Something a little different in my blog today. Today, I attended a special screening of the new Kathryn Bigelow movie, DETROIT, followed by a 45-minute question and answer session featuring Don Guillory, an Arizona State University History professor. Before heading out to the Alamo Drafthouse for the movie, I happened across an article a friend posted about Hollywood’s growing box office troubles. I wanted to respond, at length, to the woes of Hollywood article earlier, but had to wait until–well–now.
If you’ve recently seen any new-release movies at your local theater, you’ve noticed a few trends: 1) “reboots”, “sequels” and “prequels” galore, 2) “universes” of movies that are all somehow interrelated, 3) everything else is generally underplayed in the media and disappears quickly from the theaters. You all know about the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, Thor, Thor: The Dark World, Thor: Ragnarok (coming this Fall), Captain America, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Avengers: Infinity War (coming next Summer), Guardians of the Galaxy, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2, Doctor Strange, Ant Man, Ant Man and the Wasp (coming sometime in 2018), Spider-Man: Homecoming, and others. You’ve heard about the plans for the competing DC Cinematic Universe: Man of Steel, Batman vs. Superman, Justice League (coming this Fall), Wonder Woman, Wonder Woman 2 (sometime in 2019), Aquaman (sometime in 2018), The Flash (?? 2019/20?), Cyborg (?? 2019/20?), The Batman (2019?), Suicide Squad. Now, you can add a Transformers Cinematic Universe, starting with Transformers: The Last Knight, a Universal Studios Monsterverse starting with the recent re-boot of The Mummy with Tom Cruise, a whole different monsterverse that started with King Kong: Skull Island (or did it start with the last Godzilla movie?), a Legoverse with The Lego Movie, Lego Batman, the forthcoming Lego Ninjago, and at this rate, why not a Lego Last Temptation of Christ and maybe a Lego 2001: A Space Odyssey? (Though I do think Dr. Strangelove would work wonderfully as a Lego feature…)
Seeing a pattern here? Add in endless sequels and spinoffs of Star Trek, Star Wars, Fast and the Furious, Shrek, Despicable Me…and then rehashes of “classics” like Baywatch, CHiPs, heck, even Murder on the Orient Express.
Are there any original ideas left? Sure. Hundreds, thousands, who knows? Where are they? Buried. Underfunded. Underhyped. Why? That’s a good question. My personal belief, without doing any significant research, is that Hollywood studios are just looking for quick bucks. They want to hype and pay for movies that are guaranteed box office smashes. Marvel movies sell. DC movies, for the most part, sell. Big tentpole summer release action movies, whether indirectly derivative or directly so, sell. Smaller budget, deeper plot, thought provoking movies don’t sell.
Something else that is “doing in” Hollywood: home and mobile theater. The average DVD or Blu Ray costs $20. Google Play, iTunes, Amazon Video, VUDU sell digital HD rentals of those same videos under $5–or digital HD copies for sometimes only $10-15. And then there’s the Kodi phenomenon: download software on your computer, Apple TV, Roku, Android TV box, and magically download new releases for nothing (until the pirate outlets all get shut down, anyhow). Ignoring the pirate aspect of this equation, many people simply don’t want to pay $12-13-14 per person to go see anything less than a “blockbuster” film (see the list above). $12 x family of four + popcorn + drinks = $70-80 for a family outing to watch a two-hour movie, when $5-20 would pay for the whole thing at home.
It’s not like we’re talking the grand cinema experience that some of us over 40 got to experience when we were growing up–huge theaters that seat 400-500-600-800 people, gigantic screens, incredible sound. The late 80s and 90s happened, the big theaters one-by-one were subdivided into smaller, 100-150-200 seat theaters. The gigantic screens became two or three separate screens (one theater that I attended as a teenager actually split a huge screen into four screens by adding an extra ceiling/floor in and creating two upstairs and two downstairs smaller theaters in the same space). As larger TV screens became more affordable, surround sound receivers became commonplace, and DVDs and digital media became easily accessible, those subdivided theaters started to close for lack of business.
Fast-forward to the current decade. Some theater owners decided that perhaps the answer was to turn movie-going into a premium, luxury experience: reserved seating, leather recliners, full bars and restaurant menus, served at your seat. I remember my first experience in one of these theaters. It was like sitting in an office chair, watching a movie on a big computer monitor. The movie itself was no better. The atmosphere just changed–and the price just skyrocketed: a premium to get a ticket. popcorn at $10 instead of $6, refillable drinks–but now at $6 instead of $4, a great menu–but at restaurant prices… Did this all make the movie more enjoyable? No. Did it increase the value of going out to the theater? No.
So, for me personally, it was back to the “regular” theaters–pay a little less, get to the theater 40-45-50 minutes early to fight for the best seats. One of our local theater chains makes it even more affordable: buy a t-shirt for $25 that gets you a free medium popcorn every time you wear the shirt to a movie (or present the puck-shaped wrapped shirt when you buy your tickets) for the year, buy a special cup for roughly the cost of a large drink, and then bring that cup back with you for $2 refills all year long. BUT the movie-going experience was still, well, just catching blockbusters for the most part.
Enter Alamo Drafthouse last November. At first glance, it’s the same pay a premium, get an assigned seat and wait service at your seat for food and drink. Seats are a little more comfortable (without becoming too comfortable and having you fall asleep in them). Sound and projection are a little better. But there’s something more… Is it that woman that greeted you, dressed as Willy Wonka?
When you think about movie theater employees, you generally think about concessions, ushers, ticket sales, projectionists, various levels of management. What is a “creative manager?” Nothing really–at most theater chains. What’s there to be creative about? Where you place the stand-up movie displays? Which movie one-sheets go where? The locations for the garbage cans? At Alamo Drafthouse, the creative manager plans the ultimate movie experience. Lauren, my friend and the creative manager at the Alamo Drafthouse Phoenix (Chandler) theater, picks movie themes, runs a film club for true movie buffs–and those interested in becoming such, hosts “Movie Parties” where old and new movies alike come to life. Imagine going to see Ghostbusters, throwing marshmallows at the screen when Mr. Stay Puft is walking down the street, or singing along with David Bowie’s Goblin King Jareth as he does the Magic Dance in Labyrinth, or quoting along with Inigo Montoya as he says, “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Imagine going to see a screening of Predator with local cosplayers wandering around dressed as Predators. IMAGINE. That’s the key word. Props. Quotes. Trivia. Enjoying your favorite movies in a whole new way–or even movies you’ve never seen before in ways you will not soon forget.
It’s not just fun parties either. Theme nights. Classic movies you’ve heard about but never had a chance to see on the big screen. I got to see Seven Samurai on the big screen. I get to enjoy “art house” films where I can participate in question and answer sessions with the director. Without a theater like Alamo, I don’t see NEON’s films COLOSSAL and INGRID GOES WEST–two well-written, well-acted films that provoke thoughtful discussion–and introspection. At Alamo, I get to go see topical, timely movies like LOVING, and then be part of an open discussion of how that Supreme Court decision continues to change our world. This afternoon, I got to be part of an unforgettable screening of DETROIT with people that lived through those horrific events of 50 years ago, with the director of the local branch of the NAACP in attendance, with ASU professors that study and teach about those events, with a diverse audience of people from different walks of life–all there to not only watch a movie, but to hold a dialogue about what that movie really means.
DETROIT was more than a movie about a riot, or police brutality, or racism, or about an event that occurred in Detroit, Michigan in 1967. DETROIT is a lens through which to view the world today. We are not that far removed from the way our country looked in 1967. Sure, thanks to the SCOTUS Loving case, my wife and I can be married and together legally in all 50 states. But when you really think about it, what has changed in race relations, in the way minorities are treated by figures of authority, in the last 50 years? Yes. We had a black President. We had a black President that had to face an entire political party publicly stating that they would do everything in their power to block him from doing anything on his agenda. We had a black President that had to endure hatred like no other President before him–just because of the color of his skin. This is not a point up for debate. If you lived through the eight years he was in office and did not hear him referred to in racist terms, I envy your high ivory tower and your blissful ignorance.
Many interesting ideas and viewpoints were shared after the movie. The discussion, scheduled for 30 minutes, went on for far longer–and could have likely carried on into the wee hours of the morning. A few people shared this fascinating view about the world in 1967: while there were no legal barriers to black people living in the suburbs of the big industrial cities in the North (and Midwest), there were still expectations and a certain acceptance of the way “things should be.” Cities and neighborhoods that black families knew they were not welcome in, where violence and scorn often awaited them if they dared to depart from the “societal norm.” Is this really any different than today?
I really wonder about this. Micah reached the age where he began to experience racism. Cynthia and I never got the chance to have “the talk” with Micah, although we certainly hinted at our concerns for our clearly black (biracial) son in his dealings with authority figures. Micah, like Dismukes (portrayed by John Boyega) in the movie, preferred to deal with racism in quieter, more subtle ways. When he would tell me about incidents in the hockey locker room or on the ice, he would do so only after begging me not to “make a big deal” out of them.
Cynthia and I were pulling out of our garage a couple weeks ago, and were approached by a black man and his wife who had been driving through our subdivision. The subdivision is very new (less than two years old), and in an area with a reputation of being heavily white. When this gentleman and his wife saw Cynthia, they asked if we would be willing to answer a few questions about our experience in the area. Their chief concern: how would a black family be treated here? No, there are no laws forbidding them from buying a house in our subdivision, but they had concerns about what life might be like, being black, in what was typically known as a very white neighborhood. 1967? 2017? I suppose the best thing I can say is that we told them we had no reason to believe they’d be anything less than accepted with open arms.
I don’t know if that young black family bought a house in our subdivision. I do know that a few days later I noticed a couple trucks in the neighborhood with Confederate flags and other symbols that I associate with those that tend to hold insensitive at best, racist at worst, beliefs. We have not experienced anything bad ourselves–but seeing those vehicles just served as a reminder that we still have a long way to go.
PS: Check out the Alamo Drafthouse, if there’s one in your area. You’ll be glad you did.