The Audience Divide

Theater owners do not depend upon folks like me for their trade. After all, I prefer to watch movies in theaters that are largely empty. Quiet as the grave, and more deserted than a tomb. I love it this way. Too bad none of these places stay in business for long.

So the recent dust-up about rude audiences has sparked my interest. Especially since I have long felt that certain movies demand a loud and rude house in order to be properly appreciated. Heck, a misfire like Maximum Overdrive is only enjoyable with a rowdy audience.

Traditionally, the rude house debate has been mostly focused on the difference between a quiet, polite audience versus a boisterous band of total loudmouth jackasses who behave like a pack of Vikings on their way to England. The proper film audience stays reverentially silent while casting a studious glaze at the screen.After observing audiences for several decades, I can say without hesitation both sides of this debate are absolutely full of it. Both are invoking unconscious and half-bogus cultural and social myths and illusions. Which may help to explain why the digital tech blogger Anil Dash felt the need to address this issue twice. First in the pretty polite and straight-forward piece Respecting Cinema in the Digital Age, and again in the much more provocative Shushers: Wrong About Movies. Wrong About the World. Both are recommended reads. But before you read them, I would like to add some context to the material.

I have dealt with a wide range of audiences. Everything from the art house to general audience and special-focused groups. Like many others in this trade, I came to the deep realization that an audience – any audience – is basically a wild beast. You never know which way this critter will jump and no matter how well you think and plan, you will never succeed in second-guessing the crowd. Fortunately, it is rare that the audience really turns hostile on you. But they can and, occasionally, they will. My own worse experience was with a mob of pissed off unemployed coal miners (I am not making this up) who grabbed my legs and tried to drag me out into the street (for what I am not sure). Fortunately, I had several assistants who held onto my belt and dragged me back in, bolting the doors as fast as possible.

Moreover, there are more ways to go wrong than there are to go right. I discovered this the first time I had to deal with a couple of guys getting into a loud and increasingly threatening fight during (believe it or not) a Truffaut movie. I asked them both to step out into the lobby with me. I had some stupid idea that we could achieve a happy and peaceful resolution. Once we were in the lobby, both idiots started tearing into me until I finally blew up and told them to shut their pie holes before I threw them both out. I should note that I had several assistants with me by that point. Having good assistants is very important in this business.

Also be aware that a lot of theater managers have problems knowing what kind of audience to expect for a movie. That was part of the problem with a recent incident that took place in Maryland during the opening of Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Most likely, the nitwits in charge had convinced themselves that the gangbangers were hot to see a movie starring Oprah Winfrey. Aside from the obvious latent racism (which is an issue I want to address in another piece), it is also a reminder as to how little (if anything) the average theater manager understands about their own audience.

Then you have to keep in mind that movie theaters are fighting for their very existence in the modern market. Based upon the most recent study by StudioDirect, the average theater is operating at 10 to 15 per cent capacity. The reasons for this are many (which again we will deal with in another piece). But it means there are a lot of empty seats out there.

So movie theaters are trying almost anything. Booze, food, and wall-to-wall dining experience (with wait staff). I half expect they will soon try disco night in the back rows. Oh sure, they always tell you in those cute ads before the feature to turn off your cell phone and hush up. But most theaters are not really that locked into this program. To be honest, the biggest concern the theater has about your cell phone involves its video capacity and piracy issues.

What theaters want is to increase their audience. Just as many TV programs now encourage active social media engagement with the shows, movie theaters may indeed seek a way of accommodating the digital crowd. Personally, I am not thrilled at this prospect. But I do understand the financial motivation. Besides, there have been an assortment of blockbuster movies so dull that the person texting next to me was more fun to watch.

Which gets to what I suspect is the real problem. Most major Hollywood movies are flat at a very fundamental level. Despite all of the elaborate CGI and big explosions, they lack virtually any level of emotional engagement. At best, the audience is only hanging in for the spectacle. All the in-between stuff is dull and predictable. Might as well check your emails until the next thing goes boom.

Trust me. I have seen first hand the difference that emotional engagement can make. I still remember attending the opening night of Edward Scissorhands. It was a packed and extremely urban house. Since I tend to be very split about Tim Burton, I figured the audience comments might be a plus.

For the first half hour, the house delivered. Lots of comments. All pretty boisterous and rude. Then I realized it was getting really, really quiet. By the last half hour, thuggish looking men were secretly wiping away tears. I almost expected by the end to see members of the Bloods and the Crips giving each other reassuring hugs.

Emotional engagement: it’s how you develop the dramatic phenomenon called catharsis and win your audience.

-Dennis Toth Copyright (C) 2013 All Rights Reserved