I just got back from seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and spoiler alert, it was awesome. Some reviewers have made a big deal out of the length and the pacing of the film, but if you’re a fan then you won’t care. There’s a moment, right near the beginning, where Bilbo begins writing and speaks the opening line of the novel, and I’m fairly certain that what I felt in that moment is a strange phenomenon commonly referred to as emotion. If you know me you many not believe that’s possible, but I assure you I felt a twinge of nostalgia for my elementary school days when I heard those words again.
The excellence of the movie aside, the trip got me thinking about the actual experience an audience undergoes when they step foot in a cinema. What follows is my impression of the good, the bad, the ugly and what I think the future of the industry should be.
Every Seat Should Be Good
Every person in a sold out movie theater pays the same price for their ticket, but not everyone gets the same experience. Hell, for some people the seats are so bad that they should get issued a discount. Those people, of course, are the ones who sit in the forbidden zone in front the horizontal aisle typical to most theaters. The zone that only fills when there’s a packed house.
The reason these seats suck is pretty simple: you’re too close to see the movie without having to move your head around to follow things right in front of your nose. On a screen that size it's the equivalent of sitting smack dab in front of the 40" flat screen in your living room. Every theater has an optimal viewing distance, and these seats are so far off from the minimum acceptable viewing distance that there’s no chance of remaining as immersed as the rest of the audience.
So, guess where I sat tonight. Yup, you guessed it. I got stuck in the forbidden zone with my entire group.
Those Damn 3D Glasses
Some movies are finally getting 3D right, and thankfully The Hobbit is one of those movies. Along with the doubled frame-rate this movie played at (which does not suck, despite what some people have said) the 3D was used to create a deeper sense of immersion without any of the bullshit “oh–my–God–did–you–see–that–pop–out–of–the–screen–right–at–me” gimmicks that are typical of crappy horror movies released around October each year.
But regardless of the quality of the visual rendering one thing is still terrible: the glasses they make you wear. The glasses handed out for the IMAX showing I went to were much larger than at any previous movies I’ve seen in 3D. I’m sure somebody thought this was a brilliant way to cover the entire viewing area, but apparently they never tested the glasses themselves in a dark theater. The damn things were so large that they picked up a ton of glare from the projecter behind us which was impossible to ignore.
Ultimately, the right form factor for these lenses is going to be a wrap-around style, but I'm guessing those are costlier to produce. This brings us to where I want to see the industry go.
A Better Trip To The Movies
A few months ago my wife and I were in Naples, FL for a wedding and we saw Skyfall at the Silverspot Cinema. The place was fantastic. Tickets were approximately 30% more expensive, but for that premium we got nice leather seats, a less packed theater and guaranteed placement in an acceptable viewing area. There were no crappy seats in that theater. I would gladly pay extra for every movie I see for the rest of my life to get seated in a theater like that.
The issue that needs solving, as I referenced earlier, is one of immersion. Every negative moment in a movie can pull you out of the experience in a heartbeat, and yet it can take several minutes to reengage. When a theater works hard to prevent those moments of disengagement from happening they are providing a superior product, one that is worth paying extra for.
If Hollywood wants to breath new life into the movie-going experience, it’s pretty simple. Start by ditching the crappy seats in the front. They can make up for the lost revenue by charging a little more for the rest of the seats. Next, they can improve the 3D glasses and encourage production companies to use 3D in an immersive way instead of as a gimmick. Finally, fix the damn concessions. The food is crappy and expensive, which is why people try to sneak their own in. I've been to theaters that actually served good food, and it was worth every penny. I saw much more consumption happening in these theaters too, so it’s possible to make up for the cost of higher quality ingredients by selling more food.
The future of cinema will be one where customers are given the choice of a quality experience and charged accordingly, and I can’t wait.