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Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Cinema and its disconents, part 2

So, what are the effects of cinemas trying to cope with falling audiences by saving money?

Here's a big one: to save on wages, cinemas no longer employ ushers. This is what my dad refers to as a 'false economy', or 'spoiling the ship for a ha'porth of tar.'

If you're going to pay the high ticket prices, it's probably for a film that you really want to see. And that means you want to hear it too - but without ushers around to shine the Torch of Civil Discipline, odds very much favour there being some jackass yapping away throughout the experience. As an audience member there's little you can do about this except start a fight (and it's hard to weigh up your opponent in semi-darkness, but the one thing you do know is that they've got friends with them to back them up), or go complain, which means you have to miss at least five minutes in the middle of the movie while you do so. You miss less if you just try to tune the jackass out. But when a bit of patience and half the price will rent you the DVD, which you can watch in privacy and peace, why would you bother? I'm sure I'm not the only one to have movies in my past where I remember the noisemakers more vividly than I remember the film itself, and noisemakers you can get for free.

By losing the ushers, cinemas make it a lottery whether you'll actually get to enjoy the film or not, and with the ante so high, many people don't feel like gambling.

Some cinemas seem to have gone with the solution of playing the films louder, but that has disadvantages of its own. For one thing, I'd personally like to keep my hearing into old age, but for another, it doesn't necessarily drown out the chatterboxes. In some cases, it simply provides enough cover that they feel comfortable talking in their regular voices - which, in fact, they have to use if they're going to hear each other. A cinematic experience moves ever closer to a clubbing one; I can't but suspect that one reason why Mamma Mia was such a hit was that it actually suited usherless conditions unusually well. Given that cinemas are turning into nightclubs anyway, you might as well get up and dance.

I say this partly as a joke, but not entirely: Mamma Mia tapped into the vast female audience that studios often don't bother to seek out, but it's no Mildred Pierce: watching it is oddly like watching the background for a party you're expected to create yourself, and it wouldn't have felt that inappropriate if we'd all got a free wig and boa with our tickets. Many movies release soundtracks, but Mamma Mia basically is a soundtrack, with a bit of dialogue and some pictures thrown in by way of accompaniment. In itself, it's a perfectly agreeable little thing, but a film that's all accompaniment and relies on its plot and dialogue being ignorable says something about the state of cinemas.

Another method is to try and direct the noisemaking, but that only works with certain kinds of movies and certain audiences. On holiday in San Francisco, fiance and I went to the movies to see a big blockbuster film - I think it was X-Men 2 - and found something interesting: if that audience was a representative sample, American audiences love to make noise. Boy, did they like to make noise. Big laughs, cheers, responding to the movie as if it were a sports event, were all a big part of their fun. But not all audiences do that; English audiences very seldom do unless the movie's a big cultural event and everybody there is part of the same subculture, and even then they tend to be quieter. We save our yelling for footie. Pass a pub with satellite TV on an FA Cup Final night and you'll hear it; some spectacles encourage a kind of spectator response that's almost a game in its own right - let's call it 'synchronised shouting' - but the cinema isn't the place, or at least not here.

The really interesting thing, and the thing that made me suspect this audience was representative, was that the director had clearly factored the noise in. After the moments that raised a cheer - a wisecrack, a stunt, a heroic-looking shot - there was a pause; characters just stood and glared at each other, the camera swooped while they stayed still, and a few plotless seconds went by while the noise played itself out. It worked well enough, and in fact broke the action up quite nicely, but having seen the audience respond so loudly, I started seeing it in other US blockbusters: for an American audience, the director must tap into his vaudevillian subconscious and remember to pause for the laughs.

If you can get that working, it's actually a decent way of dealing with the noisemakers: most people are making a noise that works in harmony with the movie, and the chatterboxes are probably going to be drowned out. But for that to work, you need a big, loud film with lots of action; dramatic silences and fraught pauses are out. X-Men 2, fine; Sense and Sensibility, not so much. It's got its uses, but they're limited, and personally I like films that don't suit the noisemaking vibe.

Apart from the 'direct the noisemaking' film's style limitations, it also seems rather to be going the long way round. A director can't possibly anticipate who will come into every cinema, and managing the amount of noise they make is asking a lot. Most auditoriums are reasonably soundproof - the Arts Cinema of nostalgic memory, I must confess, being a bit of an exception; I have rather vivid memories of all the anguished silences of Bent being punctuated by a busker in the street outside, armed only with a penny whistle and about half the melody of 'Greensleeves'. He was a regular beggar-busker and normally somebody I felt sorry for, but my inclination to give him my change was at a bit of a low ebb that day. But this, at least, was somebody outside the cinema, and a member of staff eventually went out and asked him to move up the street; if he'd been a customer, it's hard to know what they would have done.

Ushers require wages, but if their absence is keeping away customers, their absence costs more money than it saves. That's one problem with modern cinemas right there. Tune in for more curmudgeoning tomorrow...

There is active discussion (although not active enough) within the film world as to how much attempts to deal with declining profits has actually driven away the audience. I read of one movie "mogul" who had not attended a movie at a regular theater for years. When he did so he was amazed and appalled at the sheer number and obnoxiousness of the trailers before the movie. I found it telling that someone who made his money selling movies had made such a little effort to experience what it was like for the average person to actually watch a film.
Going to the cinema can be a real event. Some cinemas are really tapped into their audiences. Picturehouse Cinemas do this very well. I was a faithful member of the City Screen in York for four years. Local artists displayed their work in the corridors, old movie posters tastefully adorned the walls, concessions were a reasonable price and weren't just things which you could get at a fraction of the price down the road.
Members got two free tickets a year and a discount on tickets. The fantastic bar and restaurant was a cosy place to sit and eat [most beautiful fat chips in the country!]. You could take bar drinks into the cinema with you.
The programme of films was an eclectic mixture of indies and blockbusters, often showing old and cult classics as well. Q&A sessions via satellite were common features too.
They got a lot of mileage out of three screens and make a pretty profit. Best of all, you feel like you're paying for an experience which you couldn't get elsewhere.
I believe there are picturehouse cinemas in London, so I would urge you to give them a go. Nothing could be quite as nice as sitting for a post cinema drink on the riverside on a summer's evening in York, but I'm sure they could provide a pleasurable alternative.
I once saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square back in 1991. It boggled me how (relatively) quiet the audience was when compared to an American Rocky Horror crowd.

On the other hand, they swore to me on a stack of Bibles that Richard O'Brien had been by the week before, so there's that.
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