Movie Theaters Kind of Suck Now

I went last night to see the excellent Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (★★★★★) in the movie theater. What made this trip special was two-fold: it was the first time I’ve made a specific trek to see a movie in the not-close-to-home IMAX theater since well before COVID, and it was the first time in a much longer time that I was compelled to see a movie in the theaters twice. That unfortunately led me to conclude that the movie-going experience is significantly worse than it was pre-COVID, which itself wasn’t always great.

Before I rant about the theater, let me say that Across the Spider-Verse is a work of art, with both frenetic energy that rises and pulses with the action. But it also has (half of) a wonderful story and deep, interesting character development that has been lacking from superhero movies. The only complaint I can muster is that it’s the first of a two-part story, with the back half coming next March.

I saw it at a local theater with my daughter, which is a fine place to see a movie, but it’s not comparable to an IMAX or Dolby Cinema screen. Once I was blown away by the movie, I had to see it bigger and better, so I went again the next night.

The first theater was a Cinépolis theater, which is one that has paired, comfortable recliners with swing-in tables and at-your-seat food and drink service. That sounds great, but in practice, it kind of sucks. The food and drink are serviceable by movie theater standards, but having service people milling around throughout the movie isn’t great. And if you want to use any of the “unlimited refills” for soda or popcorn, you have to wait a really long time for the round trip to happen—so long that I don’t bother, which may be the point. When the snacks were delivered, there were no napkins, and I had to press the button to summon help, and the napkins took more than 30 minutes to arrive.

The next night was the IMAX screen. The screen and sound were exactly what I hoped for: immersive and high-quality. This theater didn’t have the nice seats or delivery service, but given the night before, I wasn’t missing the latter. However, the counter service was also terrible. This theater had not hired a full staff: the kids that used to sell and check tickets were replaced by kiosks that were literally either crashed and inoperable or so slow as to be effectively inoperable, and the one actual human was overwhelmed. The food was worse than I remember it, the floors sticky and the place looked pretty shabby for what used to be an exceptionally high-end movie theater (it’s one of only 19 in the US, and 30 in the world that can show a 70mm IMAX movie). The surroundings outside the theater, which used to be an outdoor mall filled with restaurants and stores, was a virtual ghost town, shuttered and empty. Even though people have largely returned to normal life patterns, including going out to see movies at the theater, the damage COVID did to this place were clear and present. There was something else that wasn’t a COVID-induced problem: I had to go see the movie last night to see it on the good screen.

Most theaters have at most one premium screen, if they have one at all. The only reason I want to go to a theater for a movie is the big-ass screen and good, loud sound. I guess making an event of a big movie is fun too, but that’s a distant number three for me. And every big new movie wants to be on that screen, so you have really only one weekend to see a new movie before it’s relegated to the other screens that I’m not interested in making the effort for. For instance, I was out of town the weekend that John Wick 4 came out, so I have yet to see it. I’d rather wait for the 4K Blu-ray to be released than go to a second-tier theater screen. For anything not worthy of purchase, I’d wait for it to be available on streaming.

I used to really enjoy going to see movies in the theater, but based on these experiences, it’s getting pretty hard to recommend. All that said, if you have a theater with a big, nice IMAX or Dolby Cinema screen near you, and is still showing Across the Spider-Verse on it, drop what you’re doing and go see it before it’s gone.