Thursday, September 22, 2005

On Theatrical Experiences of Late and Commercials...

I know I'm not alone in bemoaning the ever-expanding encroachment of commercials into theatrical movie viewings. It's a trend that isn't going away, and is, in fact, escalating at alarming rates.

This past week, I've been catching up on some theatrical films I hoped to see before they left the area's big screens, starting with the genre fare that blasts through with the speed horror flicks used to move through nabes ("One Week Only!"). The rapid turnaround now is due to the diminishing returns on Hollywood genre offerings. Well, no wonder the boxoffice is dwindling on this current cycle: even the best of 'em are 1970s retreads, and I do mean retreads (what's the best of 'em? Sigh, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which rates only because the first possession/hallucination indeed got a rise out of me; in the end, it's like a low-budget '70's Exorcist rip crossed with Perry Mason and The Runner Stumbles, all to arrive at the message William Peter Blatty sought to ram down our throats if only Friedkin hadn't mounted such an effective horrorshow). I mean, am I the only one who thought The Skeleton Key was just a revamp of the livelier, more inventive Brotherhood of Satan and the bungled Nothing But the Night -- respectively, '71 and '72 -- with a thick icing of Southern Gothic? That Cry_Wolf (which I caught last night) was just April Fool's Day with a sting in the tale? All three of the 2005 releases I've just referred to are well-executed, make the most of their casts and respective budgets (Cry_Wolf was impoverished by comparison to the two studio flicks I'm placing it alongside here, but it was tightly scripted, effectively cast and played, and the direction was solid). All three maintain a rigorous focus on their respective goalposts, which is more than I can say for utter drivel like Alone in the Dark, the scattered-as-a-mad-woman's-shit-video-game movie (which I had flashbacks of during last night's Doom trailer), or "I can't believe they're foisting this claptrap on me" schizobabble squirmfests like Hide & Seek. But they're just more of what we're getting: 1970s remakes or Asian ghost tale reboots, which is most of what we've been doled for three or four years now (remakes of Texas Chainsaw, Dawn of the Dead, and Amityville Horror; The Ring, Dark Water, etc.).

Now, no worries -- I mean, with gems like Romero's inspired, prescient Land of the Dead sweetening the summer horror pot and engaging fare like The Constant Gardener and Broken Flowers gracing local screens, I'm thankful for what's in reach.

But in any and all cases, all these theatrical experiences are diminished as soon as the fucking commercials immediately begin unspooling. The military recruitment spots have been imbedded into my retinal patterns (my personal fave is the one with the recruit rock-climbing one of those staggering US desert spires: I keep flashing on him reaching the top only to find a ragged insurgent there who grins, shrugs, and then self-detonates -- not the message the US Marines want to send!), the smarmiest of all the one with the teen kid playing pool with his Dad amid a conversation to convince Pop the Army is A-OK to join. But we've also got multi-language scientists singing Carpenter songs ("Close to You"), the latest insipid Pepsi spots, a painful Sprite ad, etc. etc. etc. When I am immediately greeted now with ads and even lobby displays that are blatantly urging me to abandon the theatrical experience -- Sony's infuriating Fantastic Four spot (which says, basically, "wait for the DVD") and the cardboard standee in the lobby of the local Kipling Cinema for Comedy Central's new David Spade program -- I have to wonder: are the theaters even aware of what they're accepting ad dollars for any longer?

And this is just the beginning.

According to the March 2005 issue of Entrepreneur, cinema advertising is "the hot, new tool for advertisers nationwide." Consider this:

"Although cinema advertising is still a relatively small share of total U.S. ad spending, it's projected to double in size from about $470 million in 2004 to more than $1 billion in 2008, according to communications industry forecast estimates from media merchant bank Veronis Suhler Stevenson. And what do moviegoers think of this change? Consumer studies by Arbitron in 2002 and 2003 found that more than two-thirds of adults and about 7 out of 10 teens don't mind ads played before a movie."

Who did Arbitron poll? I resent paying an average of $7.50 to $8 per ticket now to then sit through advertising, all of which places the film I paid to see into a context I further resent, even if it's utter shit I choose to see. Bad enough that I'm usually faced with all-teenage staffing, incompetent (and too-often out-of-focus) projection, failing equipment (this past year alone, my wife and I or friends and I missed four or five films we drove to see due to cancelled shows because of no heat in theaters, or faulty projection, etc.), and rude-as-hell audiences who think nothing of talking through entire movies.

But dig, what's at work here is the difference between the receptive 'dream state' projected 35mm theatrical film experiences place us in by the nature of the medium and by habit, versus the far less receptive state video and television viewing plunges the video-age generation into now (as opposed to the three-network monopolistic thrall of the 1950s-late '70s):

"Moviegoers remember advertising messages as much as five to six times better than TV viewers, according to studies conducted by RoperASW and Nielsen Media Research for Regal CineMedia and the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau."

I'm not surprised this is true. The reason I still prefer theatrical viewing experiences above even the finest home theater experience is the nature of the media themselves functions differently on a primal biological and emotional level: projected cinema engages us more urgently than television (whether traditional or high-def, it makes no difference) ever can or will. Forgive the simplistic summary, but: Our eyes and brains, as organs, engage in a different mode altogether with the clarity of light/cinema projected onto a massive screen vs. dots/pixels-per-inch illuminating a monitor screen: one is a shared dream-state, the other a mesmerizing solo alpha-state. Cinema, by nature, engages the eye and brain to 'complete' the illusion of movement: we're involved in 'creating' the movement by bridging the almost-imperceptible individual frames and ignoring the 'flicker' between, whereas television and digital media literally turns us into receptors: we accept, rather than invest in, the movement and imagery.

I think we also invest actively when we pay for that theatrical experience, and once in our seats, we aren't free to channel surf, mute, or wander away from the screen during the increasingly interminable commercials.

When the hue and cry went out this summer that boxoffice was down, my first thought was, "Well, duh, going to the theaters is beginning to suck more and more." True enough, and commercials have prompted me more than one night to ditch the half-hour drive to the closest theater in favor of a DVD at home. If the commercial stream gets much longer as ticket prices go up, I'll be more and more partial to the latter, come what may... and of course, $3+ per gallon gas prices (presently $2.74 at the lowest priced station I could find in the area) makes that option all the more appealing.

Thankfully, new DVDs are offering terrific stuff -- more on that tomorrow!

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