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Setting His Sights on Cinema: A Movielover's Lament

RadicalCivility.jpgTJ 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."

By John Kelly  |  July 9, 2009; 9:48 AM ET
Categories:  Radical Civility  
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T.J. remembers a world that has passed away. We are now in a world made by MBAs and techno-geeks. They may be smart, they may worship the golden cow, but they never understood what TJ calls showmanship, but what might equally be called magic or art.

Movie screens used to be on stages. They were in theaters or else the movie palace's creator understood its heritage. There were proscenium arches, there was a sense of place. I doubt we will see it back again.

Posted by: mfromalexva | July 9, 2009 10:18 AM | Report abuse

And back in his day, they used to walk uphill to school, both ways.

Posted by: jerryravens | July 9, 2009 1:00 PM | Report abuse

And they were in much better shape.

Posted by: dr_klahn | July 9, 2009 2:54 PM | Report abuse

Hurray for TJ Edwards!!!! He has the ability to do for Cinema Etiquette and the future of the film going experience what Martha Stewart did for gracious living, entertaining, weddings, etc. (without the federal prison stint!)

Posted by: KarlaDeVIto | July 9, 2009 4:54 PM | Report abuse

I would add that it is also the easy accessibililty of cheap
technology itself that endorses rude behavior.
Television, as it has spread through digi-cable to include hundreds of
shows and the (im)personality of
"reality" tv, has also encouraged people to behave in movie theatres
no differently than when they are at home.
Society has descended into rudeness and loudness and has caused a
ripple effect. What was perhaps an initial effort
by film distributors and theatre owners to allow diverse cultures to
feel more relaxed in a public space and to spend
more money has resulted in a complete lack of boundaries. The food
smells are also nauseating: cheese nachos
and fries and pizza slices! Foods that were once for the outdoor
events of NASCAR and baseball games have
made it into the inner arena of movie theatres. I also think that any
kind of class and respect for many forms of
entertainment (live theatre; museums; concerts) is regarded as
old-fashioned and uptight. Only until the experience
of anything artful is whittled down to the level of crassness can it
be considered contemporar and/or American.

Posted by: jonspanonyc | July 9, 2009 4:57 PM | Report abuse

Some clarifications from TJ Edwards:

I have no intention of demonizing movie exhibitors as a whole. There are SOME who make an admirable effort, and do provide a superior moviegoing experience. The Vista theatre in Los Angeles, the Astor theatre in St. Kinda, Australia, and the Empire Leicester Square in London are all places I'd happily leave home for. Many other exhibitors, being a couple generations removed from previously higher standards, aren't necessarily as negligent as they are ignorant about the many details that can upgrade the experience.

As for pictures initially released with Roadshow presentation, (and while MARY POPPINS was an event picture, it wasn't quite a roadshow) I wouldn't characterize Roadshow presentation as being "lost in a world of make-believe" as much as just a classier, higher quality, more THEATRICAL movie experience. But even my hometown movie theatre once had enough showmanship and theatrical ambiance to make the movie experience infinitely more valuable than anything found in a typical bland plex today.

Regarding the thought that Exhibitors can't afford to staff every auditorium with someone to monitor audience behavior and presentation quality: rather than bribe and/or deputize members of the audience to do the theatre's job, I'd recommend they train staff to uphold higher standards of behavior & presentation, then maintain a presence in each auditorium throughout the film. What they make on two average tickets could pay for the extra staff. The value of the upgraded quality and good will it would generate with the public: Priceless.

And, lest I be written off as an oldtimer who thinks today's moviegoing experience can saved by overtures and curtains, even given the reality of today's devolved movie environment, there is still a lot one can do to elevate the movie experience. One small example: it is extremely annoying to sit through 20+ minutes of outright commercials before you even get to the movie trailers, but back in the 80s, American Express had the great idea of sponsoring truly entertaining short films (including two by Pixar) that were tastefully bookended with their name. We then saw AmEx as the company that just gave us a little entertainment, rather than hating them for intruding on our show with just an ad.

My overall feeling is that if you make the moviegoing experience into a special, higher quality, thoughtfully presented and carefully regulated event, the public would have more reason to leave home, and remember they were NOT at home. In a classier environment and experience, people are more likely to behave with some class.

Posted by: CineSight | July 9, 2009 10:33 PM | Report abuse

TJ Edwards is quite right. Movies are a product (and always have been), but no longer is there a differenciation between the special event and the ordinary. Marketing pushes what the market will support.

Some of it is generational (in 30 years, no doubt this will be considered a golden age of moviegoing -- assuming there are any theaters still operating), and some is financial. After all, except for budgets and admission prices, is Harry Potter all that different from Andy Hardy?

Posted by: djmackler | July 10, 2009 10:19 AM | Report abuse

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