Thursday, December 29, 2011

Keeping Up the Theatrical Habit

Roger Ebert has written an article about dropping theater revenue. One of the primary issues he points out is ticket costs, along with all the usual suspects like high concession prices, rude audiences, and too many other competing distractions. I think he leaves out a big one, which is that the culture of movie-watching has totally and inexorably changed over the past few decades. Let me illustrate with my own history of theater going.

When I was a kid, my family went out to the movies about twice a year, primarily for the new Disney features. My parents were not great theater goers, and the only time I remember them leaving us kids at home to take in a movie by themselves was when "The Last Emperor" came out, and won Best Picture at the Oscars. It was sort of an Asian solidarity thing to support the picture, I think. Anyway, I was totally enamored with films and movie theaters at a very early age, in part because I never saw new movies by any other means. I would have gone to see a movie in theaters every week if I could have, and I understood that it was the norm for many people, back when an evening show only cost $5.

Then home video happened, and the dollar rental stores proliferated, and I found that I was watching a new-ish film or two practically every weekend with my parents. $20 to take the whole family to the theater wasn't justifiable except for special occasions, but a dollar or two to watch something that had come out eight months ago was a much easier sell. It opened the floodgates, and suddenly I could see most new movies once they hit VHS. And you better believe that I kept track of those release dates. Going to the theater still had a strong allure, though, because that's where all the newest releases were, the ones that Siskel and Ebert and the entertainment reporters were always talking up.

In junior-high and high school I started going to the movies with friends, and at that point it became much more of a regular social activity. I wasn't particularly picky about what I watched, because that wasn't really the point. I saw some movies multiple times, because it was with a group. Ticket prices were inching up, but a once-a-month outing was still affordable. There wasn't really much to do in my corner of suburbia otherwise. I remember classmates talking about going to "Titanic" five and six times, and it didn't seem all that outrageous because you'd always go with different friends, or on dates, and a full three hours of distraction was worth the cost of the tickets.

It wasn't until college that I turned into the hardcore movie junkie that I am today, and I was in a college town with a ton of art house theaters. Those should have been my peak theater-going years. I was going out more often than ever, I had access to practically every current release from the blockbusters to the limited runs, and thanks to the internet I was better informed about the movie scene than ever. But that's when the price of tickets really started to climb, and the frugality instilled in me from childhood slammed on the brakes. I remember balking at the price of a $7 matinee. So I went to the library and local video rental places much more often instead, to fill in the gaps in my film knowledge.

This is more or less where I still am now, ten years later. With a steady income, and much more mobility, I'll happily go to the movies with friends or make the special trips out to see things like "The Artist" or "Tree of Life" that I think need the theatrical experience. But this doesn't add up to more than a theater visit once every few weeks - with exceptions for the summer and holiday gluts - and I'm about the most ardent movie nutcase that I know of. I have one friend who goes out every Friday night with her husband for a movie and dinner, but she's a rarity. Personally, I have trouble justifying the amount of theater visits I indulge in now.

What I don't watch in theaters I can easily catch up with by rentals, the same as always. The windows between theatrical and DVD or online releases have shrunk quite a bit too, so I never feel that far behind the critical conversations. I've learned to wait things out and save a few bucks. And I think this is true for pretty much everyone else I know.

I've seen twenty-something films in theaters this year. And I've seen at least three hundred through rentals and streaming and borrowing. In the end I still think of going to the theater as a special occasion, but it hasn't been my primary means of watching new movies for years, and I don't think it ever will be again.

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