Then versus now: Going to the cinema

Every time we take the kids to the cinema I marvel at how much things have changed since I was their age.

Okay, it’s been nearly 40 years since I went to watch my first film, so maybe it isn’t that surprising that the cinemagoing experience has changed significantly in that time – mostly (but not always) for the better.

Here are three of the most obvious things that are different now versus how they were back then.

1. Cinemas as theatres

It was probably at least in part because I was so much smaller then but my childhood memories of cinemas were of grand old theatres, a mental image at odds with a modern multiplex.

Our local cinema, like many others, used to have only three screens – two smaller ones and one huge theatre which could house at least 700-800 people. 

Nowadays we’re more accustomed to multiplexes which might have ten or more screens but will typically only seat 100-150 people max. They’re not so much the Theatre Royal as a small provincial theatre.

For sure, the seats are more luxurious and you have far more leg space in a modern cinema – it’s like the difference between flying first class versus economy. And picture and sound quality are streets ahead of what we used to have yet for me it’s now a more comfortable but functional experience than a grand one. A part of me misses the way things were.

2. Buying tickets

Then there was the whole process of buying tickets.

Back in the day, when a big film came out – a Star Wars or an ET, say – the queue outside the cinema would start an hour or more before the programme started and it stretched around the block. There was no online pre-booking of seats. You turned up, you queued, you bought your ticket, you sat wherever you could find a seat, aided by an usherette with a torch.

Can you imagine queuing like that now? People grumble if they have to wait more than two minutes for their popcorn at the concession stand. And rather than a mad scramble to get inside and bag the best spots, people are now accustomed to strolling casually in midway through the ads because they know they have pre-allocated seats.

3. Intermissions

Ah, intermissions. Anyone remember them?

When I was a kid, many films still had a defined break part-way through where we would stretch our legs, race to the toilets or queue up to buy a choc ice from an usherette with a tray. You needed intermissions too. By the late 1970s, films were certainly shorter than the classic epics such as Gone With The Wind (a shade under four hours) but it was still common for movies to clock in at 2-2½ hours.

With some modern films, it feels like the ads and trailers last longer than the films themselves, with some over inside 90 minutes. At just over two hours, the 2016 remake of Ben-Hur is longer than average by modern standards but it is dwarfed by the 1959 original which ran to a whopping 3 hours 32 minutes.

Anyhow, the last film I went to that had an intermission was Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun in 1987. It was a hefty 2:34 in length and, as it was set across two distinct time periods, the intermission almost became a part of the film itself. 

Mind you, such is the nature of young children that I almost wish modern films still had intermissions for toilet breaks. The number of times I have missed a movie’s denouement because of an urgent call of nature …

Then versus now

I had just turned eight the first time my parents took me to the cinema to see Grease and I remember loving the whole experience. All the way through my teen and university years I would often spend weekends and holidays sat in a dark theatre in front of a flickering big screen.

Sadly, since the kids came along I hardly ever go any more. Since Isaac was born, the only non-animated films I’ve seen in the cinema are the four most recent Bond films.

Although, of course, now you only typically have to wait a few months for films to come out on DVD so it’s not so bad if you miss one first time around. I can remember in the past – before the studios realised that the videotape market was a huge opportunity for the industry rather than a threat – it could easily be three years or more before a big film was finally released on VHS. In many ways that’s great but in others it’s a bit of a shame – it makes going to the movies less of an event than it used to be. But that’s progress for you.

What about you? Can you remember how old you were when you first went to the cinema and what your first film was?


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