Saturday, March 08, 2014

One Thumb Up, One Thumb Down

Breaking movie news out of the greater Stillwater area:
The Marcus Oakdale Cinema in Oakdale was recently awarded an expanded liquor license, allowing moviegoers to imbibe while watching the big screen.
The theater was granted a license in November restricting liquor sales and consumption to a proposed restaurant/lounge area, but came back to the council with an expanded request, which was approved Jan. 28. 

Vincent Vega would also approve, as he recounted in Pulp Fiction:
Vincent: You know what the funniest thing about Europe is?
Jules: What?
Vincent: It's the little differences. I mean, they got the same sh*t over there that we got here, but it's's just, there it's a little different.
Jules: Example?
Vincent: All right. Well, you can walk into a movie theater in Amsterdam and buy a beer. And I don't mean just like in no paper cup; I'm talking about a glass of beer.

With this move, we take one giant leap toward become more like Europe.  If this is what Barack Obama meant by fundamentally transforming America, I also approve.   

However, in truth, I haven’t bought beverages at the movies for many years.  I always buy popcorn, it’s as important to me as the movie itself in motivating a trip to the cinema.  You can’t procure good movie theater popcorn on your own.  No store-bought product compares.  So, despite the massive mark-up on cost, I’ll buy the popcorn at the movies.  Then I will get thirsty.  They sell Diet Coke at the theater, but …. you most certainly can procure the same Diet Coke they sell at the movies on your own.  A deep pocket, a purse, a European carryall is all you need for some easy BYOB and big, big savings on beverages.  

While I applaud the Marcus Oakdale for enhancing their offerings with adult beverages, I assume they’ll be applying normal movie theater markups, meaning a Michelob Golden Draft will cost something on the order of $84.  I assure you I can procure identical options elsewhere at a fraction of the cost, and they can be transported via deep pockets, purse, or European carryall.  In the past, I would have felt strange smuggling booze into the officially dry, family atmosphere of the theater.  But now that prohibition has ended, so has the social taboo on rum smuggling.  So be it.  No one ever said the expansion of civil rights wouldn’t have unintended consequences.

Another development at Marcus Oakdale bears mentioning.  It’s one of the few theaters in the country to adopt the Dream Lounger model:

Marcus Theaters is introducing a new experience it’s calling UltraScreen DLX at theaters in Columbus, Ohio; Addison, Ill.; and Oakdale, Minn, it said Wednesday in a news release.
The concept combines Marcus’ UltraScreens, giant screens of at least 65 feet in width, with immersive sound and DreamLoungers, leather electric recliners. All seating is reserved at time of ticket purchase. It will be introduced in Columbus and Addison on Friday and in Oakdale on Tuesday, the release said.
“The combination of the incredibly comfortable seating with the enormous screen and immersive audio is a multi-sensory cinematic experience unavailable anywhere else in the world,” the release said.

They introduced this last year in Oakdale, and while it all sounds good, it’s not playing out that way.  
First, the Dream Lounger seats are not individual recliners, they’re two person love seats with a thin retractable arm in between.  

When you’re at a Hugh Grant tear jerker with your best girl, that’s all well and fine.  But when you’re at the latest Steven Segal action classic with your dude bros, it’s a little strange to be forced to cozy up together on the couch.  Worse yet, if you have an odd numbered party, and a crowded theater, you’ve now got a free agent destined to be sharing a small couch in the dark with a complete stranger.  There’s a *chance* that’s going to work out just fine.  But odds are you’re far more likely to be snuggling up to a middle-aged, overweight truck driver from Lake Elmo than Patricia Arquette in True Romance.
The second problem is the reclining itself.  The Dream Loungers allow you to recline all the way, so you’re virtually flat on your back.  There’s just something weird about being in that position while in public with a group of strangers.  This is true even if you’re not sharing a love seat with a middle-aged, overweight trucker from Lake Elmo.  You’re in a dark room lying around with a bunch of people you don’t know.  It’s undignified, maybe that’s the problem.  And being in the supine position is not inherently the best way to enjoy a movie.  It’s the best way to pass out while watching the movie, especially when you throw in the liquor component.   But if you’re there to engage with the movie (to experience the thrills, the emotion, the tension, the laughter), sitting is better.  All you need is a comfortable seat, there’s no value added in being horizontal.

The third issue is that all Dream Lounger theaters have reserved seats.  At point of purchase, you’re shown an electronic map of what’s taken and what’s not and you choose your fate.  Again, in principle a fine idea.  It allows you to have advance control for seat positioning within the theater and crowding preference, do you want to sit by other people or not?  But, the problem is that all movie patrons are not created equal.  For optimal seat selection, you have to size up who is going to be sharing your immediate space with you.  It’s all about distraction potential.  You want quiet, well-behaved people.  You don’t want youths, or aggregations of chattering friends, or funny guys attempting Mystery Science Theater 3000 material, or old couples who don’t realize they’re not in their living room and provide a running stream of inane observations to each other for two hours.  These people must be avoided.  In the pre-reserved days, you enter the theater, scan the crowd, and find the sweet spots to sit.  After a few decades of movie attendance, this process is second nature and takes no time or effort.  But in the reserved world, you’re stuck with the uninformed choice you were forced to make in advance.  Now when you’re heading toward your assigned seat and you see one of the problematic profiles clustered around it, you feel like you’re trapped in the gravitation pull of a black hole of bad movie experiences.  (The only worse thing I can think of is having this happen while going to see Disney’s The Black Hole.)

Finally, making things even worse, since the Dreamer Loungers are bigger seats, there are fewer total seats in the theater.  This leads to more general crowding and a higher potential of sitting near problematic people.  In the past, there was always the last, desperate option of getting up and moving if your initial seat selection didn’t work out.  But now, the frontier of empty seats is gone.  All seats are reserved, owned by someone.  Any move from your designated space now risks hearing those witheringly uncomfortable words “hey pal, you’re in my seat!”

In short, the individual parts of movies, liquor, reclining seats, and reservations are terrific.  Together, they are a dystopian nightmare.  Nice try Marcus Theaters, but now you know how the producers of The Cannonball Run 2 must have felt.