In my life so far, there have been two movies that I really cherished going to see in theaters. One is The Mummy from 1999, and the other is The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers from 2002.
Those two features felt perfect for the big screen. Sweeping landscapes, massive battles, and cutting edge (for the time) special effects. I remember feeling hypnotized, and in both films forgetting the audience of strangers all around me.
Looking back, though, I think that magic is gone. Not from the world exactly, maybe just relocated.
In 1999 and 2002, I didn’t have a lot of options. I was too young to buy electronics and was not trusted to cultivate my own space for relaxation. When I was just a kid at home, being loud or enjoying loud things was strictly off-limits.
Back then, the theater felt amazing because I really wanted to forget where I was.
But that was then.
Now, I’m an adult renting a single-family house. I make all the noise I want. And if my partner needs quiet, I’ve got a comfy headset. It gives me the surround sound of a theater, and doesn’t try to break my eardrums.
That comparison, between public and private movie viewing, has been clanking through my mind since yesterday – when I went to the theater for the first time in three years.
It was creepy. And empty.
The parking lot was empty. The lobby was empty. The screening theater was empty. Even the person checking tickets was idle, despite also running the concessions counter alone.
I paid $13.50 for the ticket, $5.29 for a 20 oz bottle of water (no water fountains or reusables allowed), and $4.99 for a bag of gummies (no outside food allowed). After taxes, that’s $24.40.
And because the movie I chose turned out to be predictable and dull, that number was the only reason I didn’t walk out. I watched the movie, wishing I had waited for streaming. With patience, I probably could have rented it for under $4. In another few months, I could have bought the DVD for about the cost of the ticket.
When marketing movie theaters, a lot of positive is said about the “experience and atmosphere.” But I think I’ve grown spoiled by the convenience, comfort, and cost-effectiveness of home viewing. I like watching movies in pajamas. I like on-screen subtitles. Being about to pause to use the bathroom without missing anything. Being able to shout at the screen and interact with the film. And I love being able to walk the twenty steps to my kitchen to grab snacks. For the price of gummies and water at the theater, I could go a grocery store and buy a pound of grapes, a sleeve of crackers, and indulge my obsession with aged cheddar. I could rent at least three movies for the price of one ticket.
But let’s say I want to see a movie with a large group of people – too many for the size of my television. It is still cheaper to buy a digital projector or inflatable screen for home or backyard use. As the upcharge at theaters has risen, personal technology only continues to become more accessible.
Theaters were a happy part of my childhood. But if The Mummy or The Lord of the Rings were released tomorrow, I would choose to enjoy them at home. Afterwards, if I was really missing that certain kind of nostalgic atmosphere, I would find it elsewhere. Maybe I’d go play mini golf with some friends. Or we’d go to an arcade to play ski-ball. For little more than theater prices, we could do karaoke and Korean barbeque. If I’m craving a dim room with recessed colored lights, the smell of rubber floors, and the babble of strangers having fun nearby, I’ve got options. The red velvet curtains I associate with theaters are pretty, but I’d rather have a blanket in my lap. Coffee table beats cup holder any day of the week.
I wish I could say going to the cinema was still on my list of fun outings, because I truly cherish movies. But as a consumer, I honestly don’t know what could change to lure me back. When I found myself in that empty theater yesterday, watching a new release not available for streaming, my realization felt overdue. Mentally, I spent the runtime listing all the wonderful reasons movies have become so blissful to watch at home.