15 November 2009

In Search of the Perfect Silver Screen

I really do try to patronise independent cinemas wherever possible. The experience is far more pleasurable than the awful, over-sized multiplexes even if the tickets are more expensive. In theory, at least. Recently, though, my indie cinema trips have tended to have little irritations that have if not ruined the film then distracted me from enjoying it as much as I would have otherwise. Perhaps I've been spoiled by going to the BFI so much, which is always great because everyone--staff and the audience--loves films. Perhaps I just go to the cinema more often and so start to notice little quirks that might not have caught my attention otherwise, just like the way at least one train journey I make per week, now that I commute, will have some annoyance--the electric doors between the first class carriage and pleb class might open and shut every five seconds for the whole journey, for example.

1. No Hable con Ella, por favor. It's not as bad as in France yet, I'll admit that, but almost every other time I go to the Screen on Baker Street, I will find myself sitting next to a foreign couple who will spend the whole film talking or muttering to each other. On Friday, for example, a middle-aged, European couple were sitting next to me. Every two minutes or so the man would let out a series of grunts, often with an associated hand gesture, while his wife would then chatter away quickly though more quietly. I assume he was asking what had happened in a scene and she was trying to explain but then sometimes, his grunts seemed to be more critical as though he were questioning why a character had said a certain line or done something a certain way. I was too English to say anything but the Aussie girls in the row in front turned round, about halfway through, and asked them to be quiet. They did. For about five minutes and then the muttering started again. The Aussies tried again a couple of times and then gave up but did shout at the couple when leaving telling them to watch a DVD next time so they didn't spoil the film for others although the couple pretended not to understand. It made me feel a bit better though. Of course, this isn't the cinema's fault and Baker Street does have a large international population but perhaps the Screen could put up a multilingual sign explaining that people come to the cinema here to watch a film and not to chat.

2. Bright Lights, Big City. When allowing customers to book tickets online, cinemas should really include information about any major obstructions of the screen and potential interference from "emergency lighting" when making the screen plans available. The Screen on Baker Street failed again on this recently. As I visit fairly often, I have my favourite seats and favourite rows in each screen. Sadly, as I was booking late a few weeks ago, most of the good seats were taken. "Please note that you are not able to leave a single seat gap between your seats and the end of the row or seats already sold," the website advised. For some reason, though, someone else's booking had left a lone seat at the end of the row and I was getting an error message coming up when I tried to book it. Fail. This meant I had to sit in the row behind, which would have been OK had it not been for the horribly bright emergency light that was inserted into the seat across the aisle, which was very unpleasant for someone who gets migraines or who isn't expecting the Spanish Inquisition. After the trailers, when the ice cream guys (see below) came round, they asked if anyone else wanted anything and I asked if they could turn the light off but of course they can't.

This isn't the only cinema where poorly placed emergency lighting has detracted from my cinematic experience. I'm not saying they shouldn't have emergency lights, but cinema owners should actually test out potential lighting positions by sitting in each of the seats to test for distracting and painful glare before fixing the lights permanently.

3. I Scream. You rush to get to the cinema on time because you know the Grumpy Old Women will tut at you if you dare to ask if you can squeeze past them after the adverts have begun (unsurprisingly, the GOW sitting next to me on Friday was pretty late herself and had to squeeze past everyone and then made a huge fuss when the chatty foreign couple needed to get in a couple of minutes later). Then you endure ten minutes of adverts and five of trailers (which aren't so bad) as well as whichever tired, old Orange commerciadvisory reminding you to switch your phone off. Finally, you think, it's time for the film. But then the lights come on and for a few minutes nothing happened.

The first time this happened, I assumed it was due to a technical glitch, like at the Finchley Road Odeon, but then a couple of minutes later, two ushers came in asking if anyone wanted to buy ice cream. At first, I thought they were filling in the time until the film was actually ready to go but it's happened every time since at the Screen on Baker Street. Of course, cinemas make far more money from the food and drinks they sell than from ticket sales and while the Screen has nice, posh snacks, I rarely buy them because they are expensive. The post-trailer but pre-film ice cream sales trick is a good one because the audience is then sitting down comfortably rather than rushing in to get to their seat on time and are more likely to be susceptible to impulse buys (incidentally, in my experience, more women than men go for the last-minute ice cream). Clearly, it's worth it for the cinema--usually six or seven people will buy an ice cream and while I'm not sure what the margins are, it's probably a good boost. For most of the audience, though, it's a pain in the arse--more time spent hanging around waiting for the film.

For all of the above reasons, I don't mind too much that it will cost me £25 to renew my BFI membership (with £10 discount for being an existing member and £5 discount for paying by direct debit). The BFI is a place for cinema lovers who have come to watch a film and doesn't have poorly placed emergency lighting or ice cream breaks (in fact, they don't allow any food in the auditoria, which means no rustling of sweetie wrappers). The tickets are reasonably priced, especially for members, and there's a really nice bar and restaurant on site, which makes it easy to have a great night out there. The only trouble, though, is that they don't show all new releases and so finding another independent cinema that will screen the new films I want to see but which allows me to do so in pleasant conditions. Now there's a mission...

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