“It has to be a really good movie to get us out in this,” says Kelly Mooney with a chuckle. We’re in the vortex of a Saturday night premiere. Harkins Cine Capri theater channels a surge of energetic humanity from its misted ticket counters through the neon lobby and into “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.”
But Mooney and her husband, Sam, would rather be at their home in Scottsdale. “We don’t like the crowds, or the waiting in line,” she says. Boisterous Johnny Depp fans have already filled the 7 p.m. show, so they’re settling for Adam Sandler and “Click,” and they’d prefer the whole experience on DVD. “But this is where the movie is,” says Sam Mooney with a shrug.
The classic American pastime has a run for its money these days. Bad titles and higher prices have dampened their allure while plasma screens, mail-in rentals and quick DVD releases suggest that there’s no place like home. Are the movies still the jewel of American popular culture? Or are we seeing the twilight of the silver screen?
DATE NIGHTS OR TV DINNERS
Laughter rolls generously around the twinkling projector beams at “Pirates” as a packed house watches Johnny Depp wobble through what is expected to be the summer blockbuster. For young people, the crowd and the buzz are part of the scene. “I like it when it’s crowded,” says Bailey Schultz, 14, of Scottsdale. “You get to hang out.”
“Crowds give you the right atmosphere,” says Ian Torich, 23. The Phoenix native — with buddies Eric Maurer, 24, and Dan Julian, 25 — is hip-deep in atmosphere behind the rope for the 9:50 p.m. show.
“You don’t get this at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday,” Maurer agrees.
“Watching movies alone?” says Julian. “Man . . . that’s like drinking alone.”
Helene Raffaele of Cave Creek agrees: “It’s good to see other people,” she says. “We get a sitter and go out once a month. Dinner and a movie. It’s like a date.”
The movie industry is rebounding from a sharp drop-off in 2005. Entertainment Weekly magazine reports that, for the first half of 2006, movie grosses totaled $4.6 billion, up about 5 percent. Much of that doesn’t come from big crowds, but small groups, pursuing specialty films and off-peak pricing.
“ ‘Cars’ is adorable,” says Marla Hattavaugh, nudging Riley, her 7-year-old grandson. “He’s seen it three times.” An afternoon showing at Arizona Mills 24 in Tempe proves that animated features are still cheaper than a babysitter. The audience of 60 sits gleefully still, only an occasional revving or a high-pitched question to be heard. Hattavaugh prefers artsy films for herself.
“I just saw ‘Kinky Boots’ at the Camelview,” she says. “Very funny, and sensitive. I never liked violent or graphic movies.”
An increasing number of moviegoers use multiplexes to accommodate differing tastes. “We just saw ‘The Devil Wears Prada,’ ” says Sara Marque of Gilbert, standing in the lobby of Arizona Mills with her sister-in-law, Margo Marque. “We’re waiting for our husbands.”
“They’re watching ‘Superman Revisited, Revisited, Revisited,’ ” says Margo Marque, referring to “Superman Returns.” “We’re all retired, so we hit the matinee,” says Sara Marque, “then we have lunch, and we’re home before rush hour.”
Rising costs are one, but not the only, complaint cited by a Tribune poll of moviegoers. Many claimed to attend movies less frequently, citing “poor quality or offensive films” as a big reason. But Valley theater owner Dan Harkins says the variety of choices disputes that.
“In the Christmas season of ’75, I opened only five first-run movies,” says Harkins. “On an average weekend, we open between eight to 11 movies. There’s never been this much product, ever before, on screens.”
A second-generation theater owner whose father pioneered local cinema in the 1930s, Harkins says the demise of movies has been predicted before. “But movies, as an industry, have been growing at a decent clip for 30 years.”
The drop-off in 2005, he says, was more of a “normal” year after “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “The Passion of the Christ” spiked sales in 2004. He insists he isn’t looking over his shoulder at the home video market. “Anyone who would rather see a movie at home would rather have a gourmet meal in TV dinner packaging,” he says.
Maybe. But TV dinners are getting nicer.
THX vs. BYOB
“Between the low price of DVDs when they come out on sale the first week of their release and the ease of Netflix, we watch most everything at home,” says Jana Knapp of Chandler, responding to a Tribune reader poll. “For less than $20 I get a pause button, cheaper refreshments, no cell phone interruptions, and as a bonus I get to keep the movie.”
Movies faced their strongest threat in the 1950s, when televisions sprouted like dandelions in America’s living rooms. Mailbox rental services like Netflix and improving video technology have brought TV back for round two. Katherine Atwell Herbert, chairwoman of the motion picture department at Scottsdale Community College, sees a legitimate threat.
“Home theaters will get more common,” says Herbert. “Big screens will continue getting cheaper, so you won’t need a huge house or a big budget to own one.” Cinemas, she predicts, will follow the path of live theater, “which became more a museum piece when movies came out. They’ll take a back seat, but they won’t die.”
But Harkins trusts cinema’s technical superiority to hold the line.
“A movie screen picture will give you 1,080 dots per inch,” he says. “The best a DVD player can do is 480. At-home acoustics? No way they equal a movie theater’s.” Crowd complaints surprise him, he says, because the numbers don’t bear it out. “We have more seats per capita here than we’ve ever had,” he says. “We can ‘interlock’ big movies and expand them to multiple auditoriums.”
But will the convenience of at-home viewing and absolute control of your environment trump technical superiority? Herbert says the answer depends upon age: “If you’re over 25, you get home from your job and your day is done. It’s just harder to go out, with cable and pay-per-view and all that’s available 24/7.”
Part of the problem is perceptual. Boomers look at the likes of “Mission: Impossible III” and “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” and don’t see a place for themselves anymore.
“If (Hollywood) keeps tailoring films to 14- to 28-yearold guys, with one-dimensional characters and special effects, good writers like James L. Brooks (“As Good as It Gets”) will go to cable, where there’s more variety,” says Herbert.
Variety is there, Harkins contends, if you look. “(Theater owners) are at the mercy of what Hollywood produces,” he says. “But we’ve been aggressively booking smaller independent films like ‘Whale Rider’ and ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ at the Camelview for 32 years.”
Where will the movies go from here?
“Bigger, more sophisticated special effects,” says Herbert. “But they’re going to need nuanced characters to be successful. You can’t get too far from telling a good story.” Will in-home convenience make Americans phobic about going out?
“I hope not,” she says. “That would be kind of scary. Like that story ‘The Listeners,’ where people are shut up in their homes, terrified of someone who walks down the street.”
Harkins is more bullish. Movies will change, he says — smaller multiplexes, with arthouse screens and more niche films for the boomer crowd. But the cinema experience won’t go away.
“Years ago, I brought my first Betamax home and played a tape of ‘Blazing Saddles’ for my family,” he says. “It wasn’t that funny. In 1999, we played it to a full auditorium for a festival, and it was extremely funny. It demonstrates the communal experience of sharing entertainment with your fellow man. Movie enjoyment is enhanced when shared with an audience,” he says. “You can’t get that at home.”