Even in the Age of Netflix, theaters still offer the best way to experience movies

movie theaters

Cinema Labs’ The Village at SOPAC in South Orange and other New Jersey theaters are trying to lure patrons away from their homes for a big screen movie experience.

I remember, as a child, fantasizing about a future where I could just push a button and watch any movie I wanted.

Be careful what you wish for.

We’ve got a rough approximation of that fantasy now, with cable channels and streaming services offering thousands of films (even if most of them aren’t ones you’d ever want to see). But it brought a collateral damage that 11-year-old me could never have predicted.

The near-death of movie theaters.

And in a list of all the things I regret seeing pushed aside over the years — birthday cards, weekly magazines, big fat newspapers — movie theaters are at the top.

Their struggle began with the internet, but the pandemic put it into hyperdrive. The theater in the town next to ours closed then, during the first wave. It never reopened. The theater in the town where we live shut down, too. After years of promising to return, it finally gave up.

It’s since been gutted, and remains a sad hole in our downtown, like a missing tooth in someone’s brave smile.

I know some people — the sort who brag at length about their home theater’s sound system — are already saying, “Why would I spend $15 to go to a theater when I can watch a movie in my living room?” The fast, short answer — “Other people” — won’t convince them. “Other people” is why they don’t want to go out.

Well, they don’t know what they’re missing.

Community enlarges our pleasures. (Honestly, don’t you get a bigger thrill out of going to a concert than listening to a live album?) Yet, sadly, communal events have been fading for years, as we increasingly hide from random interactions, hunkering down behind our phones. As if there were anything truly social about “social media.”

It’s a shame for a couple of reasons. First, going to a theater elevates any film, and your enjoyment of it. Watch the funniest comedy you can think of at home, on TV, and you might smile, at most. Catch a late-night broadcast of a horror film and however hard it tries to scare you, you know you’re still lying safe in your own bed, your dog snoozing on the floor.

But watch The Marx Brothers, or “Blazing Saddles,” or “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” in a theater with other people, and you will laugh out loud. Just try to sit nonchalantly through a good thriller and you’ll find that “edge-of-your-seat” can be literally true. (“Wait Until Dark” was shot more than 50 years ago and I’ve seen audiences still jump when Alan Arkin leaps out.)

In fact, going to a theater doesn’t just improve the movie, it elevates the whole experience. It makes memories. If I first saw a film on TV, or DVD (or, yes, VHS — I’m that old) I remember the film, but I often don’t remember the actual watching of it. Who was with me? What did we talk about? What did we do before, or after? Those memories have all but vanished.

But movies I saw in theaters — I can recall the entire experience in detail.

I remember seeing “Goldfinger,” at age 5, on a New England vacation with my family, in a drive-in, and all of it — being in my pajamas, sitting in the backseat, going through a big bag of cheese puffs — is still as clear to me as seeing Oddjob fling that bowler.

I remember every movie I ever saw in Radio City Music Hall, starting with “Charade” and going through “The Sting.” Even mediocre movies, like “Ice Station Zebra,” remain indelible. Because the Music Hall — with its grand stairways, and luxurious lounges — was indelible, too.

But I remember the little local theaters, too.

Like the one where I saw “Jaws” with a teenage friend, and we sat in the smoking section and he kept trying to chat up the girls in tube tops and Dr. Scholl’s sitting in the next row. (No luck.) Or the one in the mall where my mother and I went to see “Frenzy,” and squirmed in mutual embarrassment all through that graphic rape scene.

I remember seeing “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” alone, and then walking home in the rain, and thinking it was probably the most depressing night of my life. I remember dates with my not-yet-wife, going to classic Bette Davis double features in The Village. I remember taking our grammar-school son to the movie of “Eragon” — his favorite book — and then hearing out his bitter complaints about how they’d ruined everything.

I don’t think you make those kinds of memories with a remote in your hand and a “What’s on Netflix?” on your lips.

It’s not all grim news. The movie theater where I grew up, in Westchester, was slated to close a while ago. The community got together and bought it. It’s still showing movies, but now as a nonprofit. I have the privilege of programming a special series there, and every time I walk under that neon marquee and into the place where I first put down 50 cents for a Saturday matinee of “Destroy All Monsters,” I get a little thrill.

So I’m curious. What theaters thrill you, still? What are your movie memories?

Over the years I’ve written, I admit, about how bad the theatrical experience can be — the dirty carpets, the yellow gunk on the popcorn, the subpar projection systems. And when I have, I’ve always gotten a big response from readers, listing their own kvetches. (Most unpopular? Idiots on their phones, and soundtracks that are either too loud or too low.)

But now I’d like to hear some positive things. (Please share your thoughts where it says “Leave a Review or Comment,” below.)

(OCT. 11 UPDATE: The comments are collected here.)

What are the theaters, and theatrical screenings, you remember most fondly? What are the picture houses near you that are still managing to hold on, or the ones worth seeking out for special events? Is going to the movies as much fun as it used to be?

Maybe that’s too much to hope for. Although some exhibitors are making an effort (I love what Cinema Lab is doing at venues like The Village at SOPAC), many more seem to be embracing incompetency and/or teetering on insolvency. Local theaters — the semi-indie operations that do seem to have a personality, and a link to their communities — are, sadly, often the most vulnerable.

But at least we still have a few of them. And we still have our memories. And isn’t that, really, one of the best things that movies make?

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7 thoughts on “Even in the Age of Netflix, theaters still offer the best way to experience movies

  1. I still visit my local AMC Theater a few times a week and also frequent the Clairidge in Montclair and Film at Lincoln Center. There is nothing like being in a theater with other people, experiencing a movie on a screen that big! I miss going to Robert’s Chatham Cinema, which had one auditorium and often showed art house films that I had trouble finding elsewhere. It was so cozy, with serve yourself free coffee, inexpensive concession treats, and lovely people working there who would ask what you thought of the film as you were exiting. I once asked the owner what happens to the movie posters after the film completes its run, as there was one I was interested in. He asked for my cell number and two weeks later he called and said I could come over and pick it up anytime. He gave it to me! I will always remember the wonderful times I had there with friends, and the discussions we would have with other audience members on our way out. While there are times it is convenient to watch a movie at home, nothing compares to going to the movies!

  2. As a car-less, teenage rock fan growing up in suburban NJ in the pre-MTV ’70s … when a big rock movie came out, I’d read about it in Rolling Stone or some other magazine, but usually there was no way to see it except to take the train into New York and see it at some small moviehouse. I specifically remember seeing The Who’s “The Kids Are Alright” and Neil Young’s “Rust Never Sleep” that way; the excitement was akin to going to an actual concert. – Jay Lustig

  3. Charade was my first Radio City movie too- I was a little bit too young for such a grownup movie and place which means I adored every moment of it. All that gilt and red velvet and Audrey Hepburn in Paris! As far as at home vs in theatre- there’s nothing like seeing a film you love on a big screen. It changes everything, for the FAR better. I grew up going to the Bellevue, Claridge and the Wellmont in Montclair and have fond memories of seeing Woodstock, 2001 and Star Wars at the Claridge and matinees of Vincent Price horror movies at the Wellmont. The Bellevue was pretty much reserved for movies with my parents, probably because I couldn’t walk there.

  4. Where to begin?
    I remember 12-year old me watching “Jaws” from no larger than a 1″x 1″ glass window in the exit door of a Fair Lawn, NJ theater because seeing the guy in the rowboat get attacked ran me out of the theatre.
    I remember taking my then-13 year old son in 2006 to a midnight screening of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” after we watched the DVD at home and he didn’t get what the fuss was all about.
    I remember taking my then-15 year old daughter in what Wikipedia is telling me may have been 2011 to the Claridge in Montclair for the restoration of “Metropolis.”
    I remember sitting in the Bellevue Theatre on a rainy Saturday afternoon in 1989 with a dozen other people watching “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover” and feeling like we survived a shared prison camp experience together (and I mean this in the best way possible).
    I remember this past February watching “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” at the West Orange Classic Film Festival (full disclosure: I’m with that group) and hearing the laughter of the audience watching an almost 60 year old movie on a big screen as God inended.
    I’ll buy movies to share with family and vising friends, but nothing beats going to a theatre and sharing the experience.

  5. As a child in Radio City, when the Rockettes came out and the lights came on, I thought they had opened up the roof and let the sunlight in. I still remember the uproarious, nearly insane, laughter in the theater when they played the cartoons. ( I don’t know why they stopped showing them. ) And I will never forget the day when, instead of teaching a class, I had my students watch the film 12 ANGRY MEN. It was like being in a movie theater again.

  6. Great article, you’ve touched on a lot of the societal topics some of us old timers understand and reflect on. You’ve still got your mojo, Stephen Whitty. I have always loved your “whitty”, entertaining and informative writing style, and you don’t disappoint. So sorry that you now have (presumably) a smaller audience. Keep up the good work. Saw you in person for the first time when you interviewed Jane Fonda at MoPac. My wife and I burst out laughing with excitement when you were introduced because we didn’t know that you would be involved, and you were famous in our home at that point from your Star Ledger days. Regards, Joe M.

  7. Love the article – I recall being very young and seeing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – It was not the first film I saw, but is my first memorable theatre experience. My grandmother took me for my 5th birthday, it opened the same week. I was so amazed at all of it and terribly scared during the tunnel scene. It was a “Scrumdiddlyumptious” experience that sticks with me. Next was when I was a week shy of my 12th Birthday I walked several miles to see Grease alone on opening day. I was in love with Olivia Newton-John like many others. I stayed from the first show to the last. I asked if I helped clean the theatres and if I could watch it again. and they allowed it. I was in a bit of hot water when I got home. a few years later in 1981 I walked into theatres and applied for a job. I have worked in the exhibition industry ever since. I loved seeing people exit a theatre, the joy on their faces, and hearing the conversations about the film – nothing beats it. Nothing ever will. I like watching films at home – but the theatre experience – The best man, the best.

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