Is the End of the Movie Theater Nigh?

Paradise Cinema in Toronto, looking all new and bright and beautiful. (Photo: Paradise)

Toronto's Paradise Theater was a "nabe," a neighborhood movie theater built in 1937. There used to be one every few blocks, but the Paradise was a little classier, designed by an important architect with nice Art Deco detailing. Most of the nabes are gone now, but the Paradise has been lovingly restored and just reopened a few weeks ago. It's showing the new Martin Scorsese film, "The Irishman," a Netflix production we wanted to see. My wife is a true movie lover, and there was no way she was going to watch this on a small home screen. Kelly wasn't sure if she wanted to even see it at the Paradise when it was playing downtown on the big Toronto International Film Festival theater screen, but I convinced her that we should walk down and try out our new nabe.

The whole concept of a pair of baby boomers going out to pay to see a Netflix movie on a not-so-big screen in a newly restored single-screen theater at the end of 2019 raises so many questions and issues.

1. The theater

Paradise interior
The is the interior of the Paradise set up for a conference. (Photo: Paradise)

First, there's the question of the theater itself. Investor Moray Tawse bought it in 2013 and rebuilt it as a comfortable theater, with a restaurant and a bar. Tawze tells Barry Hertz of the Globe and Mail: "The way we designed and outfitted it was to make it a very flexible space. We can capture every area of entertainment that’s available out there. Will it be a great money maker? Probably not. But I think we can make it an interesting hub for the community."

Will people go? Programming director Jessica Smith thinks so.

The shared experience of seeing a film not in your living room, but with people who you don’t know, there’s something still special about that. If I want to take in a film and I want it to stay with me, to have the purest experience of it, then I go to the cinema. People want to to stay on top of culture, and want to spend a nice night out. So I don’t think that cinemas are going anywhere.

I'm not so sure. The shared experience of people talking too loudly or turning on their phones or crunching their food or just being too tall and right in front of me can ruin the shared experience.

It's also expensive. Between the tickets, a glass of wine and a box of popcorn, I spent 60 bucks for a night out for two, to see the same movie I could have watched on my own screen at home. With Disney and Netflix and Amazon streaming new products, with 4K and even 8K TVs becoming common, and bigger screens being a fraction of the cost of just a few years ago, you can see it at almost the same quality, in the same field of view. Except for young people getting out of the house with friends to see the latest Marvel production, more and more people are just staying home.

2. 'The Irishman' is no Ironman

The Irishman
A movie about a bunch of gangsters getting old. (Photo: Netflix)

This is not a movie for the kids, but it is the ultimate eye candy for baby boomers, with Robert De Niro aging in front of our eyes. The CGI that made all these older actors young again was seamless and perfect. I wish this could be done in real life to me. Al Pacino plays Jimmy Hoffa, whose name may draw a big blank to anyone under 60 but was huge news in the 60s and 70s. It's long, at three and a half hours, and I found it slow moving at times. Had I been watching at home I would have likely bailed out after the first hour. The last half hour, the end of all these lives, could have been cut right out. But there's no question that it's a masterpiece. They don't make movies like this anymore.

3. They don't make movies like this anymore for a reason.

According to Nicole Sperling of The New York Times, Scorsese usually made his films with Paramount Studios, but they wouldn't do it because of the size of the budget and the kind of movie he wanted to do.

Netflix was the only company willing to take a risk on the project — a film that moves at a measured pace in its three and a half hours as it tells a tale of how organized crime was intertwined with the labor movement and government in the United States across the last century.

That's why I got to see it in the Paradise; the big exhibitors wanted exclusivity for 72 days before it could be shown on Netflix. Two chains, including Canada's largest chain, Cineplex, were willing to go 60 days; Netflix wouldn't budge over 45. So Netflix left millions in possible revenue on the table and released it in smaller theaters for 26 days. What might well be the biggest movie of the year in terms of awards was seen in theaters by a tiny number of people. “It’s a disgrace,” said John Fithian, the president of the National Association of Theater Owners, who fill their halls with superhero movies. Film makers like Scorsese aren't happy about this; Scorsese himself wrote in The New York Times about how he prefers the big screen.

That includes me, and I’m speaking as someone who just completed a picture for Netflix. It, and it alone, allowed us to make "The Irishman” the way we needed to, and for that I’ll always be thankful. We have a theatrical window, which is great. Would I like the picture to play on more big screens for longer periods of time? Of course I would. But no matter whom you make your movie with, the fact is that the screens in most multiplexes are crowded with franchise pictures.

4. Does the movie theater actually have a future?

Silver City, a Cineplex cinema in the suburbs. (Photo: Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler/Grid Engine [CC0 1.0]/Wikimedia Commons)

Canada's Cineplex chain was founded in 1979 with North America's first multiplex, carved out of a parking garage in Toronto's Eaton Centre shopping mall. The screens were tiny, smaller than many people's home TVs today. My dad was an early investor, so I got a stack of passes every year and saw a lot of movies as it took over Odeon and other theater chains in Canada and the U.S. and and grew to 1,880 screens in both countries.

Yet just last week it was sold to a big British chain that also owns Regal in the States, after trying everything — gaming, VR, high-tech amusements, to keep people in seats. According to the Globe and Mail, "traffic to movie theaters has been slowing everywhere. At Cineplex, attendance has fallen for the past three years." And, the stock kept dropping. But the new owner of the company is optimistic:

"There will be a big battle in the streaming arena because of these huge players that are entering now," [Cineworld CEO] Greidinger said. "The theatrical business is not home entertainment. People will never stay seven days at home. We are competing for their free time outside of the house."

That's wishful thinking. I suspect theaters like the Paradise have a brighter future than the big chains; it can develop a loyal local clientele, and it can program for cinephiles. Eric Hynes of the Museum of the Moving Image tells IndieWire:

Time and again, Hollywood can’t conceive of people getting into a car and sitting in L.A. traffic to see a movie — as if that were the universal experience, as if people didn’t also live in smaller towns or cities with public transportation where they want to leave the house and want to share an experience with other people, and want to experience 35mm, where communities actually exist and independent films and documentaries are sought out.

That's likely wishful thinking, too.

5. Is this all just baby boomer nostalgia?

Paradise lobby
You can have a drink in the lobby!. (Photo: Paradise)

When asked why he invested in the Paradise, Tawse told Barry Hertz of the Globe and Mail that he had effectively grown up in a movie theater where his mother worked.

"I'd go sit in the theatre and watch these movies 6 p.m. till midnight, and sometimes she'd work the double shift on Saturdays and I'd watch it for 12 hours straight," Tawse recalls. "I got to see some of the great classical movies – Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Jerry Lewis – and I wanted to bring that nice part of my childhood back."

He built the Paradise out of nostalgia. When I looked around at the audience for "The Irishman," there was, I think, one young person in the hall; everyone else was a baby boomer or older. Yes, it was "The Irishman," a nostalgic's dream film, but that's probably the theater's typical audience.

As the baby boomers get older, they will more likely get together with friends at home to watch movies; we recently got together around a friend's giant OLED screen to watch "First Man" and really, the image quality was better than in the theater and I controlled the volume. The food and wine was better too. The boomers will be continue to be the early adopters of the best screens and the newest streaming services; have a look at what's on the Criterion channel this month, our own on-demand nostalgic art house cinema.

6. The end of the movie theater is nigh

Paradise exterior
The full picture of the restored Paradise. (Photo: Paradise)

The nabes were all killed by technology, by television. The movie industry fought back with Cinerama and 3D and IMAX, but the convenience of the TV put the vast majority of little theaters with little screens out of business.

The few that survive, like the Paradise, are nostalgia acts. The baby boomers will keep them going for a few years yet. But can it last? I'm not so sure, given its aging audience.

Can the big theater chains be saved? As Scorsese writes, they're not really showing cinema anymore, but "worldwide audiovisual entertainment." It gets bigger, louder, crazier, trying to get kids into the seats.

You can only turn the dial up so high. There's no way the theaters are going to be able to keep up with the changes in technology, the improvements in virtual reality and gaming, or the continuing trend from collective to individual, or the change in the way we expect stuff these days — on demand, on our schedule, not theirs. I suspect that for most people brought up in the era of the iPhone, going to a movie theater makes as much sense as sharing a land line phone.

TV technology killed the nabes 50 years ago, and the new technologies are going to kill the movie theater as we know it. Even "Ironman" can't save it.