The Great Theatres Are Gone and the New Ones Suck…And It's Your Fault.
By Jason Whyte
Posted 04/19/05 14:55:33
The moviegoing experience today flat out sucks. And it isn’t just because of the unruly people in the audiences today. It’s also the theatres themselves; what was once those big screens downtown, with the great sound and the overall communal experience of watching a film is now taking a turn for the worse. Suddenly, “The reason we go to the movies...” is now “The reason we wait for the DVD.” There is really something missing in today’s experience of A Night Out at The Movies. Where did it go wrong?
With news that one of the largest, still-profitable, old-school cinemas in Vancouver, BC is closing its doors to make way for yet another “new” theatre complex with stadium seating, franchise food outlets, too much neon and arcades, it’s time for me to stop being quiet (as I have been in the past) and speak up for the traditional way of going to movies. And you know what? You, the consumers, are squarely to blame for the experience changing from line-ups, gigantic palace cinemas with 1000 seats and quiet, hushed escapism to online ticket booking, franchise food outlets and 20 screen goo-goo-plexes filled with teenagers nattering away on their cell phones.
For as long as the beginning of the 20th century, going out to the movies was an experience. Formal wear was mandatory for most cinemas, and the experience of sitting in a dark, hushed silent theatre with as hundreds or thousands of other people was the way that the filmmakers intended to make you enjoy their work. Over the years, technology kept getting better, films became easier to make, new widescreen formats fought off the TV boom, and theatres showing more large-format films (like the 70mm format, with a film frame significantly larger than the regular 35mm frame we are projected today) to withstand the industry making larger-than-life movies for us to enjoy.
And it all changed in the year of 1977. If you were of either chromosome who fell into the age group of toddler, a little kid, a pimple-faced teenager, a young twenty-something, a mid-aged adult…okay you get the point; no matter what your name was, you wanted to see Star Wars, and you wanted to see Star Wars for the simple but unforgettable thrill of escapism. You also wanted to see it in your favourite cinema, which was most likely a place with endless seating capacity, a gigantic screen and a great sound system. You dreamt of being one of the many who had the opportunity to see the film at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, or the (now closed!) Loews Astor Plaza located in the heart of New York City.
Which is not to say that LA or NYC was your only venue; all across the continent at major and smaller cities, people were lining up in droves to catch this little space-flick that was exploding into the market. If you run a Google search on stories of people who saw Star Wars in the late 70’s, most of the comments will be from the experience of the cinema that they saw it in and how big the screen was, how many people were all sitting together in hushed silence discovering Luke Skywalker discovering The Force or getting creeped out by that breath of Darth’s.
In my second-home town of Vancouver, BC, Canada, the famous cinema known as the Capitol 6 in the heart of downtown (and the reason of this article) is closing its doors this month. The theatre was originally known as just the Capitol, which opened as a 2000+ seat vaudeville house in 1921 and was home to decades of premieres. It was converted to a multiplex in the spring of 1977 with six screens, which was nearly unheard of at the time; the Imperial Six in Toronto converted from a Roadshow house in 1973 with six cinemas and a five-plex opened in Laval, Quebec in 1975.
The largest cinema, Cinema One, remains unchanged to this day; a sprawling, 1000-plus seat palace that has chugging along for just under 28 years. In Canada, this auditorium holds the record for the largest theatre in a multiplex. It still holds many records for top box office in the province, and it was the Vancouver International Film Festival’s gala venue for a few years. Sure, the theatre also holds five smaller screens that aren’t the greatest, but the picture and sound are very good, and screenings in Cinema One have had near sell-outs on even recent films like Sin City, which is a great place to experience a movie like that.
Walking into the Capitol 6 from either the Granville or Seymour street entrances, you don’t know quite to expect. The theatre doesn’t look much from the outside (take another look at that picture) and the burnt yellow walls, wood railings and faded carpet on the inside don’t look the greatest, but it holds much history despite its visual flaws. I saw “Three Men and a Baby” in this theatre when I was 7 years old, and I didn’t quite remember it much; you know, being young and all. In 1995, I returned to Vancouver on a brief vacation and saw “Heat” on not only an enormous screen, but at that time the Dolby Digital sound format was just taking off, and Cinema One was one of the first installations in the province. Just thinking about the audio-experience makes my ears ring in pleasure; not a single home theatre can duplicate the experience of the mid-film shootout sequence or the finale at the airport the way that Cinema One did. Right from the moment the Dolby Digital trailer came on the screen and blasted my ear drums, I was inside the head of this movie. Michael Mann himself would have been proud at how the film was presented, with a glorious image and the sound of the guns, helicopters and taxiing jets coming to life. Out of all of the theatre complexes I’ve been to in my 25 years of existence, the Capitol 6 ranks as one of the most memorable in terms of taking you out of your life, out of that seat and into the emotional experience that films can still have over you.
So why is this wonderful theatre, which is still making a profit, closing? On 900 Burrard Street, Famous Players is opening the Paramount Vancouver; a 9 screen, three-story cinema with stadium seating, digital sound, large screens and far too many franchise outlets where you can go nearly broke spending your money on cinema food. The largest cinema will hold only 467 seats, not even coming close to half of Cinema One’s original seat count of 1,031.
What is most disheartening about this story is that the Capitol 6 has been in a state of intentional physical decline over the years. When the new megaplexes began to open in suburban Vancouver in 1997, the Capitol just didn’t look as good and Famous Players, which owns the cinema, did absolutely nothing to help the place. Attendance went down, staff were cut and cosmetic issues such as tearing walls, holes in the carpet, screen and sound issues went completely ignored, even so when customers complained that the place just isn’t as nice as the Silvercity megaplex out in Burnaby, Surrey or Richmond. Blame the corporate entity known as Famous Players for taking away history and replacing it with a Taco Bell Express.
I make much, passionate mention of this situation in Vancouver not just to bring attention to this city (I mean, c’mon, this is efilmcritic.com/hbs.com and people from all over the world are visitors of this wonderful place) but to the North American plague of closing the doors of the old, great cinemas and replacing them with the new, neon-filled-plexes that may cause the downfall of cinema. You may initially be amazed by the look and feel of something new but its all sound and fury, signifying nothing.
The multiplex era was birthed around the time of the Capitol, where in the mid 1970’s many older theatres being converted to smaller ones with more screens, or larger cinemas remaining with added on screens adjacent to the original architecture. While some auditoriums suffered, many large auditoriums like Cinema One remained and flourished all the way until the late 1990’s.
This cinematic drain is happening everywhere. Here are some examples of recent theatres closing to make their way for shiny new megaplexes:
-In San Francisco, two theatres, the Alexandria and the Coronet, two enormous cinemas from back in the day, closed its doors this year because any complex with less than 10 screens isn’t popular anymore. The Alexandria was a single-screen behemoth from the 1920’s that was carved into three smaller cinemas in the 1970’s, but the larger downstairs orchestra remained a large cinema with a huge Cinemascope screen. The Coronet was successful for decades and received a massive upgrade in the late 70’s so it could play Star Wars and has played every incarnation of the series all the way up until Episode 2…and ironically, it closed this March, only a few months before the final instalment in the saga opens. Shame.
- In Omaha, Nebraska, the Cooper Cinerama was a gorgeous palace that once showed old-and-dead Cinerama format (three interlocked projectors each project one-third of an image onto a massive wide-screen) and then went on to become the city’s major roadshow theater, closed its doors despite a complete outcry of its township. It is now a parking lot.
- In Portland, Oregon, the Eastgate 3 cinema was a theatre that was built in the widescreen-heyday of the 1960’s, with its theatre #1 boasting a massive, curved screen looming over 1300+plus seats. It was the largest cinema in the state and yet Regal decided to close the cinema in a massive “clean-up” in 2001 where many nice theatres like this one closed its doors by force. A special screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark closed the cinema in 2001.
- In Toronto, two profitable roadshow theatres, the Eglington and the University, were closed by Famous Players because the theatres were not wheelchair accessible. Translation: they wanted to build a 13-screen monstroplex called the Paramount Toronto that has every concession item known to man sold there, to which the greedy corporate executive ignorantly thinks “Well look, they can come see the same movie here, and buy a pizza and an ice cream cone while they’re at it.”
One success story worth noting: In Seattle, the downtown Seattle Cinerama opened in the early 60’s near the death of the Cinerama format. The cinema then became a regular 70mm house playing large films for decades, until its demise in 1997. When the theatre was planned to become a rock climbing club, billionaire Paul Allen stepped in and offered to purchase the Seattle Cinerama and restore the building. In 1999, the Cinerama reopened in BETTER condition than when it originally opened in 1963; the theatre was not only equipped with new 35mm projectors with 70mm capability, but old Cinerama projectors were flown in from Peru (!) to show an annual Cinerama presentation, where you can go back in time to the day where the three-projector system was popular.
Since the late 90’s, chains like AMC, Regal, Famous Players, Century, Cinemark, Cineplex Odeon, et al, are opening up massive screening complexes all across the continent with the promise of the seating, the food and the online ticketing ordering option. (“Waiting in line? That’s for old people!”) Most of these places open up in suburban areas to attract shoppers, and most of these places play only what’s in the Top 10 at the box office. Forget seeing a remastered print of Godard’s Band of Outsiders at the Silvercity Country Hills in suburban Calgary, Alberta when you can choose from The Amityville Horror playing on four screens! And those four screens means that you have a small shot of actually getting a ticket for their larger theatre, so forget the guarantee of actually seeing the film on the largest possible screen.
“But Jason,” you might intercept, “I loved booking my ticket for The Ring Two online; getting into the cinema to these places and being able to see the movie over the guy sitting ahead of me, and I picked up a pepperoni pizza, a Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper and box of Skittles while I was at it!” The thing is, the movie-going experience isn’t about booking your ticket online, getting the overpriced concession crap or being able to see over the guy ahead of you. For sure, I can sympathize for a theatre with bad sightlines, and I’ve been in many of those theatres before. Heck, even the Capitol 6 doesn’t have the greatest sightlines. That said; these theatres are the kinds of places where you would want to go see Star Wars or Indiana Jones in glorious 70mm with a great soundtrack with 1000 other people on Friday or Saturday night.
Where is the thrill today of seeing an event movie in a multi-megaplex? You never get the sense of being in a communal experience with people because you have no idea what the person behind you in line is going to see. Even arriving early for the show is a dreadful experience, for when you do get in the screening 20 minutes early, you get bombarded by on-screen advertisements telling you to go back out and purchase concession food, cars, perfumes and the hottest new CD’s on the music scene today. And then the best moment comes when you and your date are bombarded by a group of ten loud, aggressive teenagers sitting behind you, banging away on the back of your seat while they send text messages to each other on their cell phones while talking about how bitch-ass that party was last night.
And then the movie begins and you are bombarded with more advertisements, telling you again to buy the concession food, or to rethink buying that car, or that maybe you would be happier with Calvin Klein perfume and you may just need to buy the new Lindsay Lohan CD. All the meanwhile, those kids behind you won’t shut up and your view is partially obscured because one of them decides to make the seat next to you their own personal foot rest. Everything is automated, with a little piece of tape attached to the film telling the computer when to dim the lights and when to raise them; so much for showmanship where the projectionists used to look at the film they were presenting.
And don’t get me started on how the movies weren’t like they used to be…
Is this what the future is going to be like? Are there going to be more megaplexes popping up for us to go insane trying to figure out what movie to see next? It reminds me of Dennis Miller who once said “I get to the megaplex and I look up at the board, and I try to figure out which movie SUCKED THE LEAST!” We, as consumers, have the responsibility of letting our dollar speak, and instead of letting advertising, idiot moviegoers and corporate greed take over your movie night out, make sure you support your favourite movie-house, be it the little independent house on the corner of the street or one of the old, grand moviehouses if you’re still lucky to have one in your city. The experience of going out to the movies is nearly over, and with the advent of these oversized “box” theatres, it saddens me to think that architects, managers and corporate-types at head offices could think to fix what is already there instead of killing memories of its patrons, who are the reason these people are still in business.
I look back at the times that I saw a movie in Capitol 6’s Cinema One, the Grauman’s Chinese in LA (which now has a multiplex attached to it not unlike the Cinerama Dome is attached to a megaplex now), the Seattle Cinerama, the North Hill Cinerama in Calgary and the Stanley in Vancouver and I just wince. Those memories are now just memories, unable to experience again because of Bigger, Shinier New Things. Is the cinema now a glorified promotion for the eventual DVD release? I hope that with these words I have written to you, you can understand the importance of this subject and keep fighting to keep the places we love alive. If it ain’t broke…
If you have any theatre stories or want to recommend a great place to see a movie in this day and age of overpriced megaplexes, stop on by the Bitchslap Forums and tell us about it! Theatres with more than 6 screens prohibited, of course.
Trivia Note: While Star Wars is mentioned in this article and the Capitol re-opened in 1977, it did NOT open there. Its Vancouver premiere took place down the street at the Vogue Theatre which is now a concert hall and a venue for the annual Vancouver International Film Festivals.
If you would like to see pictures of the theatres mentioned in this article, please visit: www.cinematour.com, www.film-tech.com, www.cinematreasures.org and www.cinerama.com
Comments about this article are encouraged and can be directed to Jason HERE . (Click to send an email)