Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Return of the Boomers

Box office of what used to be the Manos Theatre in Greensburg, PA, where I was a regular at Saturday cartoon show/double creature feature matinee marathons. It's now called the Palace Theatre, and does live shows--which in fact is how it started, before it became a movie theatre. But that ticket booth is the same as in my 50s childhood.

Taking the pulse of the motion picture industry in the run-up to the Oscars, the New York Times announced that a number of surprise box office hits could be explained only by the fact that older people were going to the movies.

Zounds! You mean the demographic that no self-respecting advertiser pays attention to, except to make fun of in the hopes of currying favor with the disposable income rich youth market? But they respect the numbers--older moviegoers up 67% since the mid 90s, and..."And the first of the 78 million baby boomers are hitting retirement age with some leisure hours to fill and a long-dormant love affair with movies." Yes, you can hear Hollywood salivating, and it ain't because of the popcorn.

It seems that kids are into all these other choices, like watching movies on their phones, apparently. Meanwhile, the 60s Now generation grew up in movie theatres. They lured us away from Saturday morning TV shows to Saturday matinees--a score or so of cartoons at noon, some old short comedies and serials and a newsreel, and then a double feature. This is how we saw everything from westerns and war movies, comedies (Francis the Talking Mule to Martin & Lewis), Disney animated classics and new films, westerns (silver bullet giveaways crisscrossing the screen during The Lone Ranger movie, waves of coonskin caps for Davy Crockett, but also John Ford's Rio Bravo) to science fiction and creature features (War of the Worlds, Forbidden Planet, This Island Earth, Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Space Children, Them!)

Those afternoons in the movie palace--in this ruined temple, which was the largest and most ornate public space in our town outside the Court House and the First National Bank, a place at once linked to boundless fantasy, a suggested past and for years the most modern place (the only one with air conditioning)--linked us to several generations past, to the very people making those movies who grew up in just this same way, with movie-crazy Saturday afternoons.

And with the summer drive-ins factored in (falling asleep during the second dull love and adultery feature on family night to teenage forays), it was the movie theatre we returned to, for models of young love (Jane Fonda and Anthony Perkins in Tall Story), for rock and roll movies and movies of rebellion--Rebel Without A Cause.

Once the film buff enthusiasm from France came to the rest of us via Manhattan and it was cinema, and it was art, we may have seen Godard and Truffaut poorly projected in the college theatre presented by the Cinema Club, but it was the theatre experience. And for most of our lives, apart from the films sliced and diced on television, the theatre was the only movie experience. If you wanted to see a movie again, you had to find out where it was playing and when, and go there. Thus did I see Help! and A Hard Days Night 16 times, in at least four different states. When I wanted to see all the Truffaut films in one week, I had to go to the film festival showing them. (This had the added advantage of meeting Truffaut, but that's another story.)

I admit I was one who went a bit overboard, having virtually lived for several years in the Orson Welles Complex in Cambridge, which ran two films in each of three theatres simultaneously. I routinely saw 20 movies a week, and once saw 10 in one day (and immediately became deathly ill.) But I doubt I was alone in finding solace and support in the movie theatre, particularly when I was back in PA working very much alone on writing, some of which became a book. By then I had to drive out to the mall theatres, but it was pretty important to me to see movies like Annie Hall, the French Lieutenant's Woman, the American Film Theatre movies of A Delicate Balance etc., or Sting's Bring on the Night. Or even going to the county art museum series, which is where I first saw Olivier's Henry V.

Well, I do go on, but you get the point. When there are movies good enough for us to want to see them, the natural place for us to want to see them is the movie theatre. Except...

The Times story continues with the as usual lame ideas the movie exhibitors have for catering to older viewers: seat-side food and cocktail service, fancy sandwiches. They never get it. Never.

What do older viewers want in a movie theatre besides good movies? Good popcorn helps, and I've always been fond of good coffee and red licorice. But they always miss the absolute basics and it drives me crazy. Here they are: adequate restrooms (old movie theatres were usually great at this), comfortable seats, and above all--well-projected movies. Forget trying to save money by dimming the light behind the image! Give us movies we can see!

This is a big reason I haven't been part of this march back to theatres. My viewing experience is much better at home, via DVD. I venture out occasionally for a movie "event," like the latest Harry Potter. But our early evening theatrical experience at the latest one was a disaster--not only was the theatre bone-chillingly cold, but the picture was so dim as to be barely watchable. It's a dark movie, granted, but it's not supposed to be under an invisibility cloak!

Sight is especially an issue in the older demographics. And crisp sound helps--not booming into insensibility, but clear, and big, as we remember sound in movie theatres. The rest is bonus, like film series and discussions that speak to our experience. And you know, we can still probably do a double feature! But since the average age of movie execs these days is about 10, probably nobody in the movie business even knows what that is.