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RIP my old movie theater, and probably yours too

One of my local movie theaters closed down last month. The backstory isn’t an unfamiliar one- rising rents, COVID impacts that never quite subsided, inflation, changing viewing habits, aging owners seeking retirement. Choose one or choose all.

The theater, Cinema World in bucolic Fitchburg, MA, until March 31 sat on an old school stretch of a commercial road that was once bustling with retail activity. In its heyday Cinema World shared a plaza with a Friendly’s diner, grocery store, Radio Shack, and other little mundane outposts of commerce that once dotted the landscape of every American town. Today, the plaza is mostly empty, a gray stretch of square footage with no obvious purpose.

Cinema World was there just shy of 30 years. It brought us Star Wars prequels and sequels, rom-coms, teenage slasher films, musicals, comedies, and all genres in between.

It happened to be my go-to theater in my high school years. Back then, I saw EVERYTHING. Good movies, bad movies, it was all up for grabs for $3.25 a pop.

Opening weekend Fitchburg crowds were something to experience unto itself. The place was always mobbed as the city poured into its velvet-roped lobby and packed into its flimsy folding chairs.

The cheesy ’90s horror movies like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer (and their semi-annual sequels) were my favorite kind of Cinema World experiences. The jumpscare shouts, the popcorn thrown, the “Hell naws” of tough dudes out on dates with their girlfriends.

According to this article, Cinema World’s busiest day was May 18, 2002. Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, Spider-Man, the Scorpion King, About a Boy, and others were among the films playing. Total attendance that Saturday: 4,221. Over 10% of Fitchburg’s population, gathered together in a congregation of pop culture.

There’s been a Disneyfication of moviegoing in recent years. Bigger screens, deluxe seating, reserving your place like an aristocrat picking a box seat at the opera. Bigger, more expensive, more time-consuming. I don’t think many of us walk up to a box office and decide to see something just by scanning the available showtimes anymore. Going to a movie now is like booking a cruise. There are pre-sales, VIP access clubs, and teaser trailers for teaser trailers.

And the movies themselves are more theme park-y than ever. The latest Pixar or Marvel fare gives us all a little taste of Orlando, wherever we are in the country. There’s Taylor Swift concerts and anniversary screenings of 20-year-old movies with panel discussions.

Gone are the days of seeing The Replacement Killers on a Wednesday afternoon for no good reason other than it’s something to do.

Going high-end might be what saves the movie theater industry. With 4k TVs and endless streaming options at home, theaters have to provide something more than what we can get on our couches. So now there’s reclining seats and tableside chicken wings and Dune popcorn buckets. Experience is the business. The seats are nice, the space is nice, the sound systems and IMAX screens are hard to dismiss. But it feels like much more of a dedicated commitment, both in time and money.

And it could all amount to just an expensive reshuffling of deck chairs on the Titanic. (I saw Titanic at Cinema World. Packed audience. People weeping. My legs hurt after sitting for 3 hours.) Fancy modern theaters report struggles same as the local standard screen joints. It could be that going to the movies becomes less of a thing for the masses, and more of an elite excursion for hardcore fans and other niche audiences. Maybe theaters keep evolving and seeing a film in a theater becomes a platinum-level event, something like going to see The Rolling Stones in a stadium.

Run-of-the-mill smalltown movie theaters struck an entirely different bargain. You bought the ticket, they provided the popcorn and soda, and the reels rolled. Sometimes the screen had a rip. Sometimes the seat was broken. Sometimes the guy at the end of your row brought in his own rotisserie chicken. It was sort of like watching a movie at a Greyhound bus station, with ambient lighting and (sometimes) functioning air conditioning.

I don’t remember the last time I went to Cinema World- I think it was a year or so before kids and before the pandemic. It felt remarkably the same, although they had updated the seats. When I heard the place was closing, I saw a kaleidoscopic mosaic of the countless movies I saw in the place. Friends, family, dates. Blockbusters and bombs.

In 1998, I saw Star Trek Insurrection at Cinema World just to see The Phantom Menace trailer that played before it. Then in May of 1999, I skipped school and finally saw the complete Jar Jar Binks epic onscreen 3 times opening day. Two early shows, and one at night. Now that’s an experience.

Fun fact: The Phantom Menace is re-releasing next month to mark its 25th anniversary- primarily in premium format theaters, naturally.

Cinema World is just one late 20th century theater that couldn’t quite sustain the pivot to this strange 21st century media environment. There’s probably been a few in your area that have folded up shop in similar fashion. Some theaters are bouncing back, going bigger, bolder, and more deluxe. I hope movie theaters continue to be a thing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they join Sears, Kmart, and Toys R Us in the ever-expanding “Hey, that used to be something” area of American architecture.

I happen to have another small-ish, unassuming theater right down the street from my house – Entertainment Cinemas. Cinema World closing makes me want to get a babysitter once in a while and try to frequent it more often. There’s something to be said for the casual, non-event movie night.

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