GREY MATTERS: Show Stopper: The End of the American Theatrical Moviegoing Experience

GREY MATTERS: Show Stopper: The End of the Theatrical Movie-going Experience


At some point, no matter how much you love something, you may have to admit it’s ruined beyond repair, that it really is time to let it expire with whatever dignity it has left. That thing, currently, is the American theatrical movie-going experience, may it rest in peace, forever, quickly, soon.

What was just five years ago a slightly unpleasant thing has turned into a Pavlovian act of outright self-harm wherein the exhibitor game’s guiding business model—absolute contempt for overpaying customers—is just the beginning of the worst show in town.

It’s where we submit ourselves to sticky-floored rooms full of texting and chattering teens and, here in New York City, suffer through forty minutes of TV commercials, followed by twenty minutes of film trailers, followed by five minutes of ads for the theater we’re sitting in while choking down $7.50 Cokes (the cheapest hydration available) and maybe a popcorn that eats a ten-spot in an already profoundly slimmed wallet.

One thinks back to the $5 blown on the subway, the $12 an hour on the babysitter, and, of course, that extra $5 the theater is milking you to experience The Avengers in a version of 3D IMAX that’s all murky because the theater is saving money by projecting with lower-amp light while the vaunted THX sound suggests the flatulence of the Gods, due to blown subwoofers.

And art houses? Please. Wherever you are, there tends to be a place with this recurring funky-but-chic design out of a How I Met Your Mother episode about someone’s artsy trustafarian uncle. These theaters let you pay multiplex money to see what your cooler friends are talking about—the current debased definition of being a "cineaste"—while burning through the kids’ allowance to pay for a Certified Organic, shade-grown coffee and lactose-free muffin.  Mmmm, film culture—it’s so yeasty!

Less flippantly: All this is happening because brick and mortar theatrical exhibition is moribund and going down.  According to The Los Angeles Times, movie attendance in 2011 dropped to a 16-year-low as The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the lobby group for all the major studios, registered zero domestic growth for the industry.

Most devastating was another LA Times piece claiming that “total box-office per film” had plummeted 13% in 2011 because people are more inclined to wait for movies to hit DVD, on-demand and other services.

Time magazine paints an industry kept afloat by international markets where 69 percent of overall sales last year came from beyond these shores. And by sucker-punching customers with arbitrarily increased ticket prices garnished by $3 to $5 extra fees for a 3D craze created by the industry itself for the purpose of raising the cost of admission up to and beyond $8 per person no matter where you live, while a one dollar bottle of water skyrockets—it isn’t like you can leave the theater to buy one elsewhere.

The business model here is contempt: as long as a certain amount of people show up who are willing to have their wallets and handbags stripped, it’s all good. That is, until a summer of no business-saving Avatars or Avengers. When it’s all John Carters.

But this isn’t a business known for planning ahead. Or at all.

And yet the abusive audience/exhibitor relationship continues to be championed—by film writers whose experience of it couldn’t be farther removed from that of ordinary citizens, who enjoy perfect prints in cushy screening rooms with plush chairs and high-end sound systems. There are no texting teens, no phones beeping, no snack bags crinkling.

Which might help explain the cognitive dissonance of Salon’s normally insightful Andrew O'Hehir in a new article unreasonably titled, “Does Hollywood hate adults? Bloated with teen-oriented summer spectacles, the ailing film industry may finally look to moviegoers over 30.”

Putting aside the craziness that Hollywood might dislike anyone rich enough to pay for a ticket, what Salon is re-selling here is the common idea that it’s those damned big-budget CG action and superhero movies are ruining American cinema.

Movies like The Hunger Games, The Avengers, and The Amazing Spider-Man. Whose billion-dollar-plus earnings are the only thing keeping the industry afloat in this time of zero growth, thus making it possible to even imagine “indie film” as an incredibly minuscule boutique business.

Of course, Salon is very much in the business of not countenancing the idea that many cannot afford to throw away $72 per person ($12 per ticket here in New York, $15 for a Coke and popcorn, $5 for trans, $40 babysitter) to see a Woody Allen movie on its first run that in 60 days will be on Pay Per View for $4.99.

Yet that’s exactly what the studios, theaters and culture organs like Salon are selling: time and exclusivity. The great water cooler discourse surrounding a new Allen film when it comes out. Except now it’ll be about Game of Thrones or Girls. Because who wants to endure a platform in its final spasms when you can enjoy a Golden Age still being born?

Anyway, Mr. O'Hehir asserts that the lukewarm successes of Moonrise Kingdom, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, To Rome With Love, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Ted, and Magic Mike are proof positive that “adults are going to the movies in droves and making a huge statement by doing so.”

Since I cannot imagine just what “statement” connects a magical realist pre-Katrina film with a male stripper morality tale, let’s look at those “droves.”

Beasts has made $800K so far. To Rome, $5M. Moonrise Kingdom, $27M. And so on. If you were to tally the total grosses of every film Mr. O'Hehir lists, you still wouldn’t match the $346,178,697 Spider-Man made in its first weekend.   

And so the real problem with the Salon piece—and ones like it, which run all the time—is that they answer an unsure future with nostalgia and cries to a sort of indie populism that just doesn’t fit the incredibly huge, intractable, and complex international film and entertainment market.

As for traditional exhibition—it’ll stumble along for a while. Teens still need a ritual location to meet, text, and cell-talk. And there are indie theaters that make filmgoing an actual pleasure: the Arclight in LA, Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, the Charles in Baltimore, the Sunshine here in New York. And every so often I’ll be goosed into thinking something is a must-see worth four meals-worth of money to see. 

Then it’ll turn out to be an overhyped world market contender like Prometheus or Battleship, and I’ll appreciate again how lucky I am to live in this low cost, post-movie-theater Golden Age, away from the brick and mortar, and at home in the worlds of Breaking Bad, Alphas, and Mad Men, of Teen Wolf, Fringe, and Longmire, of Parks and Recreation, Doctor Who, and Justified. And like Andrea True sang in another golden age, more, more, more.

As for the shared experience of viewing cinema—hey—do it. Maybe individual people will create neighborhood theaters. Or perhaps we’ll have networked versions of those summer film festivals most major metropolises offer. This could get really interesting—and completely lacking in the designed unpleasantness that’s currently the industry’s trademark.

But the good new days can only be hastened when we agree that hey, it was great while it lasted, but theatrical cinema is dead.


Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times,, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out New York.