December 1, 2015

Movie theater experience less powerful with new seating style

When I caught Spectre this weekend, it was the first time I'd been to one of those movie theaters with Starbucks seating -- large comfy recliners in a variety of arrangements, some adjacent all the way down the row, some in a pair (like a loveseat with an optional armrest divider), and some singletons. Kind of like this:

Not a fan of the new seating style (but you already knew that).

The overly comfy recliners made my body feel like I'm at a friend's house watching a late-night movie on TV or VHS, kind of getting prepared to doze off. After a brief experiment with the recliner part up, I kept it down for the rest of the movie.

Overstuffed furniture also keeps you from ever getting that "edge of your seat" feeling. How are you supposed to resonate with the on-screen tension when you're sunken into a cushion-cloud? Worse when the chairs are highback and give you a nice comfy headrest to fall asleep against.

Aside from the construction of the seats, allowing some of the arrangement to be singleton seats and isolated loveseats weakened the feeling of all the audience being part of the same group (unless you were in the traditional row section). It didn't cancel it out, but being that spread-out does take away from the "all in the same boat" experience.

That, too, made it feel more like a teenage sleepover, more informal, where there's a couple people over here, a couple people over there, some others back over there. Not like a more formal and close-together seating arrangement for what's supposed to be a more group-bonding experience than a sleepover -- the pews in a church, the bleachers in a sports stadium.

Attending church services or a football game is not an ordinary experience, and does not take place in an ordinary setting. It's only fitting that the seating be outside of the ordinary as well. Going to the movies is supposed to be that way too -- taking place outside of the home, with seating suited to "audience attending a performance" rather than "group of folks just hanging around," where they're more focused on each other than on the movie.

In short, making the movie theater feel like home makes the experience feel less special, less powerful, and less memorable. It's not unlike the drive-in craze of the cocooning Midcentury. Cocooners just feel too awkward being out in public, so they make the owners of public places re-shape them to feel more like home.

The high points for watching movies as part of a superorganic audience were low points for cocooning behavior -- the 1920s and the 1980s. In the former time, it was the heyday of the "picture palace," while in the latter it was the "multiplex," both attempts at creating a larger-than-life spectacle of the place where we went to the movies.

Central to both types of theaters, or even the relatively more mundane one-screen theaters of the Midcentury, was the seating. Arranged in rows, enough upholstery on the seat and the back to make it comfortable without feeling comfy, backs high enough to support the shoulders but not a sleepy neck and head, shallow seats that everyone can feel on the edge of, and no damn cupholders on the arms.

Cupholders on a chair's arm does make it feel out of the ordinary, but not in the right way. It makes it seem like the purpose of going to the movie theater is to fill up on junk food, rather than to watch a performance. Going to the movies is supposed to stimulate your fight-or-flight system, not rest-and-digest.

While the overall architecture of the picture palaces may be superior, I actually prefer the spatial layout of the multiplex, which feels like a Gothic castle (or so I imagine) -- first a grand entrance where folks mill around, then a trek down one of several dark tunnel-like hallways, settling into one of many large private chambers for a shared spectacle with the lights off, and then when the movie's over retracing your path during the cognitive and emotional decompression. We need that winding-down experience after a good cathartic movie, not just walking straight out the exit door and emerging instantly back into the ordinary world.

How many other experiences, whether everyday or special, lead you through that kind of layout? If Netflix and Redbox kill off the multiplexes, we are going to lose the only place we have to navigate a dimly lit labyrinth in an enjoyable way.


  1. Eduardo the Magnificent12/1/15, 7:35 PM

    Movies today are shit. There's no good guy saving the day in any of 'em; it's all about "dark" and "edgy" characters who might or might not have any humanity in them at all. The only way to get people to pay $12 to watch a movie (as opposed to waiting until it comes out on Blu-Ray or Netflix and renting for $3) is to Starbucks the fuck out of the joint and pamper them like the princes and princesses they know they are. If movies are any good, people won't care about the quality of venue.

  2. It's not that they don't care about quality, as much as they want a different quality to the theater. When everyone went to the movies back in the silent and early talkie era (the Jazz Age), the theaters couldn't have been more theatrical.

    They fell into disrepair during the Midcentury when the drive-in quality was what people wanted, and were only restored and revived during the '70s and '80s when the movie-going public returned to the mood for a larger-than-life setting.

    As movies got better, the multiplex came into being because audiences did care about the quality of the setting. They wanted a gradual build-up of excitement before sitting down in their seats -- grand entrance, ticket booth, concession stand, ticket taker, long dark corridor, open theater door, another long dark passageway but narrower, and finally the seating area.

    It's a little adventure just to get seated, and it gets you in the mood for something fascinating.

    Multiplexes spent a lot of money on wool carpeting with colorful designs, neon signs, video game arcades, mood lighting in the corridors, and so on and so forth. Viewers during the peak of movies in the '80s cared a lot about quality, only of a different kind than audiences today.

    If anything, it seems like when movies get boring, the theaters become run-down. The Midcentury had the cheapo outdoor drive-in, and let the Jazz Age picture palaces decompose. In the current cocooning period, a crappy or mediocre home "theater" supplied by Netflix and Redbox has replaced the drive-in, and we're now letting our multiplexes languish and rot. For Millennials, the home theater might consist solely of Netflix streaming on a laptop -- pathetic.

    In fact, the only way that many of the distinctly '80s-looking multiplexes have survived is by converting to a second-run theater, where no one will mind if there's checker-board tile, neon signs, cozy-sized corridors (creepy and claustrophobic to cocooners), and other signals that place it back in the day when people weren't so damn awkward.

    The owners just dropped a ton on redeveloping in the '80s, and it didn't take long for it to look dated. So, like hell they're going to scrap it all and redevelop yet again so soon. Hence the decision to convert it into a second-run.

    Easiest way to travel straight back to the '80s -- visit the nearest second-run theater.

  3. When I go to a football game there is a lot of talking and going back and forth with the neighboring fans, nostalgia for prior games, complaining about the coach, etc. It is very much a shared experience and it is unique.

    But when I go to the musical or movie theater, I don't generally feel connected to the others as if its a shared experience. We are all present, but its an individual observation. The people watching tomorrow night, or in a couple hours will get a virtually identical performance and any bonding will occur outside of that experience.

    So in that sense I rather like the new setup which is basically saying here is your home, but a much bigger screen and better surround. I especially like the ones where you can buy alcohol.

  4. But it *is* a shared experience -- not a recurring one, because you're only seeing the movie once. It's like some spectacle unfolds, and whoever was there to see it remembers the experience more warmly because they were part of a special select group that was chosen by fate to witness it.

    Sure, the higher part of our brain knows that another special select group will be chosen to witness the movie tomorrow night, and at many other locations tonight -- but that's all out of sight, out of mind. As far as your gut is concerned, it's like a group of people getting together to watch a meteor shower. Not something that you'll regularly and frequently meet up again to have similar group-bonding experiences about, but a shared experience nonetheless.

  5. If they really wanted to re-create the at-home feeling within the theater, they should have some of the recliners occupied by dummies who emit snoring sounds, just to make you feel like you're the only one who's still up watching the movie.

    You know how much the movie-watching experience starts sucking at that point, and it's because it is a shared social experience. Once your fellow viewers at the sleepover start falling asleep one by one, all the social energy is drained out of the room, and you might as well shut the movie off.


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