Friday, April 15, 2011

Commercials At The Movies = Waterboarding At The Spa

What movie am I here to see again?

As a special treat for my birthday last week, my friend/supervisor/cubiclemate Chris and I skipped out of work for a few hours and went the catch the matinee of Your Highness. The movie was very funny (despite what the critics are saying) and I liked it a lot, but the experience underscored the reasons why I (and everyone else, it seems) haven't seen a movie in the theater in many months.

In a strategic movie calculated to avoid both crowds and bedbugs (presently the scourge of New York City movie theaters), we chose the Battery Park multiplex, just south of the once and future World Trade Center. When we arrived in the theater to take our seats, we were pleased to see it mostly empty, so we positioned ourselves dead center. Settling in, we noticed that although the usual barrage of commercials was running on the screen, the sound was off. This was a little disconcerting at first, because as we all know these days, before you can watch the movie you have to sit through about 15 minutes of commercials, most of which are imported from TV (enlarged and loudened for a more cinematic shilling experience). Then you have to sit through anywhere from four to 19 trailers for coming attractions. Then, finally, the movie.

So to walk into a quiet theater was a little strange. It was odd, first, to feel self-conscious about speaking, knowing that with no deafening din in the background, everyone in the theater (all three of them) could hear what I was saying.

Nonetheless, I braved the silence and the judgment of the three other people in the theater and remarked that it was nice to have the sound off. I am very friendly with the Mute button on my universal remote at home, and prefer to sit through commercial breaks in silence (or even better, in conversation with my wife). I mentioned this to Chris, and he agreed, sparking a whole discussion about the pre-movie program, starting with all the commercials before the trailers.

At one time, commercials had an obvious function that everyone understood and agreed to: television was delivered via the airwaves and received via rabbit ears (that's a type of antenna, kids), so nobody paid anything to watch the programming; it would have been impossible to charge for it anyway. However, creating televisions shows is expensive, so TV worked out a great deal with Madison Avenue: we will show your ads on our free airwaves and in exchange you will pay us money, which in turn will pay for the shows that will deliver your ads. (Unfortunately, this bargain didn't last; when pay cable became the norm, the commercials remained, despite the fact that we're all paying our cable providers, who in turn are paying the networks.)

Since we pay to go to movies, no such bargain ever needed to be struck. We pay the money, they show the movie. Economics don't get much simpler.

Advertising first infiltrated the cinema in the form of trailers -- commercials for other movies, shown before the movie. It doesn't take a genius to figure out why that started: the movie theater wants you to come back and spend more money on another movie as soon as possible. But nobody ever minded that, because trailers are entertaining.   

But commercials, if you'll permit me my anti-American liberal weirdo opinion, are not entertaining, they're annoying, and they're even more annoying on a giant screen with THX sound. The commercial with the talking baby that's heavy into day trading is definitely no less creepy, stupid, or unfunny when magnified 20x. (Nor, I should add, does it make me any more interested in day trading.) So it's particularly galling that after paying for the movie we have to sit through ads, and even more galling, the same ads we've all seen a hundred times at home. They don't even bother to adjust the resolution of the ads, so they look pixellated and crappy on the giant screen. If you're going to rape my eyeballs with crass hucksterism, at least have the decency to do it in 1080p.

And a word on the volume. I understand that movies are loud. In most cases (emphatically not including kids' movies) I find it appropriate. Especially with action movies. Big explosions, surround sound, I like it! No problem. It immerses me in the movie just like it's supposed to. Unfortunately, it seems that the movie theaters have taken a cue from TV and decided that the commercials need to be louder than the movie. This approach kind of makes sense (as much as I hate it) on TV, when the commercials are interspersed with the shows; it sort of sits you up in your chair rather than spacing out while you're waiting to find out who's this week's Biggest Loser or whatever. But at the theater, the result is that the presentation gets progressively quieter -- the exact opposite of what basic theater logic would dictate.

Anyway-- then comes the trailers. I like trailers as much as the next guy -- they showed this one in front of Your Highness and it got me excited for what looks like a great movie -- but after five or six of them in a row, when instead of another green "APPROVED FOR ALL AUDIENCES" card, the studio logo comes up and I realize that the actual movie is starting, I always have a couple seconds where, slightly emotionally battered and vaguely disoriented by what by this time has been nearly 30 minutes of 1-3 minute spots, each one demanding your attention more loudly, brightly, and obnoxiously than the last, I have to stop and ask myself: "What movie am I here to see again?" I feel like I just woke up from a coma after an injury sustained in ground combat.

A couple of years ago my wife and son went out of town for a couple of days, so I took the opportunity to go see the new Star Trek movie by myself. I took a lovely walk across the park while listening to my iPod to the theater, and when I got there I almost took my earbuds out, but remembering how annoying I generally find the whole pre-movie program, I instead kept them in, continued enjoying the music I had on, and visored my eyes with my hands until the movie started. I found this to be a much more pleasurable method of moviegoing, though obviously it would be exceedingly rude if you brought a date.

I related this discovery to Chris as well, and we both agreed that the silent ad block we had walked into was a treat. Who enjoys these supersized commercials? I said. And how messed up is it that after paying $12 for the movie, we have to sit through commercials? I was just digging in for another spirited round of this complaint when a group of four very dudey dude-type dudes came in and took seats somewhere behind us.

"Volume!" one of them shouted immediately. "Turn it up! I paid for the commercials too!"

So maybe it's just me.

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