Live by Night
The key question behind Live by Night isn’t so much “Why did they bother?” as “What went wrong?”
Q. I'm amazed at how the movie theater experience degrades every year, yet the movie industry has resisted all feedback from moviegoers on how to improve it, apparently preferring to sue large groups of them instead. After being expected to sit through extended commercials, dirty conditions, outrageous prices, poor projection on outdated equipment, appalling behavior from other theatergoers and the annoyance of cell phones, I have decided to avoid theaters as much as possible.
If you personally were in charge of remaking the theater experience to win back moviegoers, what changes would you make? Tom Woodward, Santa Monica, Calif.
A. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Install equipment, which already exists, to block cell phone signals in movie theaters.
2. Sell tickets with bar codes on them, so that moviegoers could attend only the movie they paid for. This would reduce the comings and goings of patrons who believe one admission is their ticket to a double or triple feature, and kids who movie-hop with their friends from one theater to another. It also would help explain why ticket sales seem to be down, even though theaters seem to be about as full as ever.
3. Eliminate commercials (see below).
4. Train projectionists to show films at the proper light and sound levels. Twenty years after I first wrote about this problem, many movie theaters continue the insane practice of dialing down the intensity of projector lamps under the mistaken belief that they can reduce their power bills and extend lamp life. As a result, many movies are projected so dimly that their impact is diminished. I've quoted Eastman Kodak experts who say the light level has no effect on bulb life.
5. Many adults avoid certain kinds of movies because they assume the theater will be filled with noisy teenagers. Let's say you're 40 and you want to go see a Dead Teenager movie like "Final Destination 3." Would you think twice? Perhaps theater chains could create movie clubs for patrons above a certain age, and advise them of screenings where reasonable audience behavior will actually be enforced by the presence of ushers. Even one usher should do it. It's the thought that counts.
In support of my fifth suggestion, here is a message from Keith Johnson of Olathe, Kan.: "When people write of bad movie experiences, I can relate. One helpful solution is to attend the matinees. If it is not a children's movie, the theater seems to have older, more mature audiences, and the behavior of the audience is much better."
Q. I took my family to see "Fun with Dick and Jane." We arrived on time, stood in line twice, once to buy our tickets and secondly to buy popcorn and sodas. Once seated in the theater, we watched a local commercial slide show for about 10 minutes. Then we watched about 30 minutes of nothing but television commercials, one after another, and then another 20 minutes of previews of coming attractions. Watching coming attractions of new movies is fine, but 40 minutes of conventional commercials is intolerable. I am not surprised at all at the box-office slump. It is self-induced by the theaters themselves. Dr. Alex Cullison, Fairfax, Va.
A. People used to ask if I'd seen any good movies lately. Now the inevitable topic of conversation is how much they hate commercials in movie theaters. I emphasize the word hate. For some moviegoers, commercials are the straw that broke the camel's back. Unfortunately, theater chains continue to delude themselves on the subject. For example:
Charles S. Lewis III of Daly City, Calif., writes me: "USA Today is reporting that the nation's largest movie chains are telling audiences to expect even more on-screen advertisements than before! Is it just me, or do things like this make one think that the owners just want to drive audiences away? With so many complaints about audience drop-off, why would they want to encourage such a thing? Earlier this year, I wrote a letter to AMC complaining about all the commercials. They responded by saying that their research shows 'audiences actually enjoy they ads very much.'"
And Stephen Cummings of Coralville, Iowa, writes: "According to the IMDB, Pam Blase, a spokeswoman for AMC Entertainment, states that only one movie patron per 600,000 guests complain about ads before movies and that most regard the ads as 'part of the theatergoing experience,' something to do rather than talk to the person they came with before the movie starts (talking to a friend when you could spend valuable time staring at ads is really bad in consumer culture)."
Ebert again: One patron per 600,000! I wish we had a video clip of Ms. Blase quoting that statistic without breaking into hysterical laughter. If the National Association of Theater Owners were to commission a survey designed to determine what their patrons honestly think about commercials, they would, I suspect, receive a loud and clear message.
Q. I finally sat down to watch a video I purchased a few months ago. All I wanted to do was hit play, sit back and enjoy the film. Instead I got six commercials. Six commercials! There was Oprah's 20th anniversary collection. (Yeah, I was so ticked off I made a list.) Bob Dylan's "No Direction Home." "Rugrats." "SpongeBob SquarePants." "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events." "Everybody Hates Chris."
I don't want Nike or Ford commercials when I go to the theater and I don't want Oprah or Bob or Chris on a video disc that isn't about them. The studio added that junk as if it was a bonus feature. Troylene Ladner, Jersey City, N.J.
A. A special circle of hell should be reserved for video executives who place previews at the beginnings of DVDs. You tell me that in this case, you could get rid of each preview by clicking "next," but it took six clicks to get to "play." In some cases the previews cannot be skipped but are unavoidable, like the FBI warning (which has wasted untold millions of man-hours and not prevented a single act of piracy).
With some discs, I learn from a colleague, here's a tip: If you hit "menu" before you hit "play," you can get to the "play movie" prompt with no commercials.
Q. Last week I went to see "Munich," which was gripping but also nearly three hours long. About halfway through I felt the normal human need to visit a restroom. But I wasn't about to leave for a minute, afraid I'd miss the most important part. So I endured for an hour and a half rather than miss a minute of Spielberg's masterpiece.
Maybe I have a small bladder, but I've never even been able to buy a soda while going to the theater since an excruciating experience when I was 12 years old, bouncing up and down in agony during the last half of "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." Why is it that theaters don't offer a few minutes in the middle the movie to make a quick run to the loo? I think they call it an intermission. Wade Mann, Orem, Utah
A. All movies in India have an intermission, but then their Bollywood features are routinely more than three hours long. Circa 1970, Hollywood had "road-show" movies with intermissions built in, but now the idea is to show a movie as many times as possible during the day (and theaters lose up to an hour with commercials).
My own strategy is to try to sit on the aisle so that I can slip in and out quickly. Your ability to "endure" for 90 minutes has my most sincere admiration.
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