The Importance of Audience

As someone who makes film there is a certain amount of embarrassment involved in admitting how rare it is that I go to the movie theatre. I'm probably not alone in this: with movies On Demand and Netflix and the like it isn't necessary to leave the house to catch up on the latest cinematic masterpiece to grace the silver screen.

Not long ago I attended a screening of "Argo" at the Writers Guild Theatre. It wasn't a film that I had a deep desire to see, but since the screenwriter was going to be around to do a Q&A afterwards I was willing to give it a chance. What most impressed me about the experience had nothing to do with the film (although it is a well done film and I recommend that you give it a chance too) but rather with the audience. To be fair, this was an audience of film people, writers in particular, so I think it is fair to assume they already had a vested interest in the film. Even keeping that in mind, it was a pleasure to be a part of that audience: they filled the house, they laughed freely when something was funny, clapped when a climactic moment was accomplished, were courteously quiet the rest of the time, and  they through the credits. This,  I realized, was an important part to the movie-watching experience that I had been missing by not going to the theatre more often.

The advantages to staying home and watching a movie are numerous: it costs less, you can pick whatever movie you want, your feet never stick to the floor, and of course you never have to deal with rude, loud, or distracting other people.

Let us play the devil's advocate for a moment and consider what it is about going out to a movie that we once enjoyed before the comfort and convenience of watching movies at home. First of all, it was an event! Going out to a movie was something that you did with other people- people that you like! There is something to be said for sharing a movie with a friend or a group of friends because it didn't matter if you liked the movie or thought it was the worst waste of time and money that you'd ever seen: it all became part of the conversation afterwards.

If you are familiar at all with the business model of Starbucks you will be familiar with the idea of the "Third Place"- which is to say, a safe, inviting, public space where people can meet that isn't Home or Work. The suggestion of "Let's meet for coffee" has less to do with the consumption of caffeinated drinks than it is an offer to spend some casual time getting to know an unfamiliar person on neutral territory. If the coffee shop is the Third Place I would venture to suggest that the movie theatre is the Fourth Place: a safe, public space that allows people to get to know each other better by providing a shared experience.

As competition from Movies On Demand and Netflix and other sources of home entertainment builds against the conventional movie theatre I think that for movie theatres to thrive it is going to be important to recognize the importance of this audience experience.

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