How to Watch a Movie (At the Art or Anywhere)

Photo Credit: Christopher M. Carignan

“Wait,” you say, “first of all I know how to watch a movie. Second, who the hell are you to tell me how to?”

It’s a presumptuous title, I know. But I do have some qualifications. I ran Champaign's Art Theater for 33 months as my personal business, during which I was responsible for every aspect of the theater – and that was after five years of planning and research.

So please consider me your guide for a behind-the-scenes tour of movie exhibition…

Before you go to the movie

If you get nothing else from this post, remember this: about 75% of people show up in the last 15 minutes before the movie starts. Want to glide in, get a great seat, and have time to pee without missing previews? Go 15 minutes early. Want to wait in line, miss trailers, and have a crappy seat? Go 5 minutes before the start.

So plan ahead. Going to eat before the film? Build in time so that you can finish AND PAY without a rush. Driving on a weekend? Don’t forget that you’ll be parking far away. Doing other pre-show preparations? Bake some time into your plans.  (Cypress Hill, I'm looking in your direction.)

Walking in to the Lobby

Pause for a moment when you walk in. Feel the energy of a movie lobby. (This is an area where the Art Theater experience creams the competition.) Savor the sensory overload. Stop and smell the popcorn. At the megaplexes, survey the room and figure out where the lines are… especially at the Champaign Carmike, finding the right line is crucial – and it’s usually the farthest one from the door.

Buying a Ticket

If you’re at the Art, buying a ticket is easy – there’s only one movie at a time. The super friendly staff will take care of you and upsell you on a snack at the same time! But here’s a tip: it snags the process when people forget to ask for their discount up front. You’re a student or a senior? Tell them before they ring you up!

At the multiplex it’s harder. Which Superhero showing are you seeing: IMAX 3D, 2D, 3D, 3D D-Box, Luxury 3D, etc.? Tell them clearly to avoid any hassles later. And if you’re so stoned that you can’t remember the name of the movie you want to see, then PLEASE write it on your hand!

I’m a big fan of pre-buying tickets, especially with reserved seats. The extra dollar is absolutely worth it because it avoids you rushing and stressing, especially when you’re already paying $15 per ticket. One of my greatest regrets is that we never succeeded in getting pre-bought seats to the Art.

Another wonderful tool is the automated ticket machine. Nothing is more satisfying than bypassing a long line at the box office by using the machines. Particularly in combination with pre-bought seats: swipe your card, tickets spit out, and you’re done!

Buying Concessions

Here I have to admit that I am the worst type of customer – I don’t like to eat during movies. Actually, the WORST type of customer is someone who sneaks food into the movies. As you are probably aware, concessions make up a good amount of a theater’s profit (31% during my operation of the Art Theater) and I guarantee it’s a lot higher at the multiplex. The Art sells food to subsidize showing great movies – if you bring in food then movie ticket prices will rise.

So I don’t eat, but I will drink. At the Art, my drink of choice is a Guinness, because I’m more likely to savor it over a longer period of time. The last thing I want to do is leave a film in the middle for a refill! Beer’s a great match with popcorn, but some movies call out for a glass of wine, or even a whiskey to sip. Let the film dictate your beverage…

Here are some concessions tips from my serving career:
  • Like a lot of butter? Ask for a “sandwich” with butter squirted in the middle of the popcorn bag (halfway through filling it), and also on top.
  • There are Red Vines people and Twizzlers people, and both are incredibly loyal. And both groups have members who use them as soda straws. (It’s actually tasty!)
  • At the Art, consider the Iced Tea or Iced Coffee… both are excellent.
  • Don’t be afraid to custom-order a soda blend. Diet Pepsi/Cherry Pepsi is a popular one.

Picking out a Seat

There’s a lot of personal preference here, but from a technical perspective the sweet spot is in the center, from halfway to 2/3 of the way back from the screen. That’s where the acoustics are optimal.
At the Art, my favorite seats are behind the missing seats for wheelchair parking. The leg room is excellent, and no one is blocking your view. (Unless someone parks their chair there, which is exactly what it’s for. So sometimes these aren’t great seats.) At the Art I also like to sit in the first seat outside of the aisle 2/3 of the way back. This is also about line-of-sight, because you will almost always have an unobstructed view.

In case you can't tell, I'm big on NOT having someone blocking my view. I'd rather sit off the side, with a clear line of sight, than in the middle with someone's big head in my way.

Some people swear by the front row at the Art, and they have a good point. In most theaters, the front row is too close – but at the Art it’s not. No one’s in front of you, and you definitely get the full field of vision (meaning your eyes see the whole screen, but not much else).

Then there are the back row people. People in the last row take their movies seriously. I used to sit in the back row when I ran the theater, in case I had to jump up and go to the lobby, but also because I’m a serious movie watcher, too. A subtle benefit of the back row is that there’s no noise behind you (almost all movie walls baffle sound) – and other people are facing forward, so it's QUIET.

A recommendation on where to sit at the multiplexes: with stadium seating (where each row is higher than the one in front of it) you’re not going to have as many problems with people blocking your view, but the best views are going to be sitting behind a railing. In particular, at the Savoy IMAX, I recommend the first row of the “main” section of seats – about 1/3 of the way back from the screen. You have a sheer drop in front of you, the better to watch 3D IMAX movies from.  Plus you’re getting the full force of the large speakers behind the screen, which is reduced as you go backwards due to people and seats absorbing the sound.

Before the Movie Starts

I hate (HATE) the ScreenVision advertisements at the multiplexes, especially at the end when they recap the ads you already watched. Even the crappy trivia was better.  The Art’s pre-show is much less invasive and more conducive to conversation or thoughtful pondering.

Instead of the dreck on screen, take time to look around and appreciate the theater. At the Art, this is easy because it’s a classic space. (The Virginia, too, is wonderful to ogle.) The multiplexes are blander, but I like to at least appreciate any extra effort – like the neon light in the front of the room (low, close to the floor) in the Carmike’s “Big D” space, which unfortunately isn’t turned off during the previews.

I also like to look at the audience (and I mentally count heads… it’s now a habit from business ownership). See someone you know? Be social! Go say hello. A movie theater is a communal space, and you should make the most of it.

Here’s a pre-show checklist to be a considerate audience member:
  • Take off your jacket so it won't rustle later. (And if you bring a jacket to wear, make it a soft and quiet one!)
  • Open your bags of candy ahead of time. They’re usually crinkly, and if you open them in the dark you might rip and spill.
  • Turn off your phone.
  • Make a preventative restroom visit before the film starts. (Who is that person who waits UNTIL THE MOVIE BEGINS to go the bathroom? Really? You sat through the advertising and previews but didn’t want to take the time to go… until the movie starts?)

During the Movie

Just enjoy the movie and let other people do the same. Movie-going is a shared experience, so don’t get upset if people cough, fidget, or go the bathroom. At some point, you’ll do all of those things too.
The whole point of seeing a film in the theater (vs. home) is the immersive experience. The darkness, surround sound, and a full field-of-vision image are all about tricking your brain into focusing all of your attention on the movie. So go along with it! The best films will draw you in completely.

To me, a great movie experience achieves the same results as meditation: shutting off the chattering monkey brain. This is why home viewing isn’t the same – there are too many interruptions and distractions!

But some people screw up the immersive experience for others. If people you don’t know are misbehaving (talking, using phones, etc.) then tell the staff – don’t confront them, because that just becomes a bigger distraction.

And if there’s a projection issue, and no one else has run out of the theater yet, then jump up and go tell the staff… they may not realize it. (Things are so automated these days that staff may not know of the problem!)

When the Movie Ends

Some people bolt when the movie’s over, and some linger for the credits. I’ve never been a fan of watching the whole credits myself… although I do wish it was better publicized when movies have that final “tag” scene at the end of the credits. For what it’s worth, here’s a list of older ones:

Here’s one way to judge a theater’s booth manager: when do the house lights come up at the end of the film?
  • If lights come on during the last piece of dialogue or closing shot of the movie, then that’s horrible. If this happens (and I’ve seen it!) tell the staff about so they can adjust it, because that’s a programmed setting they can change.
  • Leaving the lights off through the whole credits all the time is something I used to do as an exhibitor, out of respect for the filmmakers, but I learned that some people need the light to see where they’re walking. So I changed my ways…
  • Ideally, the lights should stay off until the artistic end credits cease, and the bland tiny font credits start.  Then they should come on. And when there’s a final post-credits scene, then dim the lights again!
When the credits finish, the discussion can begin. Discussing movies is one of the best parts of film-going! But where to talk?
  • Staying in your seat to discuss a film is OK in some cases, but be aware that there’s often a limited time before the next show. Staff need to clean the theater, so make sure that you’re giving them access to do their jobs!
  • Lobbies are good for discussion, if the space is right. The Carmike in Champaign does a great job with tables and chairs for that. The Art doesn’t have a lot of space in the lobby, unfortunately, but the sidewalk in front of the theater has seen many a post-show discussion.
  • So my last suggestion (especially for anyone using a movie as a date) is to see the movie first, THEN go out for dinner or a drink. That guarantees at least one good conversation topic, and takes the stress out of rushing through dinner to be on time for the movie!

By the way, yes - that was a real storm cloud and a real marquee in the picture from May 2011. I love this photo (thank you, Chris!) because it reminds me of the highs and lows of movie exhibition.
  • Showing "The Beaver" (yes, the Mel Gibson film) was a complete flop. I booked it because no one else would touch it, but they were right not to!
  • But "Sucker Punch" was sublime as a Late Night movie - talk about a movie that DEMANDED to be seen on a big movie screen with massive sound!