Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The genesis of a new film-watching economy

Or, The most I have ever felt like a film critic

Or, "Guess I'll wait for the theater on that one"

Wait wait wait, Vance. Don't you mean "Guess I'll wait for video on that one"?

Not anymore.

It is now cheaper for me to watch a movie in the theaters than on video. Hold on, I'll explain.

Rarely do we experience a real sea change in the basic fundamentals of our movie-watching lives. You pay x amount to watch a movie in the theater, or maybe x minus 40% on a discount day. Or, you wait until video, at which point you pay 10 to 20% of x, maybe less if you get a deal. This is pretty much how we all go through our lives, prioritizing theatrical viewings based on the likelihood of it being worth the extra money to see it in the theater.

Well, for me, that whole equation has just changed.

Yesterday in the mail I received my membership card to the Australian Film Critics Association (AFCA). This is an organization that makes it easier for critics to do their jobs -- especially now that those jobs pay significantly less than they used to, and sometimes they pay nothing. If you are getting paid nothing to do a job, you should not also have to pay for the movies you see.

And now, as of last night, I no longer do.

For the annual membership fee -- which is $75, but I paid only a prorated $30 because the membership must be renewed each year on the 31st of January -- you get to go see any movie you want, in Australian cinemas, for zero dollars and zero cents.

Oh, there are restrictions. For example, the biggest chain, Hoyts, only allows you to go before 5 p.m. on weekdays, or any time on Monday and Wednesday. Another chain is supposed to limit the movies you can see to those in the first two weeks of their release -- a reflection of the fact that this card really is designed to help you do the job of reviewing the movie, if you miss the critics screening. Almost none of them allow you to use it after 5 p.m. on a Saturday or any time on a public holiday.

But these are fairly easy restrictions to get around, as long as you apply a little planning to your schedule. In the past, I restricted myself to seeing movies on one of two discount days, which were Monday and Tuesday. And even then it was $9 on Mondays and $13 on Tuesdays. Now I can go almost any day of the week to almost any theater, for nothing.

Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-a. My oh my, what a wonderful day.

Naturally, I was eager to test this out immediately. When I learned about a week ago that my card would be arriving in about a week, I immediately ceased all theatergoing activities and planned to finally catch up with Terminator Genisys once it arrived. And last night, that's what I did.

Oh, I'd heard the new Terminator movie was bad. Its 38 Metascore was anything but promising. But you know what? Now, that's all the more reason to see it in the theater. If I wait for a rental, it could cost me up to $4. As opposed to, you know, nothing.

So I made my way down to Cinema Kino, a half arthouse, half blockbuster theater that's just a stone's throw from my work (and an even shorter stone's throw from my wife's work). Learning from the guy who turned me on to this card that the clerks often cannot make heads nor tails of it, I made sure to carry with me the piece of paper I'd received from AFCA that explains the conditions of its use, explicitly outlining the policy of each participating cinema group. I actually hoped not to need it, because I was already planning on violating one of those conditions. See, Palace Cinemas, which operates Kino, has fairly broad allowances for the usage of this card, except for the fact that it must be a movie in the first two weeks of its release. Terminator Genisys is coming up on three weeks, so a smart knowledge of those restrictions could prompt them to reject me on my very first attempt. (I had a backup plan of seeing Ant-Man if that happened.) But the other thing I learned about this card is that when the clerks can't make head nor tails of it, they usually just give you the ticket as the only reasonable response to their befuddlement.

And sure enough, that's what happened here. I flashed the guy my card, hoping that would be all that would be necessary to ring up my ticket. He did start to ring it up, but then he said, "Sixteen." Apparently he thought it was some other kind of discount card. When I explained that it was supposed to be free, he filled out some kind of media voucher and had me sign it. And then I was on my way.

And no, Terminator Genisys was not very good. And no, watching it on the "big screen" couldn't have helped much, as it was playing on one of the theater's smallest screens, which contained a mere 33 seats.

But I was just giddy anyway. I had just walked into a movie -- a regular movie, not a critics screening -- without paying a dime.

And this can now keeping happening for me in perpetuity.

One of the things that's most exciting about it to me was that they don't give this membership to just anybody. Oh yeah, the organization is a bit scruffy around the edges -- when the guy sent me the bank account to send my $30 payment, it turned out that that account was closed and he had to give me a different one. My colleague who turned me on to this told me that his own card had arrived with the guy's grocery list included in the envelope. But my card looks nice and shiny with a cool logo, and they did indeed approve me based on the fact that I am actually working as a critic -- though not for pay -- in Australia. I sent the a link to a couple of my recent reviews and to my staff profile on ReelGood, and that was it -- I had passed their test and was worthy of inclusion in their awesome, awesome club. Who knows if I could have passed a much lower threshold for membership, but I know that just being a film enthusiast with a desire for discount movie tickets wouldn't have been enough.

So yeah, it feels great to have that kind of external validation of the career path I've chosen, even if it has not chosen to pay me. This is, now, my payment. Now, all the money I'd spend on going to the theater can be spent on other things. If that's not payment, then it's pretty damn close to it.

So now the world is my oyster. I can see whatever I want, no matter how bad it will be, as long as I can spare my time. All it cost me last night was a round rip bike ride in the cold on a windy winter's night, because I didn't want to pay the $7+ round trip on the tram. If this night was going to be free, I wanted it to be totally free.

Terminator Genisys was likely something I was going to see in the theater, no matter how bad it ended up being, just based on my commitment to the franchise. But the next moment when I truly appreciate this card will be when I see something I otherwise wasn't planning to see -- something so outside my normal interests, or something so probably terrible, that the expenditure would never otherwise have been justified.

So now "waiting for video" will be if the movie looks good, or if I want to see it with my wife.

To quote some guy named Nux, "What a lovely day."

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