When going to the movies meant something

Tomorrow is Oscars night. And there’s a possibility that I’ll stay up to watch the ceremonies “live”. Not because I’m a huge cinema fan. I’m not. I used to be. The only reason I’ll stay up is because the cricket is on a little later, and I may consider making a night of it.

It never used to be like this. Growing up in Calcutta, India, during the sixties and seventies, going to the movies meant something.

For one thing, we had real movie halls. None of this modern smelly-shoebox-with-popcorn-cola-floors stuff.


Elitecinema Metrocinema

In those days the buildings were awesome. You felt you were going somewhere special just by walking in to the cinema lobby. Air conditioning. Bright lights and dazzle. Thick carpet underfoot. “Elegant” music. People dressed up as if they were going out. Because they were. Going out, that is.

[The buildings above may not look much to you: they’re mainly art deco installations seen a decade or more later, in the austere times of the Second World War. But they were still there when I was born, in 1957, and very much part of my childhood and youth. Elite. Metro. New Empire. Globe. Lighthouse. Minerva. Tiger. Those were the Seven Sisters of my upbringing.]

Going to the movies felt special.

The feeling of special-ness continued as you left the lobby and entered the cinema hall proper. There was only one hall, one screen, none of the modern ten-screens-in-a-shoebox-alongside-a-strip-mall nonsense. And it felt gigantic when you walked in. The aisles were wide, with ushers waiting to show you to your seats. There were queues, but space enough to deal with them, and people enough to help you. And there were ice-creams and chocolates and pop corn and soft drinks on sale. There were even programmes on sale for the film you were about to watch. If it was a musical, there were little booklets of lyrics. You felt special.

The “stage” itself had real, heavy curtains, probably the only curtains in the whole city that were operated electrically. At least it looked as if they were operated electrically. For some reason, the projections would start before the curtains were drawn open, so that you would see the folds and the frills undulate with print before disappearing for a while.

The seats were plush and comfortable. And everything was dressed up to the nines.

The lobby had bars. Real bars, with enough people serving behind the bar to let you get a drink with just a few minutes queueing. Or you could sit down at a table and wait to be served. You could even take your drink in to the cinema.

The entertainment wasn’t just about the main event. Of course you had trailers and advertising. But you also had at least one short film beforehand, sometimes two. Sometimes they were cartoons, but not always. And you had intermissions. At least one, sometimes two. Time enough for you to go to the restroom, get an ice-cream or a drink, talk to people about what’s happened so far, and then sit down again. If you were late for some reason, the ushers had torches that they used to help you, shining down discreetly on the floor in front of you. And there was space enough for you to get to your seat without making everyone in the row stand up. All you had to do was stoop to minimise getting in the way of people.

The entertainment tended to be wholesome, often formulaic. Indian censors made sure that what you saw was U if you were under 18 and A if you were old enough. But you didn’t care, you went for the experience, and to be treated like royalty.

And at the end of the film the national anthem played and everybody stood quietly and then went home. Usually chatting excitedly with the people they came with.

What happened to all that? I get told it was TV and VHS and DVD and streaming, but somehow it’s not that simple for me.

Going to the movies used to mean something.

Today, when I go to see a play in the West End, many of the things I associate with seeing a film as a child and young man are present. Of course theatre ticket prices reflect that.

Today, when I go to see the opera, I get all the things I associate with seeing a film as a child. People are dressed up. The queues are orderly. And there’s enough space for everything. Not a shoebox in sight. Of course opera ticket prices reflect that.

There’s at least one cinema venue in London that feels like the good old days, and I love going there when I can.

The rest of the time? I still go to the movies. But it’s not the same.

There are a lot more screens everywhere, mostly empty. Everything is smaller, dirtier, more commoditised. Nothing special.

Nothing special in the UK, nothing special in India, nothing special in the US. Somehow it’s all become about multiplexes and shoeboxes and any-colour-you-like-so-long-as-it’s-black.

You know something? People will pay good money, real money, to feel special.

Going to the movies used to mean something. And I hope it will, again.

Because feeling special is a Good Thing. If the theatre can do it, if opera can do it, so can film.


16 thoughts on “When going to the movies meant something”

  1. JP – and add Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera House in NYC, etc. – I remember getting all dressed up, height of fanciness, twice a year to go into the Met to see an opera with my parents – it was such a special occasion… we’ve neglected to realize how these ‘little’ things make us feel special – which is a part of why I think increasingly we are so desperate to be noticed, to be special in some way… elegance is under appreciated…til it’s lost.

  2. I think the problem is that someone stopped caring about the customer. And if that gets reversed, the crowds will be back and the prices will become affordable again. Utopia? Maybe. But the economics can work. They must work better than the nine-tenths empty shoeboxes.

  3. I feel the same way but there are some theaters where I can get that old time feeling, like the Chelsea Clearview in NYC, the Museu da Republica Cinema in Rio de Janeiro and Usiminas Belas Artes in Belo Horizonte. All these theaters are small, on the street and offer special events aimed to the close neighborhood. And all of them have bars and bookstores near or in them.

  4. I grew up with my dad taking us to the local single screen cinema as a treat, a special occasion. Each movie ran for as long as it was drawing in audiences. ‘Grease’, I remember, ran for the longest time, blocking the next movie coming to town. But single screen cinemas were no hardship in a world of only three TV channels. Standout highlights for me were ‘Jaws’ and every ‘Bond’ movie (my dad was a fan, too) and anything with John Wayne. The cinema of my youth also made the world a very glamorous place for my as yet untravelled self.

  5. JP, it’s all about economics. A premium experience requires premium pricing. Opera used to be mass enterntainment. Now, a good seat at the Met Opera costs $250. If you go the opera today, you’ll see few people below 65 because few people can afford it. Would you pay $50-$100 to watch a film at a grand palace with people moving around, making out and eating popcorn so that you can’t even hear the dialogue? I’d much rather have a large-screen TV and excellent sound system at home and be able to appreciate Bergman with like-minded and empathic friends such as yourself!

  6. Here in Suffern, NY we have an original Vaudeville era movie theater with a Hammond organ that plays before the weekend shows. The seats could be better but we love supporting it.

  7. The human element came out of many businesses during the 20th Century. Hopefully the 21st Century will see it return. Caring about customers is part of the solution, but I wonder if having a purpose for business in addition to making profits is also important – i.e. a desire to create a great cinema experience for the sake of it, not just because it is what customers want.

Let me know what you think

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