Setting His Sights on Cinema: A Movielover's Lament
TJ Edwards thinks he knows why some people are rude at movie theaters, and it has nothing to do with some people just being rude. It has to do with the act of moviegoing itself, a once-magical experience that has become increasingly tarnished, devalued by the very people who should be celebrating it: the exhibitors.
These are the Regals and the AMCs, the people who own the movie theaters. Once, TJ said, they were showmen. Now they are businessmen. The result: charmless auditoriums, clueless ushers, rude audiences, an inferior moviegoing experience
TJ lives in Los Angeles where, two years ago, he started a Web site called Cinema Sightlines. He's a hardcore movie buff. Some of his earliest memories are of "roadshow" pictures. These were event movies: "Thoroughly Modern Millie," "Ben Hur." You bought your tickets ahead of time. You dressed up. There was an overture and an intermission. You lost yourself in a world of make-believe.
That's hard to do today. A former usher and projectionist ,TJ is familiar with the presentation of a movie. Take something as basic as the screen, for example. It used to be you never saw a huge white rectangle in front of you when you went to the movies. A blank screen was declasse, like seeing someone's underwear or a square of toilet paper stuck to a shoe. No, the screen was covered by a curtain, sometimes two or three curtains. The movie was projected onto the curtain, which then opened to reveal not a white screen, but a screen full of color and action: the world of the movie.
TJ sees a direct line from the degradation of the product offered by exhibitors to the behavior of the audience. We take the outside world with us into the movies. It's an increasingly uncivil outside world. Said TJ: "I really don’t see the exhibitors--and this is going to make them hate me--giving too much thought to making the experience special."
He has a section on his Web site called Cinema Etiquette where he lays out the rules. His thoughts on texting are crystal clear:
Cellphone texting has become the modern equivalent of passing notes in a classroom, and doing it in a theatre is a juvenile as shooting spitballs. The lighted screens on cellphones stand out in a dark theatre like beacons in the night, so put the phone away and resist the urge to check for messages every ten minutes. If you’re so damn important that you can't be incommunicado for a couple of hours, what the hell are you doing at a movie anyway?
TJ thinks exhibitors should make more of an effort on the look and feel of their theaters. They also should empower their ushers: "When I was a teenager and was an usher, my job was to watch the audience, not the movie. The idea is to look for trouble and head it off before it starts."
But what about the economics? Perhaps exhibitors just can't afford fancy theaters, a full complement of ushers, a policy that kicks out unruly (but ticket- and concession-buying) patrons. TJ has no sympathy for that argument. If going to the movies is no better--is often worse--than staying home with Netflix, theaters will lose money, he says. Can't afford to hire more ushers? "They could equip two patrons, in exchange for a discount or free return pass, with beepers to notify a manager that something is wrong," he said.
TJ actually doesn't go out to see movies much anymore, which must be painful for someone who fell in love with the movie palaces of upstate New York when he was a boy and has worked in various aspects of them most of his life. Movies are just too expensive these days.
He was a projectionist when "Jaws" came out and he described how he tried to make that movie special for audiences. Before the movie started, he closed the dowser, a baffle on the projector that controls light. Then he turned off the house lights, so the audience was sitting in the dark with just the footlights on, the lights that illuminated the curtain. He started the projector then cut the footlights just as John Williams's first iconic "da-dum" came over the speakers. Only then, as the theater was completely dark, did he open the curtains, bringing up the light from the projector as the stars' names appeared on screen.
Said TJ: "I understood showmanship and today no one does.... A lot of people think 'It’s modern life, get used to it.' Like you, I disagree."
July 9, 2009; 9:48 AM ET
Categories: Radical Civility
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