The Palace and the Multi-Plex

Years ago, the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC, ran a movie that flopped completely.  It was Julia Roberts’ Dying Young and, as tempting as it may be, I won’t go for the obvious pun as to its fate.  The Uptown Theater was, and still is, one of the few remaining movie palaces in the country.  Back then (and perhaps still today), when it booked a movie, that was it.  If the movie died young (dammit, see, I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist), and they had booked it for three months, well, they were out of luck. Either show it every night to dwindling or non-existent audiences or go to Plan B.  The Uptown went to Plan B.  What was Plan B?  Take every old print of every classic they had in storage and show them for three months instead.  It was the best three months of movie-going I’d ever had up to that point.  I saw everything from Bridge on the River Kwai to Blade Runner on the biggest screen in town and it was great.  But did it really make that much of a difference?

Theater 01

Now, let’s be clear.  I don’t mean the difference between seeing Blade Runner on a television or seeing it in a theater.  I mean the difference between seeing it on a massive screen or seeing it on an average sized multiplex screen.   I bring all of this up because the latest edition of The Story of Film: An Odyssey, which aired on Monday night, covers, briefly, the rise of the multiplex, a cultural event often frowned upon by cinema purists.   But I think that frowning upon has a lot more to do with the quality of movies being shown in multiplexes, and their sometimes obnoxious audiences, than with the size of the screen itself.  Those complaints lamenting the passing of the massive palace screen seem a little misplaced to me.

Let’s go back to the Uptown Theater in 1991.  I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey there after having seen it five or six times on a tv screen first.  In the case of 2001, the difference was jarring.  It was like seeing the movie for the first time and I felt like all those tv viewings had been only a tease to this, my first real viewing of the movie.  Blade Runner, on the other hand, didn’t feel special at all.   I’d seen it before in a theater when it was released and I was ready to be doubly wowed this time around.  Instead, I found myself thinking, “eh, that was about how it felt the first time around.”  That is to say, having seen it on a multiplex screen several years prior did not feel considerably different than seeing it on a more massive screen later.  The difference simply wasn’t big enough.

The Bridge on the River Kwai, however, was just like 2001: A Space Odyssey.  I’d only ever watched it in pan and scan on a small tv screen so seeing it on the big screen was an incredible experience.

And so it went.

Movies I’d seen only on the small screen felt transformative while movies I’d previously seen in a multiplex seemed about the same.  Through time, another thing happened, too.  My memory of a screening would omit the size of the screen and recall only the thrill of watching the movie.   Allow me to explain.

Theater 02

I now see dozens of classic movies a year at the AFI Theater in Silver Spring, MD so the 1991 Uptown Theater experience isn’t as unique anymore.  Now I get to see all kinds of great movies from all over the world on the big screen but not always the biggest screen.  You see, the AFI has three screens.  One of them, the central screen, is huge.  It’s a movie palace size screen, occupying the original theater space from the thirties and absolutely deluxe in every way.  On the other side, though, they’ve installed two small screens to handle more movies for more customers.  The screens are maybe –  maybe – half the size of the main screen and yet, many a time I’ve mis-remembered which screen I saw a movie on there.   I’ve mentioned seeing a certain movie on the big screen only to be reminded by my wife, who has an astonishing recall for details, by the way, that we saw it on one of the smaller screens.  The thing is, a smaller movie screen is still a huge damn screen.  A lot bigger than any television you’re going to get.

Seeing a movie on a big screen is great but at a certain point, the screen is big enough and, I wonder, how much bigger does it need to get (Jake Gittes might ask, “How much better can you see?”).  I’ve seen a couple of IMAX movies in the last two years and despite the majesty of the screen size, I remember my experience seeing The Big Sleep on a small screen at the AFI with much more fondness (yes, my wife confirms, it was the small screen).  And not because the movie was better (it was) but the because the experience was better.  Seeing The Big Sleep on a smaller big screen in a packed theater made the whole experience feel more intimate.   Maybe it’s all the rain in the movie, forcing everyone to rush into bookstores and cabins, that made the whole thing so cozy.  I don’t know.  I do know that it was better than watching it on tv but I doubt it would have been better on a massive screen like the Uptown Theater’s.  In fact, I think it would have been worse. In my opinion, having seen classic black and white, Academy ratio movies on both the big screen and the “small” big screens at the AFI, the experiences on the “small” screen are usually better.  It’s grand and intimate all at once.   As for modern movies, the feeling’s about the same but for some epic productions, or pure special effects spectacles, I can see how the massive screen is better.

theater 04

The point is, I suppose, is that I don’t lament the smaller big screens of the multiplex.  Yes, it bothers me that a theater has all those screens and still manages to waste five of them on the same movie shown at staggered times.  But the size of the screen doesn’t bother me at all.  I love movie palaces like the Uptown Theater and the AFI Silver’s main theater but the multiplex small screens allow for more people to have the experience of seeing a movie on the big screen instead of only on a television screen.   And that’s a good thing.  I don’t want the movie palaces go away but I don’t expect many (or any) new ones to pop up.  And that’s not all for the bad.

8 Responses The Palace and the Multi-Plex
Posted By swac44 : November 13, 2013 2:01 pm

Reminds me of my favourite saddest-ever drive-in movie marquee double feature:

Dying Young
Home Alone

Posted By Doug : November 13, 2013 4:33 pm

Day trip to Great America outside of Chicago back in 1981 we saw a humongous outdoor screen, bigger than any indoor screen yet made.
A special movie was made just to fit that screen, and it was an amazing experience.
I love a good movie theater experience, but those of us living back in the sticks, a good 300+ miles from the nearest ‘Grand’ movie house have to make do.
I’m not suggesting that the experience is comparable, but a movie
watched on my Macbook just a foot or so from my head-that little screen fills my field of vision.
For new movies, I usually see the “Big” cinematic films such as
“Pacific Rim” in the movie theater (loved it, btw) but smaller stuff I will watch only at home.
Our local movie house which has been closed a few decades was recently bought and I suggested to the brother of the new owner that he consider hosting ‘classic’ movies. We shall see if he makes a go of it.

Posted By Heidi : November 13, 2013 5:16 pm

One of our local theatres has taken to showing a “Classic” film series. I hesitate at their claim of some of them being classic, but that’s just me. We have seen “Bonnie and Clyde”, “Dirty Harry” and did not see “The Matrix” or “The Shining” for various reasons not related to the movies themselves. We were the only two people at the showing of Bonnie and Clyde and there was us and two other people at Dirty Harry. I had not seen Dirty Harry on the big screen and I will tell you that it really did make an impact on me. They actually were on the Big screen, not one of the mini ones up front where they play the also-rans. I feel like it makes a big difference. A couple of years ago they showed “The Philadelphia Story” on the big screen and boy, did that leave an impression! I had never seen Cary Grant in that format before and it is really the only way to see him I think. I do think it depends on the movie though, as to whether or not it needs to be seen on the BIG screens. We saw “Enders Game” in IMAX, and I really think it loses something when it isn’t on the jumbo screen. But, I don’t need to see things like…”Desk Set” on the big screen to enjoy it, it more personal…not a BIG story. However, I am trying to get my husband to upgrade our tv at home too…I think a 60″ might keep me happy for a while.

Posted By chris : November 13, 2013 8:45 pm

I think a lot of it has to do with where you sit in each theater.
The screen might be bigger in the palace sitting. However, the screen from the smaller theater might occupy the same area(or more) in your field of vision if you’re sitting a bit closer to the screen. We used to have a 2 screen theater that seated half as many as the palace theater still running but, everyone was a bit closer to the screen and I actually preferred it because it seemed larger.
As for the top comment about the saddest double feature: you reminded me of the strangest double feature of 1982 as recorded by Film Comment magazine. Seems a NYC theater was showing a minor sex/relationship movie starring Tim Matheson with a certain minor classic(considered that way now, not then) SF movie starring Kurt Russell. The marquee read “A Little Sex” with “The Thing”.

Posted By Qalice : November 14, 2013 12:43 am

I think the movie is of paramount importance, with the audience being second. A good movie, seen on a big screen with a large, appreciate audience is a great thing. For example, I once saw “It Happened One Night” at a sold-out show in a local movie palace, and it was much more enjoyable than watching it on TV. And it’s pretty good on TV! But a sadly low number of movies now rise to the level of needing to be seen on a big screen. “Gravity” was one, so I’m glad I forked out the money for the IMAX 3D experience, but I don’t think I’ll want to see anything else this year that way. Small to middling movie screens are fine for most features; TV screens are fine for far too many. Can you tell that I respect a movie more when it uses the big screen?

Posted By DBenson : November 15, 2013 8:50 pm

I’d put audience almost on a par with the theater and screen. Some of my favorite experiences were old movies in a huge college lecture hall, especially when the audience was taking unironic pleasure in a swashbuckler or MGM epic. Later, there was a family-run revival house where the ambiance made pretty much anything pleasurable. They had a pot luck night, showing “Harum Scarum” on the theory nobody would complain about food and conversation during that.

The familiar comparison is that the old movie palaces — or even the single-screen neighborhood houses — were destinations, while multiplexes are airports.

Multiplex lobbies tend towards grand but impersonal main terminals, snack supermarkets for travellers headed to a dozen different places. I’m waiting for a multiplex to consciously theme itself to an airport, literalizing the message of escape. It wouldn’t take very much.

Houses with only one (or maybe two) screens offer what theme parks call a pre-show: A lobbyful of people, either nodding acquaintances or strangers, anticipated the shared experience. They keep their personalities yet usually manage to fit the different films and audiences they host.

Posted By robbushblog : November 18, 2013 4:36 pm

Size does matter. Sometimes. I saw Gravity on the largest IMAX screen in the Southeast at the World Golf Hall of Fame and that screen made space seem so expansive. The 3-D was lost on me as my right eye is currently jacked up, but the size and scope of space was much better realized on that huge IMAX screen than it was on the regular size screen at the AMC where I saw it the second time. I’m sure it will lose a great deal of impact on Blu-ray.

Also, I remember seeing Twister in the theater with that big screen and the crazy awesome sound and really enjoyed it. Then, seeing it on VHS, on a 30 inch screen, it was just very boring. The tornadoes didn’t seem so threatening, even in the letterbox version I bought. Size matters. Sometimes.

Posted By Peter Denman : November 22, 2013 5:21 am

The screen size needs to fit the size of the room and audience so that the movie has their full attention, thus allowing them to get the most out of it. If it’s a smaller theater where you can’t sit as far away the screen doesn’t need to be as big. (Most home screens are too small, and have the added distraction of being at home instead of at a place dedicated only to showing films.)If the film is showing you scenes of things that are really huge, like the desert in “Lawrence of Arabia”, for example, it helps the movie make you feel you’re really in the desert if the picture is really big. The audience makes a difference because the wrong reaction to a movie is a distraction, like no one laughing at a comedy. So it is also a factor in getting the full attention of the audience focused on the movie. I once showed Capra’s “You Can’t Take It With You” with a nice big image produced by the wide-angle lens on my 16mm projector to two different audiences; one audience roared with laughter while the other was totally quiet throughout. I didn’t enjoy the film with the second group. My favorite all-time movie-going experience: Laurel & Hardy’s “Way Out West” along with 5 of their best shorts on the big screen of the Fine Arts Theater in San Diego in the early 70′s, with a packed house full of laughter throughout. One thing to consider about the palaces is the atmosphere; that has an effect on the mood of the audience. The atmosphere, the anticipation and a lot of other things contribute to the enjoyment of a movie.

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