As beady-eyed as ever, statistics insist that movie attendance fell slightly again last year, but statistics – and an industry that anxiously devours them – worry too much. They overlook a crucial truth, and what they miss is simple but essential: the enduring allure of the Bijou.
Despite the many other screens now available to us, on cellphones and tablets and computers and giant TVs, the screen at the local movie theatre remains a prominent and valued fixture in our culture. Folks continue to gather at its box-office to shell out for overpriced tickets, at its concession stands to scarf down mediocre popcorn, and in its seats to watch, too often, even blander flicks.
Why? What is it about the experience that still draws us in, and that through all the technological advances – radio, television, Internet, social media – retains its unique and unaltered appeal?
The immediate answer is, well, immediacy. Back in 1927, anyone wanting to see The Jazz Singer had but a single option – to haul his butt from the armchair and head to the nearest theatre. Next Friday, anyone wanting to see David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, at least anyone unwilling to break the law by ferreting out a pirated version, is in an identical position. Go to the theatre, pay up.
Nowadays, of course, the wait for home viewing opportunities is much shorter, but the principle is unchanged. The movie house is still the only place to see a first-run movie first.
It's also the only place where the quality of the visual experience is maximized and ensured. That's another motivation, which the industry is terribly keen to reinforce. This explains the increasing use of 3D and IMAX cameras, wizardry that (so far) is either hard or impossible to duplicate on a personal screen.
Alas, since tools shape the content, it also explains the preponderance of blockbuster action pics full of lively special effects but otherwise dead empty. Of course, there's nothing new in that equation. Big screen-equals-big spectacle is as old as Birth of a Nation. What's different in our so rapidly evolving techno-age is the studios' insistence on treating the equation as the trump card in their deck – the technology to save them from technology.
Maybe so, but I think they're underestimating the staying power of a more venerable drawing card – the Bijou itself. Sure, in body, it too has undergone a radical metamorphosis. The proud palace has long since given way to the multiplex, the classic theatre to the gaudy midway. But, at heart, the old Bijou is precisely the same. And that heart has always been intriguingly divided, because movie-going has always been, and remains, simultaneously a social and an anti-social experience, public and private. Let's peek into this little paradox.
Mainly, people go to the Bijou in couples or groups. For middle-aged divorcees no less than horny teenagers, dinner and a movie is a date – and still a considerably cheaper date than dinner and the theatre or the opera or the symphony. Watch first, eat later, and, good or bad, the picture can also fuel your conversation, serving as in interpersonal helpmate. In that sense, movie-going is profoundly social – we attend accompanied, we talk, we line up, we form an audience, we join the crowd.
Not being especially social myself, none of that really matters to me and some of it I actively dislike. Instead, I keenly await the instant when the house lights dim and the silver screen glows and conversation stops (okay, conversation damn well should stop). At that moment, the private starts to separate from the public, so that we are both part of the crowd and alone in the crowd, giving ourselves up to this celluloid dream in the dark.
Yet consider our physical posture here, and contrast it with today's dominant posture seen everywhere on the streets, where, ironically, our love of the social media forces us into an asocial stance. There, obsessed with their hand-held devices, people are looking down and in at a small screen, distracted from the big picture around them. But in the movie theatre, people are looking up and out at a large screen, focused on the big picture before them. Yet even as we watch the film collectively, we experience it individually – the unfolding dream is everyone's and it's ours alone.
There's this too: In a theatre, our watching is a means of escape but also a form of imprisonment. Unable to push the pause button or fast-forward through the tedious bits or break for a beer, we are a slave to the movie's running time, to its own onrushing momentum.
Still, the bondage is shared and consequently, if the film is engrossing, it promotes a shared response – the audience screams in unison, laughs or cries as one, and the private gets reassembled back into the public, our individual sensation into a collective reaction. That's when the cliché comes alive and the movies flash their magic – not often, to be sure, but a lot more frequently than most wands.
More than the need for immediacy, more than the visual treat, the hope of such magic is why we go to the Bijou, because only there, all alone in the crowd, all looking up in the darkness toward the light, is it possible. What was true at the dawn of cinema is just as true now, and here's the best news: No statistic can measure it.