"Movie theaters are dead," read the headlines when television burst onto the entertainment scene in the 1950s. "Dead," repeated the experts as home video rentals proliferated in the early 1980s. The advent of cable and satellite TV, pay-per-view movies and DVDs likewise sent rumors of doom through the industry grapevine.
But like the flesh-eating zombies in this week's new release, "Resident Evil: Apocalypse," theatrical movies just keep coming back for more. Worldwide box office receipts for feature motion pictures grew from $1.2 billion in 1970 and $2.8 billion in 1980 to more than $15 billion in 2001, according to Matrixx Entertainment Corp.
Moviegoers in the Lower Columbia region can choose their cinema experiences from a small but varied selection of theaters. Dying to be first in line for the latest Hollywood special effects blockbuster? Interested in seeing a controversial documentary over a round of beer with friends? Chances are, there's a padded chair with your name on it within a few miles of home.
Astoria Gateway Cinema
For a true modern multiplex experience, settle into the stadium seating in one of seven theaters at the Astoria Gateway Cinema. Up to 880 viewers at a time can indulge their movie habits at Gateway, where smartly uniformed employees make sure the film's in focus and the floors aren't sticky.
The cinema is one of 16 locations owned by Ashland-based Coming Attractions Inc., with sister cinemas comprising 100 screens from Mount Shasta, Calif., to Aberdeen, Wash. The Astoria theater, which opened in 2000, regularly shows first-run "A-list" movies from the major studios, and offers showings of classic children's movies during the summer months.
If the neon outdoor lighting and built-in cupholders aren't enough to entice viewers into Gateway's seats, Coming Attractions' vice-president and general manager Don Immenschuh believes his company's four-part guarantee will. The theater promises a comfortable viewing environment (including a clear picture and quality sound), a clean facility - especially restrooms and auditoriums, courteous, friendly and available employees, and theater managers who will make sure their customers are satisfied. Gateway employees do an hourly "walk-through" of each auditorium to make sure patrons are behaving themselves, said theater manager Steven Christensen.
Cannes Cinema Center
Built in 1992, the independently owned, five-screen Cannes was the North Coast's largest and most modern theater complex until Gateway's arrival. But theater manager Robin Knoll isn't worried about the competition.
"We work on trying to keep our prices reasonable," Knoll said, referring to ticket prices and concessions. Cannes offers hot dogs and individual frozen pizzas as well as popcorn and sodas, plus "the largest variety of candy in Oregon," Knoll estimated.
Cannes also boasts the only THX-certified auditorium on the Oregon Coast, Knoll said. In addition to being built to acoustic specifications set by industry leader Lucasfilm, a trained technician tests the sound quality in the theater each year to make sure it meets Lucasfilm's standards.
Knoll, who said he has been Cannes' manager since "two years before it opened," drives to Portland to screen all the movies he personally books for the cinema. "We like to try and play more artsy, foreign films on occasion," he said. "It's always kind of a puzzle trying to figure out what movies to play and what to pass on."
Knoll said his boss, owner Warren Kan, has only vetoed two of his picks in 12 years, but he declined to divulge which films got the ax.
Patrons at Cannes are also likely to walk away with something more than a ticket stub in their pocket. The cinema regularly offers giveaways like movie posters or other promotional materials. "We try and have some fun down here," Knoll said.
"We now have a promotion committee so we can have tie-ins with local businesses whenever it might benefit them."
For example, with the upcoming release of Disney's firefighter drama, "Ladder 49," Knoll is working with the Seaside Fire Department to set up an educational display of real firefighting equipment inside Cannes' lobby.
The region's oldest continously-operating movie theater, the Columbian, holds several other one-of-a-kind distinctions: Where else can you pay $3 for a ticket and sip a glass of Hefeweizen during a showing of an independent documentary like "Super Size Me?"
"We have a lot of freedom to choose which movies we play," explained Columbian co-owner Jeanine Fairchild. She noted that being a second-run theater allows her to base her selections on the success of a film's first release. She welcomes grassroots theater projects like the Portland-based Heart Attack Island Film Tour's experimental video program and the Lower Columbia Preservation Society's "Astoria on Film" events.
Fairchild and her husband, Uriah Hulsey, have owned the theater for the past seven years. The couple also operates the Columbian Cafe and adjoining Voodoo Room, from whose kitchens theater patrons can order gourmet pizzas served during the show. The Voodoo Room was converted from a smaller movie auditorium a couple of years ago, but the space was originally an ice cream parlor, Fairchild said. Its kitchen area, in the basement of the building, is still used for some of the food preparation for the businesses upstairs.
The auditorium at the Columbian features some of the elaborate interior architecture from its heyday as a movie palace in the 1920s. But Fairchild and Hulsey have replaced some of the spring-bottom chairs with armchairs, loveseats and couches - mostly in the cozy balcony, where patrons older than 21 can purchase beer and wine.
Anyone who grew up in a small town probably has fond memories of the local movie house, a mom-and-pop operation with two screens and a popcorn machine. For residents of Long Beach, Wash., the Neptune Theatre is that institution.
Karen and Bud McKay have leased the 21-year-old theater business for the past three years, and will probably opt to buy it at the end of their lease, Karen McKay said. Though their house is in Ocean Park, Wash., they've made the theater comfortable for themselves during the long stretches between manning the ticket window and cleaning up the empty soda pop cups. Bud installed weight training and boxing equipment in the upstairs loft between projection booths, and built an area behind a curtain of blue plastic tarps for Karen to work on stained glass projects. Twelve-year-old Sara McKay helps out behind the snack bar whenever her parents need a hand, and a tiny black Chihuahua named Lily greets customers at the ticket window.
The films run on Simplex projectors, the theater's original equipment. "They're the workhorse of the industry," Karen said as she threaded the 35-millimeter strip of celluloid containing "Resident Evil" through the projector's maze of spools and spindles for its next showing.
The McKays employ a booking agent to procure titles from all the major film companies. Once the busy summer tourist season ends, the Neptune typically shows films that cater to older residents. "Rod Run weekend is our slowest time of the year," Karen said, motioning to the smaller auditorium, where "Exorcist III: The Beginning" was playing to an audience of two. "These are just fillers, something to keep the doors open until we get something new in next week and the locals start coming back." The first-run movies they play come with obligations to show them for a certain length of time, she explained.
The Neptune also opens its doors to elementary school field trips, showing kid favorites like "The Jimmy Neutron Movie" on special occasions.
What's the wave of the future for movie theaters? Cannes manager Robin Knoll predicts that demand will soon rise for digital projection equipment in auditoriums. But the movie industry's not to the point of having a standard for digital projectors yet, Knoll said. State-of-the-art machines run about $125,000, and studios don't yet know how to deal with the problem of piracy. "It'll be several years before digital theaters are the norm," he noted.
Back to basics:
Simple movie etiquette
1. Shush! Your fellow moviegoers didn't pay to hear you smack your popcorn, slurp your drink, talk to your neighbor or tell the characters on screen what to do.
2. Set it on "vibrate." Don't let your obnoxious cell phone ruin the moment for other viewers. If you think you'll have to take a call during the show, sit on the outside of a row near the exit so you can slip out quietly before answering, suggests Cannes Cinema manager Robin Knoll.
3. Shut up and fork it over. Don't bother complaining to the teenage snack bar worker about paying $3.50 for a soft drink. They can't do a thing about it, and it's the profits from concessions that keep the theater operating. Only a small percentage comes from ticket sales, according to Astoria Gateway Cinema manager Steven Christensen.
4. No spoilers! "Oh my gosh - can you believe that one guy was the real killer the whole time?" Thanks a lot - you've just spoiled the whole movie for the incoming patrons you passed on your way out.
5. Get a babysitter. Fidgety kids do not make for pleasant movie outings - for anyone. And DON'T bring small children to R-rated movies, if you care at all about the future of our society.
Winning the armrest war:
What to do when a stranger encroaches on your elbow room
"If the person is determined to be rude, you could shove away, beginning elbow wars, but we prefer flatulence. It usually makes people cringe, thus freeing up the elbow rest."
- Kevin Williams, Chicago Tribune staff reporter