The Decline and Fall of the American Cinematic Dream
The disenchantment of the movie-watching experience
Recall, for a minute, a night out at the movies in the late 20th century, maybe the early 21st. After you’d arrive at a cinema, you’d stand in a maze-like queue, where you’d be able to analyze the available films and times. When you finally reached the box office, you’d order a ticket from a smug high schooler. Then you’d walk inside to find the chosen theater, the magical place where, once the lights dimmed, you’d enter an entirely new world.
On a recent trip to the movies, my cinematic experience was quite different. I walked up to an automated kiosk, ran through some touchscreen prompts, and printed out the tickets.
Upon further reflection, I noticed that there was something odd about this ‘innovative’ procedure.
Buying a movie ticket, it seemed, was no longer charged with excitement, anticipation, or the anxiety of a film selling out. Rather, it was more like buying a ticket for the subway. It was like pumping gas. Observing the ticket print out was the equivalent of watching junk food descend from the corkscrew claws of a vending machine. Without the particular fanfare of the box office, the cinema was depersonalized, mechanical. It was a minor pleasure to be unlocked with your credit card.
From this example, it’s clear the way we watch movies is changing — and changing dramatically. This phenomenon should not be taken lightly. For one, the way we watch movies determines what movies are made. It also determines the types of venues that exist to screen them. Finally, it affects how people conduct themselves at the movies — and perhaps how many people now conduct themselves in the world.
It’s a paradigm shift. We don’t exactly know what the new dominant movie–watching format will be. We have some indicators, though — and not all of them are encouraging.
The supersaturation of screens
Americans don’t go to the movies anymore. At least, not like they used to. Consider the words of Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic:
“In the first half of the twentieth century, going to the movies was like going to church: Americans did it almost every week. Today, buying a movie ticket is more like going to the doctor — something many Americans never do and most Americans do only four or five times a year for routine cultural check-ups.”
The most obvious reason for the decline in movie attendance is the dilution of film distribution. Not only can you watch movies on television, you can also watch them on your computer. You can watch them on your Kindle Fire. You can watch them on your phone. When iPod Nanos were still a thing, you could even watch them on a 2-inch-wide screen (why anyone did, back then, is still beyond me).
As a result, if you’re going to watch a movie, it no longer has to be a big deal. Before the rise of streaming, if you wanted to see a specific movie outside of theaters, you’d have to drive to Blockbuster to pick up a DVD— or you’d have to mail DVDs to–and–from Netflix’s delivery service (their original business model). These days, if you want to watch a film, you merely have to activate the Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon app on your smart TV.
But the broad dissemination of movies is only part of the disruption—the supersaturation of entertainment presents a much more intractable problem.
As the late screenwriter Blake Snyder once wrote in his now-infamous screenwriting guide, Save the Cat!, the entertainment quandary isn’t just about the many ways you can watch movies. It’s about the competition:
“There are movies, TV, radio, the Internet, and music. There are 300 channels of cable; there are magazines; and there are sports. In truth, on any given weekend, even an avid moviegoer only has about 30 seconds to decide what to see.”
The new dominance and saturation of prestige TV dramas — on every streaming device and premium channel — have further diluted the entertainment waters. But quality TV is only one of the many new entertainment options. To further add to Snyder’s list, there are also podcasts, books, audiobooks, albums, playlists, algorithm–curated radio, reality TV, you name it—they’re all competing for your attention. Your money.
And then there’s just the sheer proliferation of TV screens. They are bigger and flatter than ever before. And they are everywhere. On the treadmill, in the doctor’s office, on your new Alexa, on your fridge, in your car, in the plane, in the mall, in the stadium, on the blimp, on your freakin’ watch.
With so many options for movie–watching, the explosion of other media, and our screen-dominated world, why would anyone make the effort — and swallow the cost and time — to go to the cinema?
The blockbuster industry
To make up for this great loss in novelty, the movie industry has had to adapt. One of these ways is to make so-called ‘event movies’ — a lot of them. If you’re only going to go to the movies four or five times a year, you’re probably only going to see something spectacular. While Disney has historically been a master par excellence in event filmmaking, the juggernaut has quietly amassed a near-monopoly on the blockbuster genre, now that Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and most recently, 21st Century Fox, are firmly in Mickey Mouse’s white–gloved grip.
Since the early 2000s, we’ve seen countless superhero movies. We’ve seen far too many Transformers. These days, we’re seeing an unending parade of Star Wars films. Haven’t we had enough? Not according to Blake Snyder, who had another good point about why franchises usually win the day — and the box office:
“It’s not that Hollywood is creatively bankrupt; the decision-makers just don’t think that you out there…. every Saturday really, deep down, want to see something new.”
Following this logic, odds are, you’re not going to go to the movies to see Lady Bird or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. You’re going to see Avengers: Infinity War, you’re going to see Solo: A Star Wars Story, you’re going to see Toy Story 4, and you’re going to — mildly enjoy them. Familiarity makes money. It gets people in the seats.
And if the film industry can only get people in the seats four times a year, they’re going to have to find more lucrative ways to make money off of them.
Spoiler alert: they already have.
The American cinematic dream
Remember that example of going to the movie theater in the late 20th century, the early 21st? Let’s return to that.
Back then, going to a Cineplex was an intrinsically American activity, one with striking parallels to the American dream.
For one, to get the ‘good seats’ that came with free-for-all seating, you’d need to get there early. It was like a small-scale Gold Rush, the Homestead Act in microcosm. You had to get into the theater, scope out optimal seating with clear, direct views, and then claim that territory with your windbreaker — the ultimate tool of temporary, perfectly–legitimate squatting.
Then, with the seats — a.k.a. the homestead — secured, you’d need to fulfill the other promises of the American cinematic dream. You’d need to double back and return to the concessions stand to purchase the mandated need for soda and popcorn — a.k.a. attain the requisite automobile and nuclear family — and then you’d need to take turns with your friends to use the restroom to make sure your quest was not usurped by another group who coveted your prime real estate in front of the screen.
At many movie theaters today, a lot of that hustle and strategy is no longer necessary. Seats are assigned, and you pick them out online in four–minutes–and–counting–down time windows, just as you would buy seats for a concert, sporting event, or opera.
And the seats themselves — they aren’t your grandparents’ movie seats. They’re your grandparents’ living room seats. They’re recliners. They’ve got cupholders. Legroom.
While IMAX and 3D have long been strategies to maximize ticket profits, the rise of assigned seating and fancy chairs, as well as other luxury amenities — such as alcohol service and gourmet in-show dining — have all been part of an effort to make the cinema an experience again. To pay for — and get — the best.
But, if you think about it for a moment, it’s ironic that ‘classing the movies up,’ practically translates to ‘making the movies more like someone’s living room.’
In this way, so the logic goes, the economic paradigm of watching movies at a specified venue might be saved. But there’s an unpleasant side effect to making the cinematic experience like a really nice living room.
People start acting like it’s their living room.
The spell broken
Since they were essentially invented by two French guys in the 1890s, the movies had something like a magical power over people. Film is an immersive storytelling experience, and most people came to the movies to lose themselves in a story. That’s why they came, week after week after week. To experience wartime Casablanca. To be a part of the Corleone family. To go Back to the Future. To set sail — and sink — on the Titanic, to escape the Alien, to discover the Lost Ark of the Covenant — the list goes on and on.
In the last decade and a half, like a great many other things, the cinematic immersive process has been disrupted.
Return, one last time, to our archetypal pre-disenchanted movie theater. After having gathered your requisite popcorn, soda, and seating, you’d wait in your normal–sized seat for the film to begin. You wouldn’t have a smartphone, so you couldn’t be able to check Instagram. But you had your sense of anticipation—and you had the person sitting next to you. In all that absence of social–media–stimulation, you had the mental space to prepare yourself to fall into a story’s world.
All that has eroded. The waiting time has been thoroughly monetized. The slides of random trivia questions have been gradually replaced by ‘First Look’ behind-the-scenes promotional videos about crappy cable dramas, all of which are usually destined for early cancellation. Worse, even though moviegoers have already paid at least $12 for admission, TV–style advertising has become a prelude to a marathon of trailers that can last at least as 25% long as the feature itself. One result of this commodification of the wait time is that the movies have lost an aura around them that distinguished their experience from, for instance, the commercial–stuffed televised presentations of sporting events.
When the cinema borrows all these traits of the home television — easy chairs, commercials — why would anyone behave as if they were not in the comfort of their own home?
Now, most everyone who’s ever been to the movies has heard a phone ring, experienced a child kick the back of their chair—or had a front row seat to teenagers making out. However, I think bad behavior at the movies has definitely escalated in the past few years.
In fact, on three separate occasions in the past six months, I was appalled at the increasingly brazen behavior of my fellow moviegoers. While I watched mother!, a film centered around the theme of impolite guests — one woman talked loudly throughout the entire movie. While I attended a screening of Murder on the Orient Express, I could hear a chorus of snores from multiple corners of the auditorium (granted, the film was tedious, but not that tedious). When I saw The Last Jedi, for twenty minutes a young couple harangued nearly every row of the theater to look for their keys, which they had apparently lost in the previous screening. During that fateful twenty-minute interlude of persistent interruption, I think the cinematic momentum faltered, and it never recovered. The spell was broken.
The rudeness trend goes far beyond what I’ve witnessed myself. According to George Heymont, a contributor to The Huffington Post:
“To the chagrin of many concert and theatergoers, smartphones now embolden some of their owners to think that they are the only one in an audience who matters. Pre-show announcements warning against taking photos or recording video have become as ineffective as pre-flight safety announcements.”
In Heymont’s terms, the public service announcements no longer have any meaningful effect at prompting audiences to be polite. Why?
It’s simple—when audiences are overwhelmed with so many messages from advertisers and their myriad screens, no one’s going to listen to the announcements that matter. Plus, no one’s going to listen to anything — not so long as they have their phone.
With so many messages and worlds to choose from, everyone’s lost in their own reality. There’s no reason to take a step back, and for two hours, politely share one particular world with a group of strangers.
Life in the new paradigm
Taken on its own, it doesn’t bother me that the cinema is changing. The paradigm needs to adapt to account for disruptions. After all, it has adapted so many times before: in the 1920s, Hollywood transitioned from silent films to talkies. In the late 1950s, black-and-white films started giving way to the new dominance of color. Nowadays, prestige TV in the age of “peak TV” has surely expanded the possibilities of cinematic storytelling. The Cineplex of the early 2000s is a dinosaur. Change is inevitable.
What I’m nostalgic for, however, is propriety. The common realization that we need not think of our own cinematic experience as vastly more important than the cinematic experiences of others.
For the longest time, cinema was a warped retelling of mythic America — a meritocratic space that rewarded the rugged, the prepared — the ones who got there early, took their windbreakers and established their own claims on the territory. But everyone still saw the same movie. Everyone was still urged to be quiet. And everyone still wanted to immerse themselves in the story.
In an age when the President of the United States can get away with calling other countries sh*tholes, (among so many other terrible things) — it would be nice if the movies, at the very least, could be an escape from all that nastiness. If more people understood that — and were more aware of the consequences of their actions — then maybe we could have a two-hour break from it all once in a while. To briefly feel lost in the story, and not lost in the way the world has become.