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Film and Society

How movie theaters are reacting to a world gone Netflix

by Rachel Walther

When theater-goers purchase a ticket at a movie theater, they might want to stop and wonder if it’s going to be their last. The mounting pressures of work schedules and the increased ease of home viewing options, not to mention the heinous weather in Chicago most of year, is turning movie theaters into veritable ghost towns, with big bales of stale popcorn blowing by your feet.

There’s no doubt that the way we watch and enjoy films is changing. The standard complaints about going to a movie: the lines, the expensive crap food, the noisy people, and the commercials, have all been fodder for stand-up comedians for years, but now they are annoyances that could be breaking an industry. SAIC student Jason Saager reasoned “With TiVo and DVDs, I can bypass ads at home. Why would I pay ten bucks to watch them in the theater, next to noisy strangers?”

3 penny cinemaThere are not as many theater options in Chicago as there were a few years back, with the recent closures of the Biograph, the 3 Penny, and the Esquire. Were these theaters the most recent victims of a world-gone-Netflix? Or are they just casualties of the oft-waged David-and-Goliath battles against corporate control of the industry?

The answer might be a little of both. The video rental houses are taking the brunt of the abuse, with small stores folding up or downsizing and larger chains like Blockbuster streamlining their business to include rent-by-mail options. But the theaters are feeling the effects in many ways.

“You see it and you don’t see it. One day it’s slow, the next it’s busy,” muses former Landmark Theater manager Miguel Martinez. As a possible explanation for the Lincoln Avenue closures of both the 3 Penny and the Biograph, he reasons, “The neighborhood changed, the industry changed, and the theaters didn’t change with it.”

Business was definitely declining, remarks Charles Rogers, former manager of the Music Box Theater, about the end of his tenure at the theater in early 2005. “Our programming became based on what we could get, we could no longer command exclusive rights to certain films in the city,” he said. Although attendance is hit or miss, the Music Box has managed to keep business afloat with a loyal clientele and classic décor, and special events such as last Halloween’s Crispin Glover bonanza or David Lynch’s recent promotion of his new film Inland Empire.

It can be pretty hard to feel sorry for the film industry. Soaring movie star salaries and a $10 admission price doesn’t exactly elicit sympathy of the average theater patron.

But when you go to see a movie determines which pocket your cash lands in. Opening weekend is the distributor’s weekend, where the studio and production companies recoup expenses and make most of the profits. With each succeeding week, the theater itself nets more and more of the revenue. So if you want to see the new Jude Law movie but aren’t relishing the thought of contributing to the Weinstein Bros. new yacht, wait as long as possible before heading to theaters.

Larger chain locations like the River East 21 or 600 N. Michigan have trouble mustering much consumer loyalty. “It’s all the same place to most people, really, so it just comes down to where’s closest,” reasons one AMC employee. “It costs so much to keep a place like this going; there’s always pressure to sell out and push concessions.”

With rising real estate prices and changing neighborhood demographics, a sink-or-swim attitude prevails. In the past ten years, the total number of movie theaters that opened their doors decreased, but the number of screens per theater increased. Older locations’ sagging revenue is often reflected in a run-down appearance, which makes them even less appealing to audiences now used to the luxury of stadium seating. Both the Biograph and the Esquire had been showing signs of financial trouble years before they closed. The consensus of local theater managers is that the theaters simply decided to cash in their chips before they lost their shirt trying to keep up a losing proposition.

Commercials shown before the feature are one way that art-house and commercial venues alike have tried to spoon the water out of their sinking ships. Sure, a barrage of five or so ads before a film is obnoxious, but faced with the option of not having a theater to see films in at all, it’s a small price to pay. Although for some theatergoers, it’s enough to keep them at home.

Miguel Martinez has a more optimistic attitude about the future of theaters: “People love to talk about the death of theaters, of cinema! But [the truth is] is that there’s 600 movies being released this year, and someone’s got to play ‘em.” Martinez argues that every new venue to appreciate films bolsters the industry whether it be internet, home video, or movie theater. Even if the percentages about who watches what where changes, the film industry will be stronger as a whole.

Most theater employees and managers have mixed feelings about the future. Many see a world where movie theaters are a special event outing, like the opera or a rock concert. Others see simply fewer options, with one major multiplex and one chain art-house venue per city. But the death of theaters entirely? “It’s possible,” surmises one Landmark employee, “but it’s not going to happen overnight.”

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