The movie theaters aren't alright

The movie theaters aren't alright
Photo by Jake Hills / Unsplash

At various points in my life, I've tried to maintain a hobby/indulgence of going to a movie theater once a week to see a new film. I love movies and can never get enough of them, but setting aside 2-3 hours and $20 each week to keep it up is definitely not easy, which is why it felt so indulgent.

I started way back in 1984, when I figured out if I scraped my sixth-grade allowance together and rode my bike to the local mall, each week that summer I could buy a ticket to see Ghostbusters, Gremlins, Karate Kid, etc as they were released.

1984 was truly a bitchin' summer.

When I worked at UCLA in the late 1990s, there was an extension class called Sneak Preview, where for $150 you got to spend every week for four months watching a new film that was weeks-to-months ahead of public release, then someone involved with it would do Q&A after the screening. It was like seeing the best kind of DVD extras played out live and in person, and I had a hard time giving bad ratings to movies after hearing what a director or producer or lead actor was really going for. I loved this class so much I created a little movie review site in 1998-1999 to cover what we saw.

For a couple years before my wife and I had a kid, we'd take advantage of the cheap Tuesday night pricing at our local theater and it became our default "date night." Post-kid, it took us a couple years before we saw a film together in a theater again.

10+ years ago when I ran MetaFilter as my full-time thing, I arranged my work schedule so I could take Fridays off and I'd head to my local cineplex to see the first movie of the day around noon. I was frequently the only person in the entire theater and I probably kept this up for 3 or 4 years straight. Those years I saw pretty much every major film and when I was done with those, every dumb little comedy too.

The theater experience in 2024

My small town has a 16-screen theater run by a regional chain. It was built in the 90s and has uncomfortable seats, sticky floors, and isn't the greatest visual/sound experience. I check their listings every couple weeks and they don't change as often as they used to. Only a couple big films get released each month and stick around for quite a while instead of the 3-4 new films every Friday like in the past. There are many re-releases of classic films. The weirdest part is almost half the films screening there today are already available as digital rentals on my own TV.

I take movies seriously, and I have a great setup for watching them at home. I have a big OLED screen TV and the picture quality is glorious. I've got a Dolby 7.1 sound system connected as well. I even bought a huge comfy sectional couch with a chaise lounge on both ends of the sofa. Almost any movie you can think of is available in 4K over broadband fiber, instantly. To be honest, getting to sit on my comfy couch with control of my own pause button and subtitles if I want them is really handy when you're trying to watch 3+ hour epic films.

Still, even an older uncomfortable theater experience is better than my high end home theater. Nothing compares to being in a dark room, putting away your phone, and basking in the glow of an enormous screen that takes up all your peripheral vision and attention for several hours. I enjoy movies much more when I get to see them inside a "real" theater.

a pile of comics sitting next to each other
Photo by Erik Mclean / Unsplash

But I get it: making movies is expensive now, and studios frequently stick to producing sequels or remakes or other known properties that can predictably bring in box office sales. There seem to be less inventive and new ideas in film, and less films produced these days overall. Then there's the streaming studio angle, where Netflix or Apple buy films outright, skipping theaters to debut them in our homes instead.

It's clear that covid froze the film industry for a year or two, but four years later, I only get to a movie theater once every couple months at best. Luxury theaters with recliners and decent food and great picture/sound are an hour's drive from me and I can't justify setting aside 4-5 hours to make the round trip unless it's something really monumental.

I don't know how this all ends. I don't know if Hollywood is on the brink of financial disaster, or if whatever Hollywood used to do to release 3-4 movies every week is going to come from other places like Lagos or Bollywood or Beijing.

But as an avid fan of movies and the movie theater experience, I have to admit in 2024 things are very different and the future doesn't look too bright for my once beloved hobby/obsession/indulgence.