Like most film critics, I spend a lot of my life inside of movie theaters. I usually see between two and three movies per week in a theater. But unlike most movie critics — who attend press screening and thus often have seats set aside for them, or watch the movie only in the company of only other critics — I attend screenings with real audiences.
And real audiences can be a pain in the fucking ass.
I’ve been at this for over five years now, in addition to my at least weekly visits to the theater for most of my adult life, so I’ve managed to come up with a few personal rules and some practical advice which has allowed me to get the most out of the theater-going experience. Inconsiderate assholes are unpredictable, so these theater-going rules aren’t foolproof. But more often than not, they’ve worked for me. And for those of you who seldom attend the theater due to your low levels of patience for other people, these guidelines may encourage you to return. The truth is, no matter how good a home theater systems you have in your living room, nothing can compete with the cinema experience. Filmmakers create their films with huge screens and 2.35:1 aspect ratios in mind. In many instances, too, those obnoxious crowds surrounding you actually enhance the movie-going experience. You can’t duplicate that in your den, and I don’t care what kind of subwoofers you have.
Matinees, you’d imagine, are the ideal choice. But it really depends on the kind of movie you’re attending. For comedies and most horror movies, a nice-sized audience really enhances the experience. Paul Blart: Mall Cop may not be funny, but if the rest of the audience is dumb and raucous enough, you can actually get some infectious laughter out of it. I remember seeing Lethal Weapon IV in a packed theater with an audience that must have had a serious case of the giggles — it wasn’t until I rewatched the movie, on DVD, that I realized how awful it was. A good crowd can alter your perception, often for the good.
Likewise, a bad crowd can screw you: dramatic horror movies should be seen with as few people as possible, so matinees or weekday evening screenings are ideal. One jackass scoffing or another laughing during an otherwise tense scene can completely take you out of the moment. Horror-comedies, however, really require a large audience, preferably of people who are vulnerable to jump scares. I remember seeing Drag Me to Hell in a sold out theater the first time, and it was one of the best theatergoing experiences I’ve ever had. I returned to see it again, this time with a nearly empty theater, and it wasn’t nearly the same without a tattooed man shrieking like a little girl (in this case, that was TK).
In fact, for both varieties of horror movies, midnight screenings are the best: only the die-hards show up for midnight screenings, so they usually know how to properly behave in the theater. Moreover, the late hour and your own sleepiness can often contribute to the experience: I saw 1408, for instance, in a sleep-deprived state, which did a lot to heighten the creepy experience. The same movie, however, wouldn’t have been as effective if an asshole was sitting next to me rustling his M&Ms package.
Also, I know it’s stereotypical to suggest that black audiences talk to the screen during movies, but even living in three of the whitest cities in America (Boston, Ithaca, Portland), almost exclusively black audiences do show up for so-called urban films, and I can’t think of a single instance where those very audiences weren’t talking, loudly, to the screen during most of the movie (or, in many cases, screaming and/or singing). Go with it. Urban movies are generally fairly awful, but the audience can make it much more enjoyable. It’s a fun, communal experience. I don’t recommend Tyler Perry movies, obviously, but if you can catch a Friday night screening on opening weekend, it’s both interesting and a unique experience, especially if you’re the only white person in attendance (as has been the case for me on several occasions). It’s the rare occasion where you can actually encourage people to talk during the movie — they are usually the best part of the movie.
I actually find that the first showing of any weekday works best if you don’t want to be bothered. I attend the first screening of an opening weekend release every single Friday of the year, and no matter how big the movie, there’s rarely more than five or six people there (this was even the case in Boston). I’ve had the theater all to myself on more occasions than I can count.
If it’s an adult-oriented film, like State of Play, I can’t encourage you enough to avoid Saturday and Sunday matinees. In my experience, screenings of more adult, mature movies are dominated during those times by much older people. And no offense to your grandmother, but the only thing more annoying than squealing teenage girls during a Twilight movie is a theater full of blue-hairs, who not only talk loudly during the entire film, but often have to have dialogue repeated or explained to them by whoever is sitting next to them.
In fact, if you do want an audience, the first evening screening (usually around 7 p.m.) is ideal — it’s mostly adults with babysitters at home and some older teenagers, who aren’t there in groups. They are generally respectful and quiet, when it’s called for.
However, 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. weekend screenings are the absolute worst: This is when most of the loud, obnoxious teenagers arrive. If it’s an R-rated movie, expect to be interrupted by teenagers under 17 sneaking in during the course of the movie, and asking their older friends to explain what’s happened so far. They talk during the movie; they get up often; cell phones go off frequently, and there’s a lot of texting. It’s the absolute worst time to see a movie, even if it is often the most convenient for working folks.
Attending with Friends
The very same movies that are better seen with audiences (comedies, horror comedies, and most action films) are also better viewed with large groups of friends. That’s fairly obvious.
However: Be very careful about who you bring to a movie. A friend, even a very close one, can ruin an entire movie-going experience. If you’re overly concerned about whether he or she is enjoying it, or if you feel — as the chooser of a particular movie — under some pressure for your companion to have a good time (and you spend half the movie checking her face for signs of approval), the entire experience can be dashed. Likewise, never attend a movie with a critic — professional, amateur, or otherwise. It is our job to critique — if you just want to enjoy the movie, even a very bad one, without hearing about all its flaws, either during the movie (via exaggerated sighs) or after the movie, don’t go with an overly critical person.
In fact, if you do go with someone, wait at least five minutes after the movie to discuss it. Let yourself fully digest the experience before it’s tainted by your friend or partner’s opinion. Movies are an individual experience, and each person is affected by a movie differently. If you thought the movie was terrible, don’t harsh the buzz of your friend, who might have otherwise enjoyed it, even if his or her enjoyment of the movie was inexplicable. It’s not cool — they paid $10 to see the movie, too, and just because they liked a shitty movie doesn’t mean they should be robbed of the enjoyment afterwards. Be considerate. If you feel the need to vent, come to Pajiba.
I know a lot of people are very much against attending movies alone — my wife would never do so, for instance. But in the end, most movies are best experienced by you alone. Your opinions aren’t filtered, tainted, or mocked. You are under no pressure for your companion to feel entertained. And you can allow the movie to manipulate you in the manner it was meant without fear of reproach. You may realize how awful a movie is the second you leave the theater, but in some cases, you can nevertheless give into it while you’re experiencing it. That’s less so if your friend is showing signs of disapproval every three minutes, or shaking his head and wondering aloud, “Can we go home now?”
Oh, and nothing is worse than seeing a movie for the first time with someone who has already seen it, because then they insist on showing ownership of the movie, which makes it difficult for you to claim your own ownership: “I love this next part,” is the single most obnoxious thing you can hear during a movie, except for when someone repeats the dialogue right along with the movie.
People put way too much stock in seating choice. In most theaters, especially the newer ones with curved screens, the view is the same from nearly everywhere in the theater, except for the front four or five rows. You may think that the middle seat in the middle of the theater is the best seat in the house, but once the lights go down, you’re surrounded by a larger concentration of people (who may or may not be obnoxious) and, worse still, you’re trapped, unless you want to be the jackass who makes half a row of people get up whenever you need to go to the restroom.
My suggestion: Get there early-ish. Take a book. Find an aisle seat, preferably near the exit. That way, if you do need to get up to visit the restroom, you’re not interfering with anyone else. Moreover, there are fewer people around you to annoy you. If there is an aisle set to the side with only two or three seats per row, take one of those, on the aisle. Unless it’s a sold-out theater, there’s little chance anyone will sit next to you, because that’s kind of creepy. If you do find yourself sitting near a talker, a rustler, or a sigher: don’t just sit there, and don’t turn around to either shush a person or give him the stink-eye. It just makes the whole situation even more fraught with tension. The best thing you can do is simply get up and move. Sit somewhere else. And if you’ve chosen an aisle seat near the exit, chances are, there are other places to move. It’s much better than hushing someone. They will probably resent you; they may continue talking louder; they may whisper shit about you; or they may tell you to go to hell. If you get up and move, you’re accomplishing the same thing: you note your disapproval, but you don’t have to experience the tense moments afterward. If you get up and leave, chances are, the talkers will feel embarrassed by their actions, and without you there, they have no one to take their pride out on. It’s a win-win.
First and foremost, if you have candy packages or other items that rustle, open them during the previews. Don’t fucking wait until the big moment to open your goddamn Reese’s peanut butter cups — someone will shoot you in the head for that. And I will applaud them. Also, if you buy nachos, eat them within the first 20 minutes. Don’t be crunching those goddamn chips when the 2nd act starts.
Those are pretty much the only rules on concessions, except this: if you go to an art theater, or an independent theater, don’t bring in any outside food whatsoever. Indulge in their shitty popcorn with Brewer’s Yeast and eat their shitty organic cookies. Buy the candy, too; it’s cheaper there than in chain theaters anyway. I say this because independent theaters survive on concessions. They get next to no percentage of the box-office revenue, and the revenue for an indie film is already crappy. They’re making 90 percent of their profits on those homemade brownies.
With chain theaters: compromise. Bring in your own candy (or sandwiches), but at least buy an overpriced beverage. Even chain theaters make most of their money in concessions, and the old ladies and teenagers trying to save up to buy a used car depend on you for their wages. I know it’s easy to bitch about the price of popcorn — they’re making $4.95 profit on a $5 bag — but remember, that’s nearly the only money they are going to receive. This is especially so if you attend a discount theater. Discount theaters are the best: You can see District 9 or (500) Days of Summer in the theater for less money than it costs to rent the DVD when it comes out two weeks later. Don’t abuse that — most of us would kill for a discount theater, but we don’t get them, because too many jackasses decided to bring their own candy or sneak in their own bottled water when they went to see The Dark Knight for $2. Don’t be a cheap asshole. You’re very lucky if your city has an independent or discount theater: don’t abuse it.
And that’s that: a few practical, mostly common-sense guidelines that, unfortunately, too many people don’t abide by. That, of course, works to your advantage: If everyone followed them, weekday matinees would be overcrowded and you’d all be seating in the aisle seat.