Cheapening the experience

Going to the movies just isn’t the same

The announcement ran something like this:

“ ‘The Express’ 7 p.m. with ‘Burn After Reading.’ ”

So far so good. I knew what I was going to be doing on Saturday night.

Then, though it was set in small type, I managed to read the addendum: “Cannot stay for free.”

And there it was: another reminder of how much things have changed.

It used to be that one of the benefits of attending a sneak preview was that you got to see two movies for one. That was the reward you earned for being a guinea pig for Hollywood.

These days, though, the reward comes – apparently – from being a part of the marketing process. You go and see the movie and then have the privilege of pimping it to your friends.

Look, it’s no secret. I’m a longtime moviegoer. And I appreciate all the luxuries that come with attending today’s movie houses. Great surround-sound systems. Great images, even 3D that works. Seats that offer mostly great sight lines and, for the most part, don’t cause back aches.

But are we better off that we once were? Never mind the stuff that goes up on the big screen. I’m talking about the moviegoing experience.

Here are some of the great things about movie dates that no longer seem to be true.

Double features: There’s a reason why some movies are referred to as “B” films. Those were the movies that were second on a double bill. You paid the same price to see two movies as you did one. What a concept.

It used to be an event: I remember taking my girlfriend to see “The Sound of Music” in downtown Norfolk, Va., when it opened in the late winter of 1965. I can’t remember the name of the theater, but I do recall that it was one of those grand Fox-like houses, one with balconies and wide aisles and plush opera seats. And I know that we stood in line, in the cold, advance tickets in hand, waiting with all the other dressed-up movie fans. Not a sweat shirt in sight.

Ushers did more than take tickets: When I was a kid, going to the movies meant getting there early. If you were late, you might not get a seat. Either way, it wasn’t uncommon to find a uniformed kid – sometimes an older gentleman – ready to help you with his flashlight.

There were drive-ins: If you didn’t want to dress up, or if you wanted to see cult triple-feature shows, you could always go to the drive-in. One price applied to a car load (though I usually had to sneak my dog in). When I first moved to Spokane in 1980, my ex-wife and I lived at various drive-ins – from the East Sprague to the West End – because it was the best place for us to see a film with our 16-month-old baby daughter. Even in this era of DVD home entertainment, I miss the drive-in.

You could see cartoons instead of ads: Yeah, all those great MGM, Warner Bros. and Disney cartoons preceded the movie, coming usually after the Coming Attractions. No Lexus ads, no recruiting posters pairing NASCAR and the National Guard (to music by Kid Rock), just the best of Chuck Jones and co.

Some things, of course, haven’t changed much. Concessions, for example, are a bit more varied than they once were – though that’s a geographic question (we used to eat crab cakes at the drive-in in and around Newport, R.I., when my family lived there in 1959-60). Yet they’re as overpriced as ever.

And the movies themselves, other than the magic offered by today’s computer-graphic imagery, aren’t any better than they once were. In fact, you could argue that, overall, they’re far worse.

Still, I don’t want to sound like some old codger bemoaning the loss of life as it once was. I do want to say to those in the movie business, though, that I’m old enough to remember the way things were.

And that’s why I didn’t go see that Saturday-night sneak. If I’m going to pay full price, the least you could do is throw in a second showing for free.


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