Theater Rants

Film lore has it that Jack Lemmon would utter "magic time" before every take. For me, magic time is the moment in a theater when the lights dim. I get a charge out of hoping I will view a masterpiece that will thrill and delight, or at least a film that will give me an enjoyable two hours. Regardless of how I feel when the movie ends, that moment of anticipation is always special.

Even with the prevalence of video and DVD, theaters are still the place to see films. The excitement of the theater is still there, but it's leavened with some irritating tendencies that I've seen over the past couple of years. No, I'm not talking about the traditional gripes (small screens, talking audiences, cell phones, sticky floors, etc.). Those things annoy me too, but that's been done -- like bemoaning traffic in D.C. I'm going to venture into uncharted territory (for me, anyway). So indulge me as I put on my Andy Rooney hat and vent a little about:

1. Pre-Film Music - We've already bought the ticket and found our seats. We're a captive audience as we wait for the film (or these days, the "Pre-Show Entertainment") to begin. Naturally we have to listen to whatever background music the theaters deem to play for us. D.C.'s Uptown Theater used to play songs from related films. For instance, before Tomorrow Never Dies the Uptown played themes from earlier James Bond movies. The music helped me slide into the right mood for the film. Now it seems as though every theater is content to play the same Top 40 songs you could hear on the radio. In most cases these tunes having nothing to do with the film to be shown, or with any film at all. Why do theaters do this? That question is answered when, after the song concludes, we hear that it's on a hot new CD available in stores now. Theaters waste an opportunity to enhance the film-going experience in order to sell albums. Not a surprise these days, but a shame nonetheless.

2. "This Notice Required by Law" - Once the lights do dim, we expect to hear about the location of the theater exits and how, in the event of an emergency, we should not walk, not run, to those exits. But then, here's the corker: "This notice required by law." Why do we need to know this? What is that sentence really telling us? It reminds me of Chris Rock's line about the message minimum wage sends: "We would like to pay you less, but it's against the law." Couldn't we at least have the illusion that theater companies genuinely care for our safety? Nope, we need to know that they give us safety information merely due to a legal obligation. The message should really be "In the event of an emergency, we really don't give a damn what happens to you, but we're forced to tell you where the exits are, so here you go." Thanks.

3. Child/Value Sizes - Everyone knows that concessions are how theaters make most of their money. Everyone knows that these concessions are overpriced. That's why we get these coupons offering special deals: Buy two large popcorns and two large sodas, and get a FREE box of Junior Mints (or something along those lines). Theaters seem increasingly desperate to sell every customer the most junk food possible. But it's not good enough that we buy some food; we need to buy enough soda to drown a small child and enough popcorn to feed a family of four. To that end, some theaters have renamed the small sizes "Child" and the large sizes "Value." The "Child" size smells of trying to shame customers into moving up to the larger sizes: "Oh, you want the child size? OK, I guess you're not quite man enough for an adult soda. Here you go. Would you like a bib with that?" Then there's the "Value" size. "It's not more money, it's more for your money," you're supposed to think. It actually means that you are slightly less ripped off than you are with other sizes. Of course, most people see through this manipulation. Some even take matters into their own hands, which is why we have . . .

4. Sneaking Food Into the Movies - Somewhere in the Movie Theater Ten Commandments is "Thou Shalt Not Bring Outside Food or Drink Into the Theater." This is not a matter of cleanliness, but rather another way to keep that concessions money flowing. Now many people have a natural aversion to getting ripped off and there are often restaurants and stores near theaters. Not surprisingly then, theatergoers frequently treat the "no outside food" rule like they do speed limits. Fine. I'll admit to having snuck in food on occasion. Sneaking in food is not breaking a law, and I'm sure theater staff resign themselves to people doing so. BUT JUST DON'T BE BLATANTLY OBVIOUS!!! Ushers have no search and seizure powers. They cannot make you open a bag, but they do have a job to do. During my brief stint working at a Baltimore theater, customers would often try to walk right in with bags from McDonalds or the local bakery. One man tried to enter with a pizza box. My fellow and ushers and I had no choice but to try to prevent these people from entering the theater with what was clearly their own food. Bad situation for everyone. It takes so little effort to place the outside food in a bag or a backpack. Bottom line - people who are not smart enough to actually sneak the food into the theater don't deserve to have it there in the first place.

5. Loud Little Kids - At a recent showing of A.I., I was treated to a toddler in the audience shrieking every few minutes. That experience happens all too often. As I sit there consumed with the fantasy of drop-kicking the noisy tyke into the next state, I remind myself that it's not the child's fault. I doubt that the little boy or girl asked to sit in a dark room for two hours with a couple of strangers seeing moving images that they don't understand. If I were that kid at that age, I'd probably be shrieking or crying too. While the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) film ratings are supposed to protect children from inappropriate material, there is no limit, beyond NC-17, on films young children can see with their parents. Common sense dictates that toddlers will not enjoy, or even comprehend, most films, especially films that have enough adult content for a PG-13 rating or higher. The child will naturally grow bored and restless. Yet some parents will take a young child to any movie with no consideration for that kid or for anyone else in the audience. Theaters will not act. One theater manager told me that staff don't want to intervene because the theater would not appear "family-friendly." Really? What about other families who might be trying to enjoy the film but need to contend with someone else's shrieking toddler - shouldn't theaters be friendly to them as well? Must we all suffer because a few parents are too cheap or lazy to hire a babysitter? Ideally the MPAA would ban children under five from seeing any film with a PG-13 rating or higher, whether they are with parents or not. Ideally theaters would care more about the whole audience. But that's not going to happen, placing the responsibility back where it ultimately belongs - the parents. When it comes to toddlers or infants: either keep 'em quiet or, better yet, keep 'em at home.

Adam Spector
July 20, 2001

Brian Niemiec, Cinema Lounge moderator, writes:

"For the record, I am 36 years old and I screamed and cried when I watched A.I., too.

I would like to add cell phones to the list of annoyances. Cell phones are the most irritating, annoying and egotistical invention of the 20th century. Nothing is more aggravating than to hear someone's cell phone go off during the movie. Who the hell do they think they are? Why are they so important that they have to take a call during a movie? It was bad enough that we used to have to hear beepers, now we have to hear "Dixie" during the climax of Tomb Raider. Some theaters have even started asking people to turn off cell phones and pagers before entering the auditorium. Still, you can hear them go off. Since people cannot be trusted to turn it off during the movie, I believe that theaters should install signal blocking devices inside the theater. Until then, I say we arm ourselves with JuJuBees and Dots. As soon as the cell phone goes off, we pelt the idiot with our arsenal of sugar treats. Leaving the theater with candy welts will certainly teach them a lesson."

Well Brian, your views on A.I. reflect the popular opinion as the film tanked at the box office. A.I. was not perfect by any means, but it was an ambitious film at a time when many Hollywood films strive for very little. It was true science fiction in that it explored the ramifications of science and what it means for humanity and our creations. The film dazzled visually and featured terrific performances by both Haley Joel Osment and Jude Law. Like many, I found fault with the ending, but not enough to ruin the whole film.

As for your cell phone diatribe, a hearty Amen!!! Cell phones have their place, but not in a movie theater. It takes no effort to turn them off. If theaters took more responsibility they would force anyone whose cell phone rings to leave the theater immediately. But in the meantime, let's go with your candy attack plan.

Adam Spector
August 30, 2001

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