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Ellen Sterling Headshot

The Way We Watched Movies...Remember?

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In the May 18 edition of the New York Observer Lee Siegel wrote an article titled Ciao to the Cineplex; I Miss Mass Culture! He noted that "The Federal Communications Commission has just decided to allow the Motion Picture Association of America to send recently released films directly to your television or computer before they are released on DVD or Blu-ray" and went on to explain the potential impact this will have on movie-going.

Since I, personally, prefer seeing a film in a theater as a member of an audience, this is sad news, indeed. And, equally sadly, it's already begun to change.

Remember what it used to be like when you went to the movies? Did you ever tell your children what it was like when there were no commercials -- only coming attractions -- in the theater? Have you ever waxed nostalgic for the days when an film advertised to begin at 8 pm actually did began at 8 or, perhaps, a few minutes later, after the trailers?

Well, my dear, those days are gone and are probably never going to be seen again.

Now, I'm not talking about the 20 minutes of commercials for various products (lots of soft drinks) and TV shows shown before the advertised movie start time. We're pretty used to this by now and know that if we get to the theater early we'll be subjected to this. No, what I am talking about is totally different.

First, let me explain that here in Las Vegas, movies open weeks -- sometimes months -- after they open in New York City or Los Angeles. This is true of many large cities -- Chicago, Miami, Seattle among them. For example, Crazy Heart, was released in New York and LA on December 16 and in Las Vegas on February 5. After awhile you get used to that.

Foreign films are often difficult to find in Las Vegas. Fortunately, the two theaters closest to my home, the Regal Village Square and the Century Theater in the Suncoast Hotel and Casino (Yes! But that's another story.) are the only two here that regularly play foreign, independent and small films. It's nice know that even if they arrive months after they play on a coast, they will play here. Eventually.

So, that is the overall film-going picture here in Las Vegas. And that is what we expected when we went to the Regal Village Square Friday night to catch City Island before it leaves on Thursday.

The showing was advertised at beginning at 6:30. We took our seats about 10 minutes before the show and got what we expected, the last 10 minutes of the series of commercials called "Regal First Look," (Most likely it is so called in an attempt to make the audience stuck watching it believe it's a special privilege to get a "first look.")

You know the drill: the 20 minutes of business, a couple of quick commercials (Fandango/Fathom Events) then the trailers for 10 minutes or so and, finally, the film you came to see. That's what we know and that's what we expect. Right?

Wrong. When we went to buy the tickets we saw that the price had gone up 50¢. That might be understandable in a bad year for movie attendance but, when I reported on ShoWest, the annual convention of film exhibitors this year, I noted they reported that, despite "the number of US-produced films being down 12 percent, attendance was up 11 percent and the box office worldwide totaled a staggering $300 billion." But, if Regal needed to raise its prices, I guess 50¢ isn't too bad.

So we paid and went in. The usual First Look ended and then we were treated to 26(!) minutes or so of more commercials for TV shows and products no one really needs to know about. There were even two ads for the same TV series on two different stations. Couldn't both stations be listed in one ad?

This ad marathon ended and there were about five minutes of previews. This included one for Princess Kaiulani. It ended with the words "Coming Soon" written in large white letters against a black screen. The only thing is, the film was showing in the theater already.

In the end, we had to pay 50¢ more to have our time wasted. (And, by the way, we also paid for the privilege of sitting next to a man who loudly munched popcorn out of a huge trough and, that finished, started equally loudly on candy. But that's another story.)

We really enjoyed City Island and I wrote a very positive review about it. But that wasn't the point.

On the way out we asked the manager, who turned out to be a thoroughly dyspeptic, nasty woman, about the length and abundance of the ads. She explained as if she was talking to recalcitrant four year-olds, that we were wrong. "It's always been like this. There are 15 minutes of ads and 15 minutes of coming attractions." No, I responded, there are always a couple of minutes of ads after the First Look stuff, then the trailers for a few minutes and, finally, the film.

She was insistent (and very rude). "It has always been like this. And blame CineMedia [Regal's very own ad agency], not us. They place the ads." she said, raising her voice. She then turned her back, walked into the box office from whence she'd come and slammed the door.

It was charming.

In researching the issue, I found a terrific website called CaptiveAudience. Browsing it I found Regal is apparently the worst offender. Some theaters do post actual film start times but they're very difficult to find.

I learned that a class action lawsuit had been filed in 2003 against Loew's Cineplex Entertainment Group for showing ads. It was dismissed. The site quotes Raymond W. Syufy, CEO of Century Theaters. "If we start showing commercials and go that route, then we are blurring the line between the 500 cable channels at home and the experience we want people to have when they leave their homes." Hooray for Mr. Syufy!

So, with more and more time devoted to advertisements in movie theaters, what can we, the people who don't want to witness the demise of the movie theater culture, do about it? Maybe we should sign the online petitions to end this practice and hope it works. If it doesn't, I guess I'll learn to love watching movies at home.