Oculus – The Twenty First Century Theater Remake with 40 Dollar Tickets [Film]

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Chapter One – The Changing Theater

Every Monday night over eighteen-million televisions turn on with the purpose of watching NBC’s The Blacklist (2013-2014) developed by Sony Pictures. The charismatic wordplay of anti-hero Raymond “Red” Reddington portrayed by James Spader is a shared experience by the audience in general terms although viewer reactions to Reddington remain fundamentally isolated from one another. This isolation is the result of television’s ability to only support single to small viewing groups. Storytelling is bigger than this and exerts very personal reactions from the viewer when left to competent hands. During a theater screening the level of dramatic tension, comedic laughter, or horror filled shock is exponentially amplified through the participation of the audience which collectively feeds off each member’s emotional reactions. The limiting isolation of television is why movie theaters have thrived for the past 120 years. We are social creatures by which our storytelling moments are drastically improved through the sharing of experiences not just in collective terms but rather a required need to experience and share with other people in the same physical space breathing the same tension filled slightly stinking musky muggy recirculated air.

The Longview Theater was a second-run single-screen theater constructed in Longview Washington during the early 1930s of the Classic Hollywood Period. Years later the theater found itself located under a mile from the west coast multiplex chain Regal Theater the linked changing landscape of theaters during the late 80s and early 90s. The Longview Theater is a reminder of Americana romanticized by the old and forgotten by the youth. As so many other theaters across the United States have closed succumbing to the financial forces of those larger big screen chains so eventually did the Longview Theater. But back in November of ‘94 the Longview Theater was still open and I was a ten year old boy excited to see aliens, wormholes, and James Spader (I only appreciated Kurt Russell A.K.A. Colonel Jack O’Neill much later in life) star in the Sci-Fi classic Stargate.

Five steps behind by father and losing ground we rushed inside the Longview Theater’s lobby wet and cold from a torrential winter downpour. My father loved his popcorn served with extra butter along with an equally large Pepsi to counter the food’s lingering salty taste. Slightly burnt popcorn filled the air. Not losing a step from the entryway, we rushed right up to the usher working concession and who was also selling tickets. We shared the largest popcorn available along with two Cokes despite my father’s constant complaints to the young man behind the display case as to why he needed to carry Pepsi instead. My father eventually finished, we took our food and made our way to the balcony.

Longview TheaterHalfway through Stargate the storm knocked the power out leaving us sitting in the pitch black auditorium with twenty other people. After a few moments shouts from down below began. “Start the movie!” and “Where’s the picture?!” echoed off the screen along with the flinging of popcorn or rather off of the back of me. One person would make a joke and everyone would laugh followed by another person making a similar joke and everyone again would laugh. We kept this up for what I remember as being twenty minutes with never a response from the theater staff probably due to that usher, concession worker, ticket seller and projectionist being a single person working that night. Eventually the power returned, the film started up again, and the movie finished.

Twenty years later I saw the low-budget WWE supernatural horror film Oculus at the Vancouver Mall Cinetopia Movie Parlor. Cinetopia’s website describes the experiences as “Ultra luxurious seating, unique suite-level amenities, in-theater restaurant service available, Digital 7.1 Sound, Super HD 30 foot screen with an additional 18 LED screens creating an immersive movie environment.” With a maximum capacity of thirty people the chairs resemble couches furnished with pillows and feature autumns for putting feet up onto. The Movie Parlor is as different from the Longview Theater as Adam West’s batman (1966-68) is to Christian Bale’s batman series (2005, 2008, 2012). In order to understand the difference between Cinetopia and the Longview Theater we must understand what home theater is in the twenty-first century and The Blacklist’s weekly eighteen-million televisions.

A person can walk into an electronics store and purchase a 70 Inch High Definition (HD) television with a 7.2 surround sound system for under five-thousand dollars. A JVC 4K projector can be purchased for eight-thousand dollars while 4K 65 Inch televisions have dropped in price to as low as three-thousand dollars. These improvements in technology coincide with the rise of Video On Demand (VOD) services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime. During the same time period as my experience of watching Stargate with my father, he was also building his own home theater system for VHS rentals and the upcoming DVD Players. Surround Sound had also become a practical home option which men purchased in droves.

LG-Cinetopia-Vancouver-Mall-architecture-07In this context the Cinetopia Movie Parlor’s 2K projection and 7.2 Surround Sound no longer imitates the theater experience but rather attempts an imitation of the home theater experience. This is a drastic paradigm shift in the approach of getting people out of their home theaters and into their theaters. With the rise of affordable 4K displays the question of the future of the theater has legitimacy not experienced  since the failure of 20th Century Fox’s Cleopatra (1963). In the beginning of moving images the motion picture was still new, exciting, and wielded awe and wonder which brought audiences together in shared rooms. If the theater is going to continue, that shared experience must remain at its core.

The world experienced its first collective movie experience in Lyon, France. The Lumière brothers, Louis and Auguste, wanted to show movies not to a single person looking through a box as had been the practice for traveling attraction and sideshows, but instead to large groups of people. Film had to be bigger if it was going to succeed. The dream of the big screen was made true on December 28th, 1895 when the Lumière brothers projected their documentary film Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895) out to the world. Arrival at La Ciotat (1896) followed a year later depicting trains arriving at station. It is said this imagery caused a great unsettledness for the audience with some fainting.

Up until the 1930s most people did not move more than twenty miles from where they were born to where they would pass. The United States in its coast to coast vastness was still composed of isolated smaller communities. Nickelodeons became the window out to the rest of the world. The nation’s first theater was opened by Harry Davis and John P. Harris on June 19th, 1906. These theaters seated less than 200 people on wooden chairs with a screen hung on a back wall. A piano was set to the side of the screen for accompanying musical soundtracks. The first of these theaters were store fronts which had be transitioned.

Attendees would slap their nickel onto the ticket booth counter and walk inside to see glimpses of the outside world. Paris, London, Tokyo, the far off mysterious lands were brought back to small-town U.S.A. These films also brought back with them the latest fashions and social trends. The Nickelodeons although became victims of their own success. The new American studios Famous Players (Paramount), Warner Brothers, MGM, etc… were producing over seven hundred films a years for display in over fifteen-thousand theaters across the county. The rise of feature films over shorts and documentaries was also a contributing factor in the Nickelodeons’ decline through the tremendous success of such films as The Birth of a Nation (1915) from D. W. Griffith. Simply growing attendance required larger auditoriums.

In 1914 New York City the first of the million dollar Movie Palaces was built. The  Mark Strand Theater at 47th Street and Broadway opened by Mitchell Mark became the archetype for the Movie Palace featuring a single auditorium with rows of seats, a box office, concessions, balcony and washrooms. Movie Palace boasted luxury, giant screens and lavish architectural designs. Innovations such as seats with pivoting backs that allowed people to remain seated while others could pass in front of the rows was only one example. Talking pictures soon took over the silent era with sound movies out selling silent film by ten million tickets. Movie Palaces were forced to rewire their theaters to support the new sound format such as the monster classic Frankenstein (1931) by Director James Whales. Frankenstein from Universal was an American defining film for the horror genre.

The Elgin Theater in Ottawa Canada was the first theater to offer two screen capable of showing two different movies simultaneously in 1957. In the United States, Stanley Durwood of American Multi-Cinema (AMC Theaters) pioneered multiplexes in the early 1960s. These new designs allowed for a theater to operate several auditoriums with minimum staff through a centralized box office and snack bar area. This new Multiplex was built in Kansas City Missouri. A Multiplex featuring over twenty screens is known as a Megaplex which was first built by AMC for Dallas Texas in 1995. By the late ‘90s a Regal Theater would replace a single-screen Classic Hollywood Period theater in Longview Washington.

The horror genre had existed before sound as one of the first genre most notably and best done from German and Northern Europe films. This genre is about the dread of the unseen and above all others genres gets the closest to an audiences’ nervous system making the viewers sweet in cold rooms. Eighty-three years after FrankensteinOculus (2014) by Mike Flanagan continues this horror genre motif through supernatural sub-genre.

Oculus 2Oculus premiered on September 8th, 2013 at the Toronto International Film Festival based on an earlier short film Oculus: Chapter 3 – The Man with the Plan. The film received a wide theatrical release on April 11th, 2014. Told through linked parallel stories of the present and 11 years ago the film follows Tim (Brenton Thwaites) a young man just discharged from state psychiatric care. Tim had shot and killed his father 11 year prior and now believes he had created an elaborate supernatural story of a mirror’s evil demonic effect on his father in order to protect his psyche from truth of  his father simply being an evil man. Tim’s sister Kaylie (Karen Gillan) has spent her past 11 years researching the mirror’s history becoming obsessed with proving her family’s innocents while also trying to kill the force residing within its glass. The realist and super-naturalist perspectives purpose an interesting question for the audience to ponder.  (Hint – Low-budget WWE supernatural horror film). The results of this answer sets up an interesting progression of illusion built upon deeper illusions which eventually culminating in the overlapping the parallel narratives as to confuse the audience in where reality had gone.

By 2013 the average price for a movie tickets in the United States was eight dollars and thirteen cents. Seeing Oculus for two people at the Vancouver Mall Cinetopia Movie Parlor cost over forty-dollars without buying slightly burnt popcorn. Forty-dollars was spent for the imitation of the home theater experiences. If people can share a great time in the Movie Parlor by all means they should attend the Movie Parlor as often as they can. For me, the Movie Parlor gave me a sense of excitement this first go around but in retrospect I feel the theater misses the context of the previous 120 years of auditoriums. Big Screen, CinemaScope, UltraScope, the road show presentations, 600 people sitting together in the same space sharing the same experiences. To quote my good friend Michael Holmgren during the quiet after moment that followed an immensely tense scene in the third act of Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglorious Bastards (2009) “Holy Fuck!!!” – the whole audience erupted in laughter over Holmgren’s remark serving to lighten the room’s intensity from the previous scene. That was an experience I will always remember having shared with Ron Trembath, Adam Matson, Michael Holmgren, Tyler Averett and the 50 other moviegoers I will never know the name of in that theater.

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About Christopher
I know some things. I wish I knew more things. There are a lot of things in the world. Pop culture is fun too. I live in the Northwest. I've had the opportunity to work with great people. Radiohead and Motorhead are two of my favorite bands. Good works are good works regardless of their genre. Good works are good works regardless of how popular or unpopular they may be. Dr. Strangelove is my favorite film. I find it hard to list after a number one spot. Be well.

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