Why do we still go to the movies in the 21st Century?

Going to the movies has been a shared cultural activity for at least four generations. In that time, technology has marched forward in leaps and bounds — but the core experience remains the same. And we still keep going to the movies, at the cinema, even though we now have other ways of seeing the same films. Why?

On the penultimate day of 2009, I went to the local cinema to see 2012, Roland Emmerich’s latest depiction of the mother of all disasters. For 158 gripping minutes, I willingly suspended disbelief and allowed the myth-makers of Hollywood to thoroughly scare me out of my wits. As did, it seemed, the few hundred other people watching it on wide screen with surround sound. There is no way the literally earth-shattering scenes of this movie would seem and feel remotely realistic anywhere else…

But cinemas are far from perfect – for instance, we had put up with a bunch of screaming brats whose parents had unwisely brought them for the wrong kind of movie. I’ve sat through far more noisy and boorish behaviour at cinemas: notable among them is watching Titanic at a massive, packed cinema in downtown Mumbai sometime in 1998 — and discovering how ‘interactive’ Indian movie-goers can get. (After the initial irritation wears off, I became almost oblivious to the distractions, thanks to James Cameron’s superb story telling.)

I just refuse to see such blockbusters on a small screen. (Ok, I might watch movies on long flights when I get tired of reading, but I have never been able to bring myself to watching a movie on an ipod…)

In fact, the movie industry is as much caught up in the digital wave as all other aspects of media. As Manohla Dargis of the New York Times noted in a perceptive essay this week: “How much our world of moving-image entertainment has changed in the past decade! We now live in a world of the 24-Hour Movie, one that plays anytime and anywhere you want (and sometimes whether you want it to or not). It’s a movie we can access at home by pressing a few buttons on the remote (and agreeing to pay more for it than you might at the local video store) or with a few clicks of the mouse. The 24-Hour Movie now streams instead of unspools, filling our screens with images that, more and more, have been created algorithmically rather than photographically.”

Yet, unlike in other media experiences, the changes in the movie industry have gone largely unnoticed by ordinary viewers. As Dargis writes: “Film is profoundly changing — or, if you believe some theorists and historians, is already dead — something that most moviegoers don’t know. Yet, because the visible evidence of this changeover has become literally hard to see, and because the implications are difficult to grasp, it is also understandable why the shift to digital has not attracted more intense analysis outside film and media studies.”

Dargis is probably right: by adapting and evolving with the times, the cinema has survived for over a century. As Donald Clarke noted in The Irish Times at the beginning of December 2009: “Television failed to kill movies. Video failed to kill movies. Internet piracy – not to mention all the other diversions available online – has also failed to annihilate this most stubbornly resilient of art forms. Film-makers will, it is true, tell you that it is now more difficult than ever to negotiate financing for movies that cost between $3 million and $15 million. But you couldn’t say that the current recession has crippled the movie business.”

All this makes me wonder what movie-going might be like in another decade or two. 3D and IMAX are no longer so uncommon or special, and the entertainment industry is working hard to relate to not just our seeing and hearing, but other senses as well. (Did you know that, as long ago as 1960, they tried to introduce smelling movies? Smell-O-Vision was a system that released odors during the projection of a film so that the viewer could “smell” what was happening in the movie. The technique injected 30 different smells into a movie theater’s seats when triggered by the film’s soundtrack. For some reason, it never caught on…)

Perhaps it’s not simply a matter of money or technology. There is also a whole sociology of movie going and movie watching – many of us go to the cinema (not nearly often enough in my case) not just for the personal sensory experience of a celluloid dream, but also for the shared experience of it. I like bumping into friends at cinemas. At a premiere or special screening, I also get to steal a few glimpses of the glitterati of the film world.

Have you been to a film musical and had the uncontrollable urge to burst into song? London’s Prince Charles Cinema not only allows, but encourages viewers to do just this — though only on certain days of the month. Their most famous offering is Sing-a-long-a Sound of Music: a few years ago, I joined several hundred other assorted ‘nuns’, von Trapp family members and Julie Andrews look-a-likes in such a memorable experience. I have the digitally remastered DVD of the 1965 movie, an ever-green title in my household. But watching it at home can’t compare with the sense of community that one feels when the lyrics for all the songs appear on the movie screen, giving the audience every reason to sing their hearts out…

I’m not sure how popular (or even acceptable) such community movie watching would be in different cultures. But going to the movies retains its charm and appeal in this digital age, even if we have come a long way since the glorious days of movie going as captured in this wonderful and memorable song from the musical Annie (1982) – Let’s Go To The Movies

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

2 thoughts on “Why do we still go to the movies in the 21st Century?”

  1. I go to the movies for an escape from the real world. It used to be a cheap thrill but not to cheap these days. but its still worth the ticket price when the movie is good. I hate it when anyone tries to send political or social messages through films that i pay and watch for my entertainment

  2. Sandra,
    I fully agree with you. Cinema is first and foremost an entertainment medium, and long may it remain so. As American movie producer Sam Goldwyn famously remarked, “Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union.”

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