Thursday, February 4, 2010

Avatar to the Rescue! Maybe.

Some of you are aware that movie theaters lost much of their relevance when Big Screen met DVD. Moviegoers began to forgo opening weekends of blockbusters and opted to wait for DVD releases. Girlfriends had a tougher time convincing their boyfriends that romantic comedies were worth seeing on a fifty foot projection. Boys taking girls on dates no longer needed to pay forty dollars for a movie, candy, drinks and popcorn. If they watched a movie at home it would cost fifteen bucks, tops. Parents no longer wanted to quiet their crying kids without the ability to pause movies. Crusty old curmudgeons could watch movies at home without the nuisance of noisy whippersnappers and cell phones. None of us have to sit in a jam packed theater, wondering why, oh God why, was the only open seat next to the fat, sweaty dude who steals armrests.

I came around to team DVD a little later than some. I couldn't immediately take the plunge because I still remembered getting vertigo in the opening scenes of Mission Impossible 2 and feeling the ground-shaking roar of the T-Rex in Jurassic Park. I remembered the chills creeping up my neck upon seeing the Star Wars: the Phantom Menace trailer for the first time on the big screen and having the same feeling when watching Keanu Reeves dodge gunfire in "bullet time." I didn't think it was possible to appreciate that type of movie magic from home. In 2004, I was forced to surrender my obstinate position and admit that movie theaters kind of sucked. One movie experience after another for every year since has reinforced my opposition.

Here are just a few experiences that nudged me away from theaters. I could not stand being subjected to commercials after the movie was supposed to have started, especially after paying $8-10 per movie. I got pissed off when they wouldn't let me bring bottled water in, because they sold bottled water for $4.50. The seats are never particularly comfortable and in some of the less popular theaters, they aren't too clean. If you ever wondered why seats in some theaters fold up, it's to make the greasy popcorn crumbs fall through to the floor. I got sick of dim projection. I could hardly see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon because the theater owners reduced the intensity of projector bulbs in hopes of either reducing their power bill or to make the bulb last longer (which doesn't work). I watched three movies at my local theater that were shaking so badly, I had to take off my glasses (making everything blurry) to make it possible to tolerate. The theater did not replace the shaky projector for two years. When I watched Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the projectionist forgot to change the fucking reel. I've never even heard of that happening. During a screening of K-Pax, eight fifteen year old girls talked, giggled, answered loudly ringing cell phones and eventually, after I asked them nicely to be quiet, started throwing popcorn over their shoulders at me and my friend. Never one to take the high road, I pelted one of them squarely in the back of the head with an ice cube, which won me a smattering of applause from other patrons. That was the worst of many giggly-girl encounters. If the giggly-girl was on a date with dumbass-boy, rest assured, red laser lights were zinging across the screen. (I must admit, laser lights were more popular about five years ago. The last I saw of them in a theater was during a viewing of 300 in 2006.)

I'm aware that businesses can't fully control the behavior of their patrons, and I rarely blame a theater for rowdy kids or talkative people. I hate some theater crowds, sure, but that's not the biggest reason I hate theaters. It is how they are run. Charging 400% retail for snacks is unacceptable. That sort of gouging should only happen at ballgames, which are once in a lifetime experiences. The greatest play in the history of the sport may happen on any given night. Concerts are the same way. Bands never play the same way twice. Movies cannot boast that sort of uniqueness. The movie will not change from one viewing to the next. To ensure that we buy their drinks and snacks they refuse to let us bring our own. They do this in because they make most of their money off snacks. When a business can't make money from its primary reason for existence, without extorting its patrons, it's time to update the business model. I'm most shocked by the cost of tickets. Kansas City has about the least expensive movie ticket prices in the nation, and ours cost about ten dollars. I can rent newer movies for $3-6 depending on its DVD release date. I can own most movies for $20, and DVD sales have an astronomical markup. I don't care where money goes, what the cost is, or why movie tickets cost $10-15. It's not cost effective for the consumer and should be abandoned.

For more than five years I've wanted theaters to crumple under the pressure from their unsustainable business model. I was awaiting the day that they folded into oblivion, leaving room for only a few of the best, consumer friendly theaters and well-maintained IMAXes. And I still believe that to an extent, but damned if James Cameron's 3D Avatar didn't shake my faith to the foundation. All of the sudden, this movie marvel created a need for theaters.

I've listened to nonsense hype about 3D for over a decade. To me, 3D always looked like one cardboard cutout set a little closer to me than the background. I hated the effect. It was unnatural to my sense of depth perception, doing more to distract me than it did to enhance the experience. Many critics complain about the dimness of 3D. I only remember its annoyance. Even Superman Returns' 3D on the IMAX was jumpy and blurry. Avatar gave me depth. Long corridors and rounded objects stretched into the distance, each line of trees in the forest was distinguishable from the next. The effect makes Science Fiction seem more science-fictiony.

I get depressed when I think of watching Avatar on a home TV, no matter the size (with the possible exception of my friend's 65-inch monster HDTV). Only a handful of movies in the past few years were worth seeing in theaters. Fewer are released with each passing year. If we suddenly saw a surge of films taking full advantage of Real 3D, creating wondrous worlds and mystifying spectacles with epic storytelling and fearlessly pursuing the story to a logical conclusion, regardless of running time, I would go to more movies.

For the first time in years I can at least see a beneficial function of movie theaters. I hope new filmmakers will take advantage of the 3D big screen experience, otherwise movie theaters are expendable. Pixar is planning on releasing Toy Story 3 in 3D. If it too is as an impressive technical achievement as Avatar, I might forgive past transgressions and once again look forward to opening days at the movies.

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