Ever since the mid-'90s, I've kept tabs on the number of new releases that I catch in movie theaters. Between 1999 and 2004, I saw an average of 70-80 each year. Recently, however, that number has dwindled to about 40, sometimes less. What happened? I found at least nine reasons for the change. Although this list is based on my own unique experiences, it may reflect other people's moviegoing habits as well.
- I got married. I was single and lived alone for many years. The only upside to this is that I had a lot more free time, so I regularly took in a movie once or twice a week. These days, my wife isn't so much into feature films - like many people, including myself, she finds today's TV series better-made and more satisfying to watch - and so our evenings and weekends tend to be movie-free. I have to squeeze in weekday matinees when I'm not working or swimming, and that's become hard to do.
- The Arclight opened. Laemmle's Sunset 5 theaters opened in 1992, just months after I moved into LA proper. For years, this small multiplex carried all the must-see foreign and independent films. I must have caught over 200 movies there. Parking was free and I could even walk there. But in 2002, Hollywood's Arclight megaplex opened. With its reserved stadium seating, hip atmosphere, and $14 ticket prices (the Sunset 5 was only around $9 at the time), it instantly hogged up all the top-tier foreign and indie titles, because distributors made more dough from a $14 ticket than from a $9 ticket. As a result, the Sunset 5 was reduced to running "four-walled" (self-distributed) indie garbage. Sundance Cinemas recently bought and renovated the space, and now the Sunset 5 has the reserved stadium seating, the fancy food, and of course the high prices... but the Arclight still gets the must-see films.
- Ticket prices increased. The Arclight inaugurated all kinds of terrible new practices that other theater chains soon latched onto. (See below.) But higher ticket prices makes audiences, especially cheapskates like me, less willing to take chances on obscure or divisive titles.
- Reserved seating changed the whole ticket buying process. Again, blame the Arclight. Remember when you just showed up at the box office, bought your ticket, then sat down in whatever seat looked good to you? If it was a popular movie, you simply showed up earlier. But with reserved seating and advanced online sales, moviegoing has become a big production. And did I mention that I'm a cheapskate? I'll balk at paying the extra buck for buying an advance ticket online, especially since evening shows already cost over $13 (at least in LA).
- Several local art house theaters went under. Blame the Arclight again. Those tiny one- to three-screen theaters with old-fashioned seating couldn't compete, especially as commercial rents also skyrocketed. In the '90s, I frequently walked to the Fairfax, the Beverly Center, the Beverly Connection, the Fine Arts, and the Showcase. All those theaters are now closed. And driving to this town's remaining theaters has become more inconvenient, thanks to heavier traffic and more crowded (and expensive) parking lots.
- Video on Demand and Netflix made it easier to put off seeing a movie. With fewer screens for indie and foreign fare, these films often don't play for more than a week before disappearing - and many simultaneously debut on VOD as well. As a result, there's been a severe loss of that "don't miss it!" feeling, when you weren't sure if you'd ever get a chance to see a certain obscure title ever again. (Blockbuster certainly didn't carry much in that department.) Now it's easier to say "Ah, I'm busy this week, I'll watch it on Amazon Instant Video. Cheaper that way anyway." And then you never get around to seeing the film.
- Almost every movie theater has gone digital. I don't miss scratchy prints or out-of-focus projectors, but knowing that nearly every cinema in town now only has digital projectors, there's less of a distinction between seeing a movie at home and seeing it in the theater. Yes, cinema screens are still much bigger, and the sound is better too. (I don't have a fancy "home entertainment center" like some others.) But with the conversion of 35mm to digital, some magic has been lost.
- The LA Weekly became irrelevant. Believe it or not, I used to base a lot of my moviegoing decisions on this free weekly newspaper's arty reviews. (Often I'd see a film precisely because a critic I didn't like panned it.) But the Weekly became a shadow of its former self after Voice Media Group bought it and sucked out its soul. (The Internet didn't help either, as paper readership declined, advertising dollars decreased, and many talented writers and other contributors lost their jobs.) Today I skim movie reviews on the AV Club and The Dissolve, but those sites do not cater to an LA-specific crowd, so many titles they review are not currently playing in my town.
- Films aren't as good as they used to be. This isn't just me getting old. Actually, I think Hollywood blockbusters have improved in quality - but I want to see more than just Hollywood blockbusters. Studios are releasing fewer "grown-up" dramas, fewer foreign titles are making it to American screens, and indies have lost a lot of their oomph. I've only seen 15 new releases thus far this year. Even if I hadn't missed all the other 2014 films I'd hoped to catch, the year's running total would still be less than 30. Well, there's always 2015.