Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The dumbing down of Arclight Cinemas

Tomorrow night I'm scheduled to catch one of my final true theatrical priorities among 2011 movies: The Adventures of Tintin. In fact, I'm even thinking of making it an (illegal) Steven Spielberg double feature, following up the 7:30 Tintin with a 9:30 War Horse -- even though it's asking for trouble to start a 146-minute movie at 9:30 p.m.

A friend gave me a $20 gift card to Arclight Cinemas for Christmas, so I was originally going to use this to visit the nearby Arclight location known as "Arclight Beach Cities" in Manhattan Beach. In fact, I may still, but I think the times work out better at the theater mentioned above (in downtown Culver City).

Scanning the movie options at Arclight Beach Cities, however, I came to a rather disappointing realization:

Arclight isn't arthouse anymore.

And in fact, the "arthouse multiplex" -- a concept that only a big city like Los Angeles can support -- may no longer be supportable after all.

Before we go any further, I should tell you all a little bit about Arclight Cinemas.

The original Arclight is in Hollywood, where it is and has been the crown jewel of Hollywood moviegoing. It's got something like 14 screens on two floors -- well, three floors really, as the main floor has only the ticket windows and a restaurant, and you can take escalators either up or down to catch your movie. The lobby is simply breathtaking:

In its heyday, not only did the Arclight offer the latest in independent cinema and limited releases, but it also pioneered a concept about seating that I think is rather brilliant. (It was the first I was aware of to do this, anyway.) If you are late for the show, you simply won't be seated. So below each movie on the screen you see here, it says things like "Now available for seating" and "NOT available for seating." It's all part of Arclight's mission to give you a luxurious moviegoing experience, uninterrupted by jackasses picking their way to their seats five minutes after the movie has started. It's also one of the first places I remember seeing gourmet food at a movie theater -- you can get a chicken-apple sausage sandwich with watermelon salsa. Believe me, it's good.

You do pay extra for all these frills, but they're worth it. More worth it than anything was that Arclight carried movies I couldn't find elsewhere, because they had not yet reached the regular multiplexes, and probably never would. It was even worth the 30- to 45-minute trip to Hollywood.

But as is the case with any successful concept, it expanded. The Arclight concept is now in three other locations -- Sherman Oaks, which is in the San Fernando Valley; Pasadena; and the aforementioned Beach Cities in Manhattan Beach. Each of these locations has steadily watered down the concept a little bit, leaving that grandiose clock and the color of the wood paneling as the signature Arclight detail, not the movies they show.

But I didn't think it had gotten this pedestrian. Here's what's currently playing in Arclight Beach Cities:

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked

New Year's Eve
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

The Adventures of Tintin

The Artist

The Descendants
The Devil Inside
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

War Horse

We Bought a Zoo
Young Adult

Perhaps this list of movies does not leaving you gasping with incredulity. I mean, there are some movies in there that were not widely carried at other theaters, such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. But TTSS is not what I'm talking about when I think of Arclight's unique, rare offerings of yore. The Descendants and The Artist may not have made it into every backwater multiplex in the country, but they are also two of the frontrunners for best picture, meaning Arclight can't claim it as a novelty to carry them. (Especially since I saw The Descendants in the theater before Thanksgiving.)

The movie that really concerns me on this list, however, is The Devil Inside.

When the movie that claimed the honor of "first wide release of 2012" came out last Friday, the only thing I could think to write about it, in my normal Friday spot, was to make an INXS joke. So I didn't.

Since then, I've thought of two other things:

1) So, are we going to get movies about demons possessing religious people every January from now on? (See The Rite in 2011).

2) So, does the first movie of the calendar year really need to be shown by Arclight?

This, more than any of the other titles on that list, is what worries me that Arclight is slowly but surely morphing into Just Another Theater Chain. If that happens, I'll be really sad to see it.

I think it's indicative of two dispiriting trends, one of which is probably more important than the other in terms of guiding Arclight in its choices about what to screen. The most important trend is, of course, the economy, or more broadly, the times we live in. A large theater trying to stay afloat in a tough economy, and competing with a myriad of sophisticated home video options, simply must take on its share of crowd pleasers in order to turn a profit. The Twilights (which probably played at all the Arclights) prop up the theater and give it the opportunity to play the Take Shelters.

The second trend that worries me, however, is that I suspect the audiences are really getting increasingly less sophisticated, and increasingly in need of popcorn movies as opposed to the acquired taste of the nourishment provided by independent cinema. I have no evidence of this, at least none that is concrete. But I think it's a legitimate worry.

However, before you lose all hope that a multiplex devoted to arthouse movies can survive in this economic climate, I should let you know that the original Arclight still gives us hope.

The Arclight in Hollywood is currently playing Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and The Iron Lady, two movies that have not yet had their wide release, and is the only theater I'm aware of playing Pariah, which I'd really like to see in the theater but probably won't. It's also in the midst of a one-week return engagement for Drive, for people who like that movie.

However, even the Arclight in Hollywood is playing The Devil Inside.

I'll just try to think of The Devil Inside as the devil that must exist inside the Arclight, allowing it to shine the rest of its light of angelic, cinematic goodness.


Don Handsome said...

I think the success of movie theaters going forward will depend on how they appeal to their audience...surely some theaters will be successful because they are a landmark or because they show artsy movies to an artsy crowd, or because they allow drinking and smoking inside - but the Arclight's business model, in my estimation, is to appeal to their audience by providing a premium experience in all tangible ways. But the premium aspect isn't, necessarily, tied to the quality level of the films being chosen.

The only three movies I have seen at the Hollywood Arclight (as a tourist) are Saw 2, Ghost Rider, and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. All were total shit, of course, but the thing I liked about this theater was that they treated the schlock with respect. You could choose from any number of a broad spectrum of movies, but no matter what your preferred flavor was you'd be assured of an A Plus theater going experience.

So I'm wondering if anything has really changed with the expansion of the Arclight franchise. THe arrival of The Devil Inside doesn't seem to denote a distinctive departure for the theater that was proudly showing Saw 2. But if they start to replace that wood paneling with wall carpeting, it will be a real shame.

Vancetastic said...

That's actually kind of an invaluable perspective to me, Don. Indeed, how could I forget that schlock? Arclight is more about the trimmings than the movies themselves ... but the movies themselves also tend to be higher caliber. I guess you could call it a "mixed use space."