Movies | April 2, 2019 5:00 am

On the Sad, Scary State of Movie Theaters

Forget evoking Hollywood grandeur, the modern cineplex is a dirty, noisy, penny-pinching dump.

Today's modern multiplex makes for a dirty, noisy, and unpleasant movie-going experience. (Photo: Flickr, Jon Seidman)
Today's modern multiplex makes for a dirty, noisy, and unpleasant movie-going experience. (Photo: Flickr, Jon Seidman)

There’s something really scary at the movies these days.

And I’m not talking about Us, or Pet Sematary or any of the other horror pictures currently playing or getting ready to slither into theaters.
I’m talking about the theaters themselves.

Loathsome lobbies whose carpets stick to your feet with the ancient remnants of spilled sodas—at least, I hope that’s what was spilled there—and bathrooms in need of a team of exorcists.

Concession stands haunted by the foul stench of stale, “golden-flavored” popcorn and frankfurters that have been revolving in the same slippery grease since Porky was a piglet.

Theaters where the picture is alternately dark or out of focus, the sound is either deafening or indiscernible and the cramped seats feel like they were salvaged from a budget airline.

These aren’t entertainment venues, they’re endurance tests.

The main reason, of course, is the usual one: razor-thin profit margins. Typically, theaters only get to keep a fraction of that $17 ticket price, particularly at the beginning of a movie’s run. They make their money in other ways, like concessions.

As one theater owner once wryly observed, “I’m not in the movie business. I’m in the popcorn-and-Coke business.”

But you can only push overpriced $12 “Value Priced!” combos for so long. Eventually, people get tired of the crazy markups and unhealthy food. So they go without, or sneak in their own candy bars. Then that revenue stream dries up. And so, unable to increase prices, theater owners cut costs.

Variety recently explained one simple way this happens—by slashing personnel to the bone. If you have a good manager, it only takes a few low-level employees to change the marquees, staff the concession stands and flip a switch now and then—particularly if they don’t need to clean the place, too.

For that, you can always hire someone—who hires someone else. For example, AMC employs a service that uses “independent contractors”—i.e., anybody willing to work seven days a week, while netting as little as $5 an hour. Time-and-a-half, days off, benefits? You’re kidding, right?

You’ll understand, perhaps, if at that price, these cleaning crews don’t give themselves blisters scraping up every bit of gum—or if, instead of then replacing the carpeting, an already cost-crazed theater owner simply shrugs and turns the lights down lower, hoping you won’t notice.

Welcome to the modern movie theater.

And it has about as much in common with the picture palaces of our parents’ youth—with their giant, single-screen auditoriums, and handsome ushers in military-style uniforms—as the Staten Island Ferry has with Cunard’s Queen Mary 2.

Not surprisingly, some theater chains have opted for a different business model, selling “premium” experiences that offer cocktail lounges and reclining seats. There’s even food-and-beverage service during the film, brought swiftly and silently—they promise—by “ninja” waitstaff.

Premium not good enough for you? Head to an iPic theater for the “ultimate experience.” They hawk pod-like “Premium Plus” seats for cozy couples, complete with comfy pillows, soft blankets and free popcorn—for up to $34 on weekends. That’s for a single ticket.

Hell, at those prices, you could hire a couple of theater majors and have them act out the movie in your living room.

It’s no wonder that, presented with the choice of either sitting in a pile of garbage or taking out a second mortgage—or, increasingly, taking out a second mortgage and still sitting in a pile of garbage—many moviegoers have given up on going to theaters altogether.

Why pay $17 for an awful experience—never mind twice that for an upscale one—when I can simply stay home and, in a few months, catch the whole thing on a streaming service for $4.99?

Well, there are a lot of reasons.

For one thing, no matter what you do to it, no matter how great your equipment is, your living room is still your living room. The screen is a lot smaller than a theater’s, the darkness is never as dark, and there are a dozen things—from the dog in your lap to the leftovers in the kitchen—ready to distract you from whatever you’re watching.

It’s not the same.

Nor is it the same seeing a film without an audience. I don’t care if you’ve got a family big enough to deserve its own reality show—seeing a movie with them at home is not the same as seeing it with several dozen or several hundred strangers in a theater. Movies were meant to be a truly communal experience, and they require a true community of moviegoers to work.

Don’t believe me? Think about when you first saw A Quiet Place in a movie house—and then caught it again, months later, on TV. Was it the same experience? Did it even feel like the same film?


That’s why good movies deserve good movie theaters.

They shouldn’t be fleapits—which some, literally, are. (There have been bedbug sightings, and bitings, at some of New York City’s biggest multiplexes.) But they don’t have to be over-the-top palaces, either, with La-Z-Boy seating and a poor server having to interrupt the saddest scene in Roma just to bring some guy his popcorn shrimp.

All I want—and most of us want—is a clean, safe space with good projection, decent sound and comfortable seats. You give us that for a fair price and, honestly, we won’t even mind occasionally paying way too much for a box of Reese’s Pieces (especially if you cut down on those endless pre-screening commercials). Seriously, just give us that and we won’t ask for anything else.

Well, except maybe getting rid of those jerks on their cell phones.