It's summer, baby 

If you spent part of your holiday weekend at a metro Detroit movie theater, you weren't alone. The Fourth of July is traditionally one of the biggest movie-going holidays of the year, and heading into this all-important weekend, national box office grosses were already up nearly 6 percent from last year, and attendance up 3 percent, according to Media By Numbers, which provides in-depth analysis of the film industry. Midway through the summer of 2008, when the staycation has become the new vacation and Americans across the economic spectrum are cutting back on extras, why are we still going to the movies?

The obfuscating Bush administration may call this sharp economic decline a downturn, but Detroiters know a full-blown recession when they see one. Amid soaring gas prices and all-around belt-tightening, the cost of tickets and the proximity of theaters make going to the show an affordable luxury, if not a bargain. And with only a handful of exceptions (like downtown Birmingham and Royal Oak), parking at area movie theaters is free.

For first-run theaters in metro Detroit, the average adult admission for a weekend evening show is $8.78, with matinees averaging $5.33. Pricing policies vary by chain, and sometimes within a chain. For instance, the AMC Forum 30 in Sterling Heights charges $5 for weekday shows (including evenings), while the AMC Star John R in Madison Heights offers $4.75 for all screenings before 4 p.m. Other area chains, including the Emagine, Landmark, MJR, Phoenix, and Uptown Theatres, offer their matinee discounts until 6 p.m.

While ticket prices and discounting policies may fluctuate from theater to theater, there is one commonality: Going to the movies in Detroit is now primarily a suburban experience. Multiplexes have spread along with the population, north to M-59 and west to I-275, conveniently located near freeways or major thoroughfares, usually with an adjacent shopping center.

The era of the movie palace and neighborhood theater is long-gone, with only two multiplexes located at the extremes of the Detroit city limits: the Riverfront 4 in the Renaissance Center and the Phoenix Bel-Air Centre on Eight Mile Road (on the old Bel-Air Drive-In site). Only the long-running Detroit Film Theatre program at the Detroit Institute of Arts offers the kind of destination movie-going experience that was once common downtown, where single-screen temples like the Fox Theatre were as much the attraction as the movies they showed.

What movie theater owners can't control is the quality of the films, but they can cultivate regular attendance nonetheless. Incentive programs like AMC Moviewatcher, Emagine Rewards, and Landmark Theatres Film Club encourage the habit of attending movies while building brand loyalty. Upgrading moribund multiplexes has been a priority since the ornate Star Southfield opened in 1997, setting a new standard for theatrical presentation. Comforts like rocking chairs and stadium seating are now customary, Surround Sound is taken for granted, and digital projection is gradually overtaking celluloid.

Going digital means crisper images, no scratchy prints and much lower shipping costs, a combination that has saved the IMAX format, making it less unwieldy and more commercially viable. In addition to the massive IMAX screen at the Henry Ford in Dearborn, a handful of multiplexes in the Detroit area feature the large-scale, high-definition format, charging a few extra dollars per ticket for the privilege.

This value-added surcharge for an IMAX or 3-D presentation is now commonplace, along with the extra dollar per ticket for online ticket purchases, and local theaters are happy to accommodate moviegoers willing to pay more for extras. The Emagine Novi's Fifth Avenue is a designated auditorium offering reserved seating online, leather chairs with small table dividers and cocktail service for a base price of $11 per ticket. In a similarly well-appointed auditorium at the Uptown Palladium in Birmingham, the $27 Dinner and a Movie offers buffet dining as well as theater concessions with designated seating.

It certainly doesn't hurt that this summer has featured a number of movies that huge quantities of people want to see, from Iron Man to Wall-E. But a surprise hit, Sex and the City, again proved that attending movies is a social event, and moviegoers crave the camaraderie of sitting in the dark with friends and strangers alike. But the American habit of movie-going isn't the sole factor that's saved theaters, whose demise has been predicted for the last 60 years, since the one-two punch of the Supreme Court (movie studios were forced to relinquish ownership of theaters in 1948, a practice deemed a monopoly) and the advent of television.

Despite the assertion that theaters would be killed off by home-viewing technology (from TV and VHS to DVD, TiVo and iPod), post-theatrical markets need that initial release to establish a film's reputation. Studios put their marketing and publicity dollars toward the movie's opening weekend, when it will get reviewed (albeit by a shrinking pool of critics) and make its mark at the box office. Smaller art-house fare rolls out slowly across the country (with a Detroit release usually at the tail end), each market getting the cumulative effect of the publicity from openings in New York and Los Angeles, as well as film festival exposure.

Then comes the movie's afterlife, filled with other viewing platforms, from DVD, on demand, and downloads, to cable, satellite and network television. But the success of a film in the long run depends on that initial release in theaters, which brings all-important public awareness and critical consensus along with a certain cache, the sheen of legitimacy. (Going straight to DVD still carries a stigma, no matter the quality of the film.)

This distribution model — the theatrical release functioning like a river that feeds the tributaries of home viewing — has adapted over the years to new technology, but remains elementally the same. And it's fueled by the movie theater's biggest perceived threat: the Internet.

Websites not only deliver a wealth of information about movies on their release (including theater information and ticket-buying capabilities), they provide material online for new audiences curious about a Netflix recommendation or looking for other titles featuring a particular filmmaker or performer. The Internet — with its critic compendiums and freewheeling blogs alongside archived feature stories and interviews — serves to make movies more accessible, and leads audiences back for more.

The gadgetry of home theaters and new Internet-based delivery systems may get the media attention, but in the movie industry, content is king, and a theatrical release is how a film establishes itself in the marketplace and the consciousness of moviegoers. If you dam the river at the source, no water flows downstream, and all those delivery systems thirsty for new content will run dry.

While other leisure activities are hit hard during tough economic times, movie theater attendance is on the rise. Because of its adaptability, continually changing with changing public tastes, and its vital role in an interdependent entertainment system and as a communal refuge, the movie theater not only survives, it thrives.

Serena Donadoni is a film critic for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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