Monday, April 1, 2013

A Few Things I Miss At the Modern Movie Theater.

I just finished watching "The Cowboys", the great John Wayne film from 1972. I saw it on a very nice Blu Ray disc with an excellent picture. The movie was just as good as I remembered, but there were a few things that I had not remembered. To begin with, there is an Overture. For those of you too young to know what that is, or if you are not a classical music aficionado, an overture is defined as " An instrumental composition intended especially as an introduction to an extended work, such as an opera or oratorio.". Movies in roadshow presentations frequently had overtures. The curtains opened, the previews played and when the trailers finished, the the curtains closed again and then announced on a title slide "Overture". We are then treated to three or four minutes of musical themes from the score as people settle into their seats and anticipate the movie.

This was the second day in a row that I watched a film that includes the "Overture: as part of the video presentation. Yesterday I got to enjoy  Miklos Rozsa's fantastic theme music while the title card stayed on the screen the whole time.

In this case the overture was more than six minutes in length. The John Williams overture from "The Cowboys" is equally lengthy. The mood is set very effectively by sitting in a darkened theater with no other distractions and letting the emotion of the music sweep over you. It always seemed portentous to me, but I suspect it seemed pretentious to others. The practice made the audience focus on the movie and the presentation. When films played in roadshow presentations there were often substantially higher ticket prices and unique features to make that price acceptable. Nowadays a theater needs to take advantage of the time between the screenings to advertise to the audience. Some theaters still have slide shows that list local businesses, others have elaborately packaged show reels for movies, tv shows and other products. All theaters usually sell upcoming films through the use of trailers.

I have nothing against trailers, in fact they are one of my favorite parts of the film going experience. The trouble is that trailers are now treated as part of the advertising process rather than the movie watching process. Some theaters do not separate the trailers from the ads, some do not lower the lights all the way during the trailers. Revenue sources have to be exploited, the theater owner margins are so thin that they squeeze every nickel they can for popcorn and soda. So of course the extra time for an overture is going to be money out of their pockets.

At drive in theaters and double features which were ubiquitous in my youth, the break between movies was thought of as the intermission. The screen would sometimes countdown  the minutes until the show started up again. Often there would be ads for the snack bar similar to this:

I have seen some nice computer graphic promotions for the snack bar before the movies, immediately after the trailers. I don't know how effective they are since they are usually the last thing we see before the film starts. It would make more sense to show them five minutes before the trailers.

The two films I just mentioned also had an intermission. There is a dramatic sequence that ends with a strong music cue and then a title card identifying the break as an intermission would come on the screen. An intermission could last anywhere from five to twenty minutes depending on the film. "Gods and Generals" and "Gettysburg" are two films that had intermissions because the run time of each was near four hours. "The Cowboys" is only two hours and fifteen minutes but it still had an intermission. Anyone who has sat through one of Peter Jackson's Tolkien films would almost certainly have appreciated an intermission. The big roadshow films had an entr'acte music cue. A briefer recap of the overture to announce the start of the last section of the film. Again both of the films I saw yesterday and today had that feature. One last musical feature was exit music, that played after the credits but allowed people time to enjoy sitting in the theater as the crowd thinned and then knowing that they had really overstayed their welcome when the music stopped.

While there may be intermissions in some parts of the world during film screenings, the last major motion picture (the two Civil War Dramas mentioned earlier being relatively cheap TV productions shown in theaters) to contained a planned intermission appears to have been "Gandhi" from 1982.

While it has been thirty years since these kinds of presentations have been typical, it is only in the last dozen years or so that the process of opening and closing the curtain as part of the presentation has disappeared. With the advent of the multiplex, it seems that this pleasing feature of the experience was determined to be unnecessary. As far as I can remember, AMC theaters never had curtains on their screens. When the Edwards Chain was consumed by Regal Entertainment Group, all of the old theaters that they kept were remodeled with stadium style seating. It was at this time that the ritual of raising the curtain for the trailers, lowering it again and then raising it for the feature came to an end. It's too bad because again it really enhanced the magical experience of the movies.

If the above does not convince you, I don't know what would. I love seeing films at the El Capitan or the Chinese Theater because they continue to keep this tradition alive.

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