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My Yearly Excursion to the Movie Theater

by June 21, 2006

About two years ago, I my wife and I were in Los Angeles with some friends. For years she had heard me explain how great it was to go to the movies in LA, and finally she was going to experience it. It was a Friday night - opening night for Kill Bill: Vol. 2 . We drove over to Westwood early in the afternoon to get tickets. All showings were already sold out except for the late show, so we snapped up tickets for a 10:30 showing at the Mann Village Theater.

Built in 1931, the Spanish mission styled theater was designed by architect Percy Parke Lewis. It has a tall tower rising from the front, and inside the lobby there are huge murals on the walls. A new screen and 70mm projection equipment was added in the late 70's. The theater is now capable of digital projection and has a state of the art THX sound system. Many would argue it is the best movie theater in the country.

After eating dinner nearby, we arrived at the theater about an hour before show time. The line was already wrapped halfway around the block. We jumped in line and began to wait with hundreds of excited movie buffs. Several people in line had portable DVD players or laptops, watching Kill Bill: Vol. 1. We laughed and talked with everyone in line and passing by, and before long the line was moving into the theater. By the time we entered the theater (with a seating capacity of 1341), the floor level was already full, but we were lucky enough to score seats on the front row of the balcony. The room was electric. As the lights dimmed, the crowd cheered. By the time the first trailer had finished, the crowd had become one, laughing, cheering or jeering each trailer. When the feature began, the place exploded with a roar from the crowd. The screen is enormous. The picture is gorgeous - you immediately understand the unique visual character of film - light passing through a postive. The sound system is stunning. The most enormous sound stage you can imagine, and it is LOUD. The crowd hangs on every moment in the film - laughing, cheering, booing, gasping - all as one voice. As the credits roll, nobody stands up. People applaud the credits - patches here and there of people who know people who worked on the movie, excited to see a friend's name roll by. Once the lights come up, everyone claps and cheers as they file out, chattering with people around them. It is truly an "event." As we left the theater, my wife looked at me and said, "I get it. It was better than you described!" Going to a film in one of these massive theaters in Los Angeles makes you realize why Hollywood spends so much money on a feature film. A great film seen in this environment is on par with a great sporting event or concert.

Many of us don't live near the Westwood Village Theater, so we are stuck with going to the local multiplex to see movies. About once a year I somehow end up at the mall to see a new release. Without exception, I am reminded why I have invested in a home theater, and I swear to never go to a theater again. Usually it takes about a year for me to slowly forget all the reasons why I no longer enjoy going to a theater to see a film, and I end up thinking I ought to get out and see a movie. Such was the case this morning.

Sadly, there are few films released that I get excited enough about to want to see in a commercial theater. But with PIXAR, I am always tempted. So the release of Cars , combined with pleading from my wife and kids, broke my anti-theater resolve for the year. (Hey, I made it to June!)

The last time I did this was to go see The Incredibles , and it was an ugly experience. The picture was out of focus and the center channel speakers were hard to hear - this in a theater that was less than a year old! So I began my ritual of leaving the theater and walking down the long hall to the lobby to try and find someone with a pulse to fix things in the booth. I made at least 3 trips to the lobby talking to teenaged employees with blank stares (think Napoleon Dynamite ) before finally getting to the manager on duty, who informed me that yes, indeed, the center channel amplifier was blown and had not worked all week. After he gave me free passes for everyone in my group, I asked why they would even show the film in that room if the sound system was not working, and to my chagrin he told me that "most people don't seem to notice." So the general public doesn't notice that most of the dialogue is unintelligible…

But I digress. This morning, I was on my game. It is the first full week of release for the movie, it the biggest movie opening this week, so SURELY they will be showing it in their biggest room - best screen and sound system - right? It is raining, the mall is located in a coastal resort city, so it will be crowded - I will get there an hour early for the first (bargain matinee) showing, so I can get tickets early and good seats for my group of six. I arrive at the mall around 10:40am for an 11:45am showing. No sign of life at the box office. And the ATM-type ticket kiosks are black. Turned off. So I figure I will walk around the mall for a while and then check back. Thirty minutes later, I am standing in a line of probably 200 people, the end of which is somewhere in the middle of the food court. And the ATM-type ticket kiosks are still turned off. And there is only ONE person in the ticket booth selling tickets. I am standing there in the food court surrounded screaming babies, sunburned kids, and people wearing tube tops who should NOT be wearing tube tops. For a moment I wonder if the architect of the food court had actually designed the acoustics of this structure to be as loud and shrill as possible. Thirty minutes and $25.00 later, I have my bargain matinee tickets in hand, and I begin to fight the throngs of people to get into the theater. And of course, the room is not much bigger than my room at home, and it is packed. I finally find a group of four seats together about 3 rows from the top of the tiny room.

After sitting through audio infomercials for some really bad pop music, the screen comes to life with… more commercials. Then, the trailers begin. And the trailers are in 4:3 format! They don't even fill the screen!! On a positive note, as the movie begins I notice that it is actually in focus. But quickly I am brought back to my senses as I realize how muddy the sound is across the front of the theater. The effects channels sound crisp and clean, and the sub is nice and punchy. But all of the dialogue is flat and muddy. There is at least one baby screaming its head off for the first half hour of the movie, and kids (to be expected) are chattering throughout the film. Mothers are constantly getting up and walking kids in and out of the theater, and I heard at least 4 entire boxes of M & Ms get emptied onto the floor.

But the movie continues the PIXAR tradition of great films - I did enjoy it. As the credits begin to roll (and I realize how badly I need to use the restroom), they turn the lights on in the room. Everyone knows that a PIXAR film has fun credits - but they turn on the bright white halogen overhead lights, as if to push us out of the theater. But I was a rebel - I stayed in my seat until the last credit had appeared. As I waited in line on the sticky tile floor in the men's room, I had to chuckle as I thought through the past few hours: on a rainy day I drove 30 minutes to a crowded, loud mall full of soggy stinky beach tourists, waited in line for 30 minutes to spend about $25 for my family to see this movie, sat through at least 20 minutes of ads, watched a movie in a small room (full of crying babies & bustling families) sitting in a squeaky "stadium-style" seat with my feet stuck to the floor. As I drive home, it occurs to me that the film will probably be out on DVD by Christmas, probably for less than twenty bucks.

I think I am going to watch a movie tonight in my theater - in my boxer shorts, sprawled out on my giant comfy couch (complete with king size ottoman), eating some Orville Redenbacher Tender White popcorn (the BEST microwave corn on the market), pausing the film when I need to pee, enjoying a pristine 124" picture and a crisp, clean and powerful soundstage, with all the lights off.

My home theater, about 3,000 miles away on the coast of South Carolina, cannot replicate the experience of the Mann Village Theater in Los Angeles. But it sure beats going to the mall for a movie here. And that is why I built my theater - to see movies as close to the way the directors intended them to be seen as possible.

Oh by the way, I swear I will never again go to the multiplex to see a movie.


About the author:

Over the years J. has constantly found himself to be an "early-adopter," spending way too much money on "new" technologies such as Compact Disc, LaserDisc, and DVD. He is one of the few people who actually purchased (and still owns) a CORE programmable remote control (bonus points if you remember this product).

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