Friedenberg terms the death of such theaters a sad passing in American life. Of course, several remain open, but none are being built--from his view, virtually anywhere.
"Why is it bad?" he said. "Because you lose the advantage that motion picture theaters have typically had. You lose the big presentation. That's bad, because televisions are getting bigger, people can now rent videos for $1, and when theater screens become smaller and smaller, and TV screens larger and larger, people will soon ask: 'Why bother with the theater?'
"To go to a theater and see a 70-millimeter movie with 1,000 people sharing the experience--you'll never get that at home, no matter how big your house is."
Friedenberg senses a compromise. Of the newer multiplexes being built--such as the UA Horton Plaza and the Edwards Cinema in San Marcos--some are including a single theater that rivals (but fails to match) the Big House. Friedenberg calls it "an attempt at the best of both worlds."
Andrew Makarushka is film critic for KYXY-FM (96.5). He calls the Horton Plaza sevenplex "the best new thing that's happened to the movies in San Diego." He likes the long stairway leading up to the ample lobby (that alone makes it different from most multiplexes). He also likes the early-morning weekday starts. Some screens are alive as early as 9:45 a.m.
Makarushka understands but laments the economics of theater owners preferring multiplexes to the solitude of one-screen houses. Other factors in the moviegoing experience disturb him far more than multiplexes.
"One of the primary changes the last four years is audience participation--it's much worse," he said. "Certain nights are just pathetic. Friday nights, that's teen date night. Matinees are often crammed with senior citizens who openly compare the movie they're seeing to the hits of the 1940s.
"The (Mann Theatres) Sports Arena 6 is just awful, maybe the worst in town. A strange thing happens there. Sailors go, three at a time, taking up six seats. They're afraid to sit next to each other--I guess it threatens their masculinity. So they talk to each other from across several seats. Very bizarre."
Occasionally Bizarre Crowds
Very bizarre is a good way to describe some movie crowds. Really weird also fits. Would anyone behave this way at live theater? (Some playgoers complain that it's happening there too.) At recent showings, attended at random for this survey, these had the most people talking during the movie: Pacific's Clairemont, its Sweetwater 6 in Chula Vista and the Center Cinemas in east Mission Valley.
At a showing of "The Big Easy" at AMC's Santee Village 8, a man stood up and shouted to the man behind him: "Shut the . . . up! You have jabbered the entire time!" That side of the theater erupted in applause.
Rhonda Holmes is assistant manager of Pacific's La Jolla Village fourplex, which had quiet, well-behaved crowds for weekend showings of "No Way Out" and "Stakeout." Holmes said movie talkers are a problem and that the recent baby boom has led to innovative policy decisions.
Increasing numbers of breast-feeders and toddlers are coming in with Mom and Dad, sometimes to movies with R ratings (no one under 17 admitted without parent or guardian). Holmes said that, if a child makes noise (as many do), the parents get a warning, a kind of cinematic technical foul. Two technicals, as in basketball, and Mommy and Daddy are tossed out--albeit with readmission tickets for future showings . . . without the baby.
Makarushka said talkers can't be avoided, but he urged consumers to take necessary steps to avoid the likelihood of being disturbed, annoyed or really hacked off. You should never go on $1 night, which many theaters present on Tuesdays. Makarushka calls dollar nights a disaster for sensitive moviegoers.
He added that some theaters do better than others. He suggests avoiding the rattier multiplexes, unless the movie being shown can't be seen anywhere else.
He praised the trailers being shown that urge talkers not to. They've done some good, he said, but not much.
Concessions That Live Up to the Name
Concessions at many major theaters are major concessions to the moviegoing experience. Stale hot dogs and popcorn, watered-down colas, old candy--all are available for the asking. Expect to pay double the supermarket cost.
Caren Wimer, 24, of San Diego, applauded the Mann chain and the Landmark chain (which runs the Park, the Guild, the Cove and the Ken) for popping popcorn fresh and for using (or at least claiming to use) real butter. She, like many others, ranked the AMC Fashion Valley 4 as having the best popcorn.
The Pacific chain was universally condemned for popcorn that is never popped fresh, much less on the premises, and sometimes tastes stiffer than the box it came in.