copious notes

Rich Copley: Going to the movies has changed for the better since the '80s

Herald-Leader Culture ColumnistMarch 8, 2013 

As an unabashed child of the 1980s, I am eager to defend the decade against a lot of unwarranted slagging for its music, movies and even fashion — OK, that last one might be taking it too far. But one thing I can't defend is its movie theaters.

That has been brought into stark relief the past couple weeks as the LexGo Totally Awesome '80s Film Festival has screened at the beautiful Kentucky Theatre.

Yes, The Kentucky has age-related problems that the Friends of The Kentucky are working to address. But I think most of my fellow students in the Reagan era will tell you it's a heckuva a lot better than the mall, multiplex, matchbox cinemas that dominated the landscape when we saw Risky Business (1983) and The Breakfast Club (1985), two upcoming fest features, and Oscar winners Amadeus (1984) and Gandhi (1982).

That was the case in my hometown of Virginia Beach, Va. After talking to folks and getting responses from some Facebook queries, it appears that it was the case in Lexington, too.

The 1970s and '80s brought mall culture, and movie theaters followed, trying to squeeze multiple screens into the spaces usually taken by department stores. These often turned into nondescript, glorified screening rooms that offered little more than the movie and a concession stand.

What more did you need?

Where else were you going to see an unedited feature on a (semi) big screen?

All my big-screen viewings of Star Wars (1977) were in these dinky little movie-fan traps. Fortunately, I got to see The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) in a theater near my home that never forgot the appeal of floor-to-ceiling screens and great sound. But it had only two screens — what a relic — and we were horrified to hear that there was talk of slicing those theaters in half to make it four screens, a fate that befell many theaters in the '70s and '80s, creating freakishly long theaters with miniscule screens up front.

Fortunately, the '80s also were the era of something else: home video.

VCRs, prohibitively expensive when introduced to consumers in the '70s, started coming down in price. I remember buying my first Sanyo Beta VCR for $299 with money I earned from my paper route.

With that, movie night didn't have to mean going to the mall and hassling with parking, expensive concessions and ushers trying to keep us and our under-17 friends out of R-rated movies.

We simply could go to a video store and rent a tape for the group, paying far less than the cost of one movie ticket. It isn't that we abandoned the movies. But it seems theater companies got the message that just showing the movie was becoming less and less acceptable.

The first time I saw Ferris Bueller's Day Off, this week's feature at the '80s fest, it was at the then-new AMC Theatre outside the main mall in Virginia Beach. Yes, it had eight screens, but they were beautiful houses with royal burgundy curtains, as I recall, and THX sound systems that brought Aliens to even-more-disturbing life.

For a while, when a movie I wanted to see came out, I hoped it played there and not in one of those dark boxes inside the mall. I was stunned once to read that the seating capacity of one house in those old theaters was 98.

But soon, the theater chains started following suit, and as the 1990s dawned, more and more theaters opened that offered the nice presentation along with comfortable seats and cup holders. We were a few years from the stadium-seating trend, which has become a standard now. But those matchboxes were quickly closing, and going to the movies was starting to seem special again.

Now, if we could just get rid of the endless trailers and relentless cellphone users.

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Email: rcopley@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @copiousnotes.

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