
One of the many reasons that I hate press screenings is that there's no popcorn. It's also an issue I have with seeing movies at places like NYC's Anthology Film Archives and the Museum of Modern Art, but it makes sense at these places, because they are not really first-run movie theatres. They don't really allow any food (though I've seen a guy bring a bag of popcorn bought at the nearby Landmark Sunshine into an Anthology screening), because they don't have the means to clean up the way that movie theatres do. Still, New York's most highbrow arthouse cinemas (Film Forum and IFC Center) have the best and second best corn in the city. If either gave it up -- and there are some patrons who probably wish they would -- I'd probably go crazy.