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In Defense Of The Theatre

These days, it is all too common for people to skip out on the experience of watching a film in theatres for the more comfortable and convenient vantage point of their couch. The ability to see the latest films from one’s television is more and more ubiquitous, made possible by the presence of various video-streaming services (as well as the rise of Redbox), the increasingly shorter time span between a film’s release and its availability on these services, and the understandable sticker shock that comes with buying a ticket to the movies, often leading people to ‘wait until it’s on DVD.’

These trends mean that fewer people are going to the movies frequently (only 13% of the American population goes at least once per month), but it doesn’t always mean that going to the movies is a waste of time or money. Film, first and foremost, is meant to be a storytelling device, offering a shared experience. Watching a movie from the confines of one’s living room is very different to watching it in a packed theatre.

When alone, a person only has his or her own reaction. They may not find something funny or scary. They may get distracted or break from the experience by pausing or stopping altogether. They may miss a point that another’s response might illuminate. Being a part of an audience completely alters the viewing experience. Other people’s reactions can often alter ones own reactions, drawing more laughter, tears, suspense or fun. The inability to hit pause allows for the story to progress in the way it was meant to.

A film has a certain rhythm and trajectory that, when altered, impacts the emotional response. It is often building up to something or making connections that may be missed if the rhythm is inhibited. Also, the (hopefully adhered to) rule of no cell phones allows for one’s attention and concentration to focus entirely on the film that may not hold true in one’s living room.

Of course, beyond the experience of being a part of an audience, theatres offer the advantage of movies on big screens with big sounds. Some films demand to be seen in such a format. Gravity is a very different experience when watched on a laptop instead of on a huge IMAX screen with speakers blaring from all sides. Studios understand this advantage, and have acted accordingly.

To put it simply, movies have gotten bigger; bigger stories with bigger explosions and bigger characters, screened on bigger screens with bigger sounds. More and more often, these films have taken the identity of superhero or monster movies or sci-fi fare or action films. While not as widespread as previously assumed, 3D is alive and well and still seen as a way to bring people to the theater. IMAX is being championed as the future of film, or at least a viable option, and its use is slowly spreading.

While such technologies offer an advantage over home media, and such stories seemingly make a trip to the theatre ‘more worth it,’ smaller films also deserve such a viewing. Purchasing a theatre ticket helps the business, but it also helps filmmaking as an art. Again, film is a storytelling device, and while that makes it part of the entertainment industry, it also must be treated as art. And often with art, there is a certain intention.

The use of a large canvass was the intention of many directors (as well as the use of film over digital). For instance, Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming The Hateful Eight is to be filmed on 70mm, as The Master was a few years ago. Why utilize a format that hasn’t been widespread in decades and won’t be able to be experienced by most people upon release? It’s because the choice demonstrates that the experience of watching a movie in a theatre is the intention of the creative minds behind it. It is part of the storytelling. The canvas is where the story plays out. The intention is for people to see it in that format.

Here is a case study. A few years ago, Pulp Fiction was rereleased to celebrate Quentin Tarantino’s 20th anniversary of making films. I had only seen it on DVD, with no more than three or four other people. As a big fan of not only the film but also the idea that the theater-going experience is more enriching, I was able to attend the screening. While it was a unique situation (since everyone in the audience had seen the film before and were supposedly big fans of it), watching Pulp Fiction on the big screen with dozens of strangers is far different from watching it on your couch.

The blaring music, the dialogue, the camera moving across the canvass, all of these theatre aspects truly elevate the film. Not only that, but the film had never been funnier. Again, this was a group of seasoned Pulp Fiction veterans, but it was interesting to see how different people reacted to different things. People laughed in parts I never had before, or reacted differently in others in ways that enhanced my own reaction. You are more prone to feed off the audience and see things differently. The theatre enhances your viewing experience.

Of course, Pulp Fiction is a great movie regardless of how many people you watch it with or if you don’t see it on a giant screen. But the experience confirmed my suspicions: the act of going to the movies and sitting in a dark theatre with a bunch of strangers alters the way the movie is seen, for the better.

The ability to go to the theatre is not always possible, or recommended, or feasible. Some movies may be worth seeing, but perhaps for a Redbox fee instead of a ticket fee. The economics are a big impediment to being able to go to the theaters frequently. But so too is the availability of streaming services that enable movies to be seen in the comfort of one’s own living room. And nothing is wrong with that. Sometimes it is preferable to watch a baseball game or football game or basketball game from one’s couch, for all the same reasons as it is to watch a movie on DVD. But it is always worth being reminded that sitting in the stands is a much more fuller and immersive experience than watching from home. We should not forget that the theatre offers us such an experience.

There is no harm in renting a film and watching it on your laptop or television, but films deserve to be viewed in the theater. So find a reason; popcorn, 3D, IMAX, blockbusters, independent theatres, Academy Award nominated, favorite actor, favorite director, support of your local theater, support of the art…just find a reason to go to the theatre. Go on a date. Go with a group of friends. Go alone. Just share in the experience that is the movie theatre.