When I saw Jaws in 1975, nobody imagined it would mark the beginning of the end of movie-going as we knew it.
At 10 years old, I was just thrilled to see the new shark movie, which promised some scary intensity leagues above the usual fare I was allowed to see, like Escape to Witch Mountain. My family went with the neighbors, and the dads left early to man the already-legendary line at Phipps Plaza to buy the tickets. Even so, the theater was so packed on arrival that we had to split up: The sons and dads sat in the extreme left of the front row, distorting Roy Scheider's noggin to Mount Rushmore proportions. The ladies of the group sat in the back row and, after the initial shark attacks, my 7-year-old sister spent the rest of the running time facing the back of the theater.
Three decades on, it's hard to envision an era when your options for a big summer movie were so limited. This Friday, Shrek the Third opens on thousands of screens nationwide: Can you imagine if it played in Atlanta at exclusive runs at only two theaters, on one screen apiece? If you wanted to see Jaws in the Atlanta area in the summer of 1975, you had two possibilities: the second screen of the Phipps Plaza and Arrowhead Cinema Triple on U.S. 41, where Jaws played alongside the likes of Emmanuelle and Part 2, Walking Tall.
The success of Jaws and Star Wars two years later helped create Hollywood's blockbuster mentality, and it has drastically changed how we see movies. It's easy for movie buffs to look upon bygone days as a golden age for seeing film, but let's not romanticize the earlier decades too much. Given the choice, I'd still rather have more choice, and enjoy the convenience and smaller crowds of the modern-day cineplex.
The problem comes when your neighborhood cineplex doesn't hold up its end of the bargain. Even when modern-day movie-going isn't memorably dreadful, it frequently falls below its potential, and not just in Atlanta.
Back at Phipps in 1984, I distinctly remember shouting "Shut up!" to a teenager chattering through the attack of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man at Ghostbusters, with my outburst offending my mother's genteel sensibilities. Communications technology has perfected more ways for movie-goers to be obnoxious, thanks to ringing cell phones, answering cell phones and emitting blinding light while checking BlackBerries.
Meanwhile, DVD and television technology is making home theater better than real theater, driving audiences into the arms of their armchairs. The difference in cost boggles the mind. With evening tickets for adults costing nearly $10 apiece, it's often more expensive for two people to see a movie than one person to buy the movie, with the delays for DVD release shrinking to only 3-4 months. And if you just want to rent one, you don't even have to leave your house, thanks to Netflix. Why go to the movies ever again?
Movie exhibitors seem to be surrendering to DVD without putting up a fight. When cinema faced competition from television in the 1950s and 1960s, it mustered a vigorous response: long, epic period pieces, films in superwide "Cinerama" and sillier gimmicks such as 3-D. Such stunts shouldn't be underestimated, as they can turn a mediocre film into wonderful entertainment, such as the digital 3-D of this year's cartoon feature Meet the Robinsons, which I caught at Regal Hollywood 24. But if you want to enjoy the splendor of a 3-D IMAX film, or a new film in IMAX format, you have to take the half-hour trek to the Mall of Georgia.
Modern movie houses may be Lilliputian compared with their ancestors, but the Fox Theatre remains a spectacular, luxurious venue for new and vintage film (you should try to see at least one of their summer movies every year). Possibly the finest Atlanta film venue in my lifetime was the Columbia, located down Peachtree about a block from the Fox during the 1980s, featuring a massive screen and immaculate surroundings worthy of a United Nations delegation. Seeing such a spectacle as Aliens or Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home there in 1986, the spacecraft seemed to be nosing into the building before you.
One-screen venues such as the huge Columbia and cozy art houses such as the recently closed Lefont Garden Hills have fallen prey to many factors, from corporate-chain competition to video/DVD rental to the economies of scale that make multiple screenings per day more affordable.
It's hard enough for exhibitors to make technological upgrades. Digital projection, though long-anticipated, has been so long coming because exhibitors must invest in the new equipment, while studios will get most of the savings by no longer needing to strike as many celluloid prints.
We may never share the excitement of seeing Jaws or Star Wars for the first time with a huge crowd, but "different" doesn't have to mean "worse." The only way to improve the film experience is to judiciously wield your ticket-purchasing power. Punish theaters that ignore bad behavior by going elsewhere. Reward venues that respect audiences and try to improve the experience with digital projection, IMAX screenings and other enhancements. If we don't show that we care, the movie-going experience will continue to sink. And this is not a boating accident.