Welcome to The Middle Seat

Column by Steve Matuszak

This column is dedicated to movies. And while there are many aspects to cinema, from the making of movies to the wild lives of those involved, I want to talk about something different. I want to talk about us – the moviegoers. I want to discuss watching movies.

I want to discuss the pros and cons of the technological, creative and other such “advances” and changes in filmmaking that affect our experience of watching movies. And I also want to discuss the experience of actually going to the movie theatre to see a film.

But, before we can get our ticket ripped, pocket the stub, grab overpriced snacks and sit down, we need to address what exactly is changing and why.

The first rule of life is that everything changes. But cinema is a technological endeavor. And technology changes at a faster rate than the rest of the entire universe (except for maybe galaxies and things related to Quantum Physics).

Computers change so exponentially fast that you have to throw your new laptop away as you exit the store you bought it from. How long did laser discs last? ‘Nuff said!

Accelerated changes in technology bring equally accelerated changes in other arenas. Unfortunately, a similar phenomenon has been occurring in the movie industry in the form of a bizarre digital Seppuku. Yes, the changes in the movie industry are simultaneously enhancing and killing it from within in two crucial areas:
• The experience of going to the movie theatre.
• The quality of what we see, whether at home or at the Cineplex.

Let’s start with the theatre experience. The first issue is “Scalability.” Technology usually grows backwards, from big to small. Look at the first computers – they were housed in warehouses! Remember the early top-load VCRs? You could go for a ride on those things.

How about beepers and cell phones? My first beeper was a toaster, and when it buzzed I would get thrown into traffic! And those first car cell phones fit in Samsonite luggage!

Microchips and other digital age wonders are getting so small they are using Nanotechnology which, loosely translated, means “F%$!*&@# Small!!”

The second, concurrent adaptation is “Portability.” We want everything to “come to us or go with us” (hence the getting smaller aspect). Bill Gates and others like him were laughed at when they envisioned a computer in every home as critics stared at giant machines with wagon wheel rolls of tape. These critics were like those who laughed at the notion of a “TV in every home” in the early 1950’s.

Lastly comes “Affordability.” Bucking the centuries-old trend of inflation-based economic principles and pricing for most retail products, technology gets better and cheaper simultaneously – computers, digital cameras and yes, home theatre televisions! As movie theatre tickets experience natural incremental inflation, the cost of home theatre systems drops while availability and quality increases.

Originally enjoyed only by the Hollywood elite in Beverly Hills basements, the home theatre experience has truly come “home.” The average consumer, like myself, can have plasma, LCD, or LED cinema-like quality flat screen TVs that, while downsized in comparison to theatres, are actually upsized for the home, compared to standard older 19” – 27” boxes. Throw in 7.1 Channel surround sound and now you’re making sweet music.

And each technological advance in the Cineplex is being replicated and truncated for your living room. Soon after seeing 3D at the theatre, Sony offered us 3D TV’s at Best Buy. My brother has a basement theatre with chairs that vibrate to the movie! (He has money.)

All of these advances in technology have led to a decline in movie attendance in favor of comparable cinematic experiences at home. Why not, who needs to leave home when you can watch “Saving Private Ryan” in a gyrating leather recliner with ear wing speakers? Who needs talkers, crying babies in R-rated films, overpriced Junior Mints and sticky floors?

Just wait until we get into the second phenomenon of technology’s affect on the quality of films! Let me whet your appetite by suggesting there are both humungous pros and cons.

When used wisely, digital effects have made leap year-like strides in helping us experience the story. Imagine “Inception” without bending entire cities in half! Or ponder the “other worldliness” in “Contact” without Eleanor’s hand touching the edge of the projected “void.”

But at times, directors, and whoever else is to blame (Bruckheimer), have tried to REPLACE story with visual. And a movie is a VISUAL STORY. Without story, character (script), you do not have a film (clear throat sound: recent “Clash of Titans” and “TRON: Legacy”).

So, join me on a journey where we look at the wonderful world of watching movies and the technology they use to take us (or not take us) there, on and off screen. Let’s go back inside the theatres and talk about babies, popcorn, seats, cultural differences, talking, listening, eating, credits, stages, projectionists, advertisements, trailers, lobby arcades and more!

Let’s play in our present family rooms while also going forward to whatever viewing experiences await us, some of which may literally be inside us.

Let’s look back at the digital effects and technological transformations that “wowed” us and made us believe in movies (the opening scene in the first/fourth “Star Wars”). Let’s talk about the new “Star Wars” versus the Old (or is that vice versa?). Let’s talk about the recent digital Medusa versus the “whatever-the-heck-she-was-made-out-of-but-who-cares-because-she-SCARED-me” Harryhausen Medusa.

Finally, we’ll mentally fast-forward to what might lie around the animated corner. Watch along with me because, like you, I love movies. And I love how it feels to sit down and willingly suspend my disbelief. And let’s call out to each other as filmgoers as much as we beseech filmmakers. So save me the middle seat.


  1. Speaking of home theatre feel… I’m loving these new theatres that are popping up with the special “just adult” areas where there is a bar and the seats are love seats with little tables where you can set your wine. Great column!

  2. Can’t wait to read more. Until technology can accurately replicate movie theater popcorn at home, I’ll keep going to the theater!

  3. This sounds like it could be a fun journey! I hope it is. It will be so great to talk about the audience’s experience instead of the movie only. The theater you are in can change everything or ruin it all. Who is behind you and what they do can take away or add to the experience. Lets get started!!!!

  4. I’m thinking of moving (downsizing to a smaller house) – but the thought of leaving my home theater behind scares me. 10Ft screen, 7.1 surround, 1500Watt subwoofer…1080p projector with Blu-ray. Sniff, sniff – it’s how movies are supposed to be watched. Oh well, time for the 3D revolution! Right?

  5. How’s life, Steve?

    I’m definitely something of a moviegoing anachronism these days. I see at least one movie in the theatre every week, sometimes two and there’s a group of us every week. The caveat is that we go on cheap movie night so we’re only paying $6 for the 3D Imax(or FauxMax since there’s no way that screen is full IMAX). On the other hand, the theatre has a full restaurant/bar in the lobby and a bartender we love. Tuesday movies also mean that we often have the theatre to ourselves, so we can indulge in our own rifftrax/mst3k right there. I mean, for god’s sake, we even paid $6 to see Skyline. I think we deserved to rip that show a new one while it was playing.

  6. Steve, I’m looking forward to your discussions. Hugh & I go to a movie at least once a week. Movies have been part of our “dating” experience for the last 34 years. We most recently have gone as a diversion from the real world. Sometimes I feel like Mia Farrow in The Purple Rose of Cairo. Rayna

  7. What a great idea — seeing the movie experience from the moviegoers perspective. Most of the time nobody focuses on that. Can’t wait to read more!!

  8. We don’t have a home theatre by any means but nice enough that I have to really really want to see a movie to go out to see it. If it’s not a big action movie I don’t generally care to spend so much. I have better popcorn, cheaper candy AND clean bathrooms at my house! And there’s the baby thing.

    We watched a Bruckheimer movie last night on PPV and I thought the story was good as well as the visual. I didn’t see the two movies you mentioned but Justin did and feels the same.

  9. I love shutting out the world for a few hours in a dark theatre, no phone to answer, no laundry to change etc. Can’t wait to read your take on moviegoing.

  10. I love going to the theater. It’s probably a generational thing but I remember being dropped off at the neighborhood theater for a double feature along with cartoons (all in black and white) on a rainy afternoon with my sisters and how wonderful it felt to travel to another world for a few hours. I don’t know that you can experience that no matter how fancy the technology becomes. I think it’s all about heart anyway.

  11. I hadn’t thought of technology simultaneously helping and killing the movie-going experience. Now that we can Netflix movies on our big flat screen TV, we don’t get out to the movies as much. (Although it seems like a special occasion when we do – much like when I was young and we actually got to go to McDonalds!)

  12. Good thoughts Steve! The last great movie experience I had was watching Secretariat…in Lexington Ky….with my beloved at my side. The reasons it was a great experience had more to do with the story, the setting (we had just returned from the KY Horse Park nearby), and the company I was in. It was an older, and yet adequite theater, moderately priced and had a polite crowd in attendance. Special affects and technology were demure in this movie….and the great story simply shined. It was one of the highlights of the weekend, one I won’t soon forget, and an example of how great movies enhance our lives and experiences.

  13. Yeah, seems like a catch 22. More $$ spent on technology means more $$ to see movies in the theater resulting in fewer people wanting to go to theater…especially those wanting to take a family. Isn’t the whole world moving in this direction though?

  14. Change is good. As a technological “Evangelist” I enjoy, relish, and anticipate change with baited breath.
    What would the world be like without some spare change now and again? What would CNN and Fox do as well as us during the 6:00pm -7:00pm time slot?
    Going to the movies is a treat, not a chore.
    More compared to the candy store rather than the grocery.
    I say, let ‘er rip! Bring on the new stuff…..3D, Holographs, and eventually Vulcan Mind Meld!!!!!! Remember “Total Recall”? That’s what I’m talking about.
    Its on the way, showing at your local theatre in a few short blinks……

  15. I find your thoughts interesting, but the cost of first run movies seems to be causing a different kind of “digital divide,” hence, encouraging more piracy. As piracy increases, costs go up again, and on it goes…

  16. Great thoughts and an interesting perspective. I do remember the opening scenes of “Star Wars” and was immediately caught up, and to this day, I still get a charge out of the lights going down, the sound going up, and being taken away for a couple of hours. I do agree that sometimes technology tries to replace story, but sometimes the two mesh for a treat that is best enjoyed with a theater full of your closest friends…as long as they know how to act and leave the kids at home. Looking forward to the next installment.

  17. Unique title, thought provoking. Never thought there was so much technology about a movie. You did your homework with all the facts. Looking forward to more.

  18. unique insight and perspective “outside the box”. fast and easy read with information old and new. Enjoy the concept that there is more to come, you left me wondering what else I need to know. Interesting!

  19. Steve-O, this is good stuff! I’m looking forward to reading more. One of the first movies I went to in a theater was Return of the Jedi, and I’ll never forget that opening moment.

  20. Very interesting article. One doesn’t read so much about the technology that’s brought about better and more interesting movies. I look forward to reading more!

  21. Thought from the older generation….depend on younger family members to set up all the stuff required to ‘really’ view a movie. Have just started comparing the computer generated antics/animals/people quality since we got the BIG tv with 3, count em, 3 speakers….long way from our ol’ hi fi of years ago. Appreciating your thoughts and helping drag me into the present century. Where are the adult theatres with the wine?

  22. Great start Steve! We have your seat reserved. I enjoyed your brief analysis of the pros and cons of the technological advances in the story telling industry so many of us remain enchanted with. However I disagreed with the implication inherent in the conclusion you made regarding individuals producing movies that have “Tried to replace story with visual.” Your phrasing makes it sound almost conspiritorial, that some in film production intentionally disregard story in favor of visual effects. I don’t really think that’s the case. Rather I see an industry lining its coffers with the proceeds of providing the desired entertainment of the masses (evidenced by the worldwide returns and scheduled sequals of even just the two titles you mentioned). More often then not, I think real story development is left by the wayside out of lazyness. It seems likely that movies presenting a complete story rich in the elements of good film would require much more effort to create. Unfortunately for film lovers, the “soltuion” rests in the wallets of the masses.
    Another interesting element when looking at technological advances in film is in looking at the cyclical nature of the gimmicks used to draw in an audience. the current resurgence of 3-D is an excellent example of this. 3-D films were first popularized back in the 50’s with titles such as “House of Wax” and “It Came from Outer Space.” 3-D came back in the limelight in the 80’s, and is now again the favored tool used to increase revenue. Similarly the vibrating seats you mentioned got their starts with the William Castle “Shocker” “The Tingler” from 1959. It’d be interesting to look at other patterns prevalent in film history.
    Great to read your thoughts Steve, almost like having you here to “teach” film to me 😉 Miss you, looking forward to more columns!

  23. Chad, great comments. You interpreted my intentions incorrectly. I do not see it as conspiratorial. I agree with you completely. It is lazy and done because it brings in the big bucks. Although, I still struggle with whether people really WANT to spend their money on such things or not. Their wallets do speak. But I believe people would RATHER have the big effects integrated with a good story. And I believe that they (myself included) keep HOPING that this time, this movie, it will happen. Its hard to discern from trailers. I get jazzed to see a film and just don’t know until I pay my money and sit in the theatre whether it will be wonderful and integrate technology and story or whether it will be lazy and play to the lowest common denominator and just give me great visuals and nothing else. You just don’t know until your watching the whole thing. And trailers make you want to see a lot of films, some of which deliver on what the trailer promises, some don’t. THAT’S why they all make so much money, you just don;t know until the money has been exchanged.

  24. nice job stevo. As an ignorant moviegoer, it’s interesting to read about the shift in movie watching over the years. I also wonder what you would say to the fact that I have trouble watching a movie anywhere BUT the theater. I can’t get into a movie at home even with surround sound, a dark room, comfy leather couch and big screen, hi res, HD panel TV. I have to be in a dark, dingy movie theater to get lost in the film. I just got lost in Black Swan this past Saturday, and I heard that background breathing for a good 24 hours afterward. If I had tried to watch that at home, it would have been all over at the very beginning of the movie.

  25. Sometimes, I think that a poorly developed story is probably more indicative of a lack of skill rather than laziness. I doubt anyone wants to present something that fails to move others. For myself, I would love to write like Jane Austin or some other great, but fail in the execution.

  26. Well said. About a week ago I realized I hadn’t been to the movies in well over a year – probably longer. I then made a date with the movie theater, and quickly ‘stood it up’….as the invitation from the next door neighbor (friend as well…nothing creepy) to his homemade movie theater was much more enticing. I wondered why I felt a slight sense of guilt… hmmm….giving into these technological advances….sort of disturbing for me. Old time movie going….there’s something about sharing a good ol’movie with strangers. I’ll keep the middle seat for you anytime!

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