JJ Abrams on the future of cinema attendance

In a recent interview with The Nerdist podcast, J.J. Abrams (who, incidentally, comes across as an incredibly friendly and yet completely joyless person) suggested that cinemas wouldn’t suffer the same level of decline as traditional book and record shops. His reasoning? He reckons the experience of going to the cinema can’t be properly reproduced, even by the most tricked-out and elaborate TV and surround-sound setups. For him, the collective experience of watching a film in the dark with a group of strangers is so singular that it will always have a place in our lives.

I’m not sure I buy it. This year alone, I had two wildly differing experiences at the cinema that make me question what he’s saying.

First, there was Rise of the Planet of the Apes. At the dramatic high-point point of the movie, the moment at which – spoiler alert! – an ape speaks for the first time, the audience started tittering. This is supposed to be a powerful scene, but let’s face it: it’s a fucking ape talking, so it’s also a little silly. I don’t really blame the audience for laughing. At the same time, this didn’t stop it from completely breaking the illusion and tearing me out of the film. It made me feel stupid for having been so caught up in the movie that I was fully buying it before the laughter made me realise I was invested in a fucking ape talking. If I’m honest, I still resent that audience for doing that to me. If I had been watching it at home, I’d probably have fonder memories of that film.

A few weeks later, I went along to Melancholia, an incredibly powerful movie that I still haven’t fully processed, even months after seeing it. For the most part, this is a small, personal film. It’s a glimpse at someone suffering from depression. The film feels so voyeuristic that projecting it twenty feet tall seems sort of wrong. Maybe that’s also part of the ‘message’ of that film (haven’t worked this out yet - like I said, still processing it). But the film is book-ended by beautiful shots that completely justify being shown on a huge screen, and where the soundtrack deserves an amazing sound-system. The bombastic final shot deserves to be experienced as part of an audience, as people start looking around at each other, slightly dazed and giving each other a full-on Keanu “Whoa”. For me, the ending makes me incredibly happy, almost boastful, that I saw that film in the cinema. No matter what way you cut it, it just wouldn’t have been the same at home. In fact, I think the whole film will be less powerful outside of the cinema.

These are the outliers, though; the most extreme examples of my recent experiences of watching a film with an audience. But for most people, the average cinema-going experience – and I’d question how ‘average’ J.J. Abrams’ cinema-going experiences are these days – ranges from ‘dreadful’ to ‘OH MY FUCKING CHRIST, ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!’. Talking, rustling, texting, irresponsible parenting: all of these things appear to be accepted, almost expected parts of a trip to the cinema. As much a cost of entry as the extortionate ticket price. I’d argue that this is one of the main reasons cinema attendance is down 20% compared to last year. People are staying home to watch their movies.

Let’s face facts. Part of the reason for the decline of high-street book and music shops, particularly the larger franchise-type shops, is that the experience of using these shops became so impersonal and unfriendly – in some cases, downright hostile – towards the customers, that people were willing to trade the tangible benefits of the traditional shopping experience for one they can control. Online shopping is often impersonal and unfriendly (although rarely hostile), but it at least has the added benefit of being convenient. What it lacks in humanity, it makes up for in choice. And price. With cinema, we’re seeing the same thing - people are willing to sacrifice the singular experience of seeing a film with an audience for a slightly more mundane experience they control.

And, you know what? I don’t blame them.