As most of you likely know, last week saw the passing of Gene Wilder. He was a great actor whose work has continued to resonate for almost half of a century now. Like most people, I turned to the old DVDs and watched all of the favorite classics, feeling like I was spending time with him once again. Speaking as how connected films like Young Frankenstein are to my life, it was a wonderful experience, and one that lingered as I found excuses to watch the other films of his. However, there was something that happened last week as well that reminded me as to why movie theaters are a haven for film buffs of any degree. For the low, low price of $5, I had the choice to watch Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or Blazing Saddles on the big screen. I paid to see the latter, and I come away with a certain appreciation for the experience of staring at a bright wall in a dark room. It's almost cathartic.
The idea of showing old movies on the big screen is nothing new. Even in the case of post-mortem showings, Wilder is far from the first to get the treatment. Prince received a Purple Rain rerelease, and Muhammad Ali's death influenced an Ali rerelase: both for one weekend. It felt appropriate, especially as these were both representations of iconic figures. Still, it feels like a novelty that took too long to catch on. Maybe my unobservant eye didn't notice this before, but the idea of releasing a movie for one weekend to honor the passing of someone is something that should've begun happening years ago. To my knowledge, this is only true for Disney films getting a 3D upgrade, or several other anniversaries. Even then, those are treated more like traditional releases with regulated showtimes and regular ticket prices. It's far from the pop-up shop style that Prince, Ali, and Wilder have received over the past year.
To put it fairly, I love seeing movies on the big screen. I love the experience with sitting in a crowd and experiencing feelings that I hadn't had watching those DVDs incessantly before. Films like West Side Story and Gone With the Wind are elevated by the uniformity of a packed house that emotionally connects to the moves. It is why I generally am grateful that Fathom Events teamed up with TCM to do almost bimonthly screenings of popular movies. As it stands, they have several great films lined up for the Fall season, including The Shining and Breakfast at Tiffany's to name just two.
However, there has been a disparaging difference in recent times. I have gone to a few Fathom Events to popular titles. Over the past summer, I went to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Animal House. Maybe it's that my enthusiasm outweighs expectations, but sitting in theaters only a quarter full makes me wonder why more people aren't interested in films that I deem masterpieces. Don't get me wrong. The experiences are great and I will heartily endorse Fathom Events as long as they produce opportunities like this for the masses. It's just that the crowds have been a little... small. Maybe it's just the location. I'm not sure. I have run the gamut of packed houses over the past five years with Fathom Events, and I find that the more excited I am (Taxi Driver and Frankenstein/Bride of Frankenstein being the two tops), the less likely it is to sell out. Maybe it's just that I have conflicting tastes, I don't know.
Yet it's hard to be a fan of the cinema experience in the summer of 2016. Twitter has grown ablaze with complaints that this is the death of cinema, and that this summer has been among the worst period. It's hard to have enthusiasm for plopping down money for spectacle when the industry feels disgraced by those that endorsed it a year ago. Even then, it's a broad notion that I don't put faith in. Kubo and the Two Strings and Pete's Dragon are both masterpieces of family programming and deserve more recognition at the box office. You had the choice not to see Suicide Squad, you know. I still go regularly with that optimism that I'm going to see a new favorite film.
So, what separates Fathom Events from pop-up shows like last weekend's Blazing Saddles? One could easily blame monetary accounts. This past weekend, I mostly went on the grounds that it was $5 to see a movie that I loved. Of course, I put down approximately 2.5x as much for Animal House only a few weeks ago. It's hypothetically not much, but there's something to having that discount that brought out a bigger crowd. I saw Blazing Saddles in a packed room of a pretty big theater. The enthusiasm was all there. Even the success of this is made clear, as both of Wilder's classic movies are being shown through next weekend. While I'm sure that the results will trickle down, I definitely think that there's something smart at play.
Why do these shows draw bigger crowds whereas Fathom Events doesn't? After all, they put more effort into marketing and even have special presentations that play before and after the movie. In fact, the pop-up shows come across as recklessly impulsive by comparison. Yet theaters are quick to show them - specifically at AMC-owned locations - with guaranteed success. I would love to know what separates the two beyond specific interest at that moment. After all, one must plan where to put that special showing when you have countless new releases to cater to.
Yet next to Fathom Events, I think that the pop-up release is probably the thing that is going to restore faith in the movie theater experience. As much as I love the new, seeing the old on the big screen is something that is rarely afforded to those outside of niche theater locations. If you missed Blazing Saddles in 1974, you'd be out of luck if you wanted to see it on the big screen. Still, it is being in that room that you understand the power of cinema. You are laughing together, feeling a live audience react in time with the images on screen. If you can find iconic movies at a theater near you and you don't mind sitting through them, go for it. Some may produce less than full results, but the spontaneous ones like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory bring with them more passion and reverence than a Fathom Event. You're there because cinema touched you in a specific way and you need to get that last fix.
Getting it for Wilder was especially cathartic because it solved several conflicts in my head. While I love Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory more, the turnout was less than impressive and not the most enthusiastic. However, that may be because this was an anniversary rerelease months ago, when Wilder was merely another living actor. Blazing Saddles brought out the fans in droves, and it proved to me that Mel Brooks fans weren't just 60-year-olds who were in their 20's at the time. It featured everyone from college-aged newbies to the movie geeks who probably know the fart scene by heart. They all laughed almost in unison, and it made me realize the impact of cinema and that sometimes you can't plan what movie you want to see. Sometimes it takes an unfortunate passing to remind you of cinema's power.
I doubt that the Wilder pop-up releases will be the last of this trend. I think that realizing the potential of showing these films on the big screen is something that will continue to grow. Even if I find Fathom Events more trustworthy, I think that the pop-up releases are more of a saving grace to the cinematic experience. People will come out not only because they love the film, but because it's playing at a reasonable price. I'm not defending ticket prices here, but it does make sense that special showings have that special perk. If nothing else, it argues against the belief that cinema is dying. It isn't as long as there's access to old films and willing eyes that want to join together in enjoying the medium's magic.