The future of Center City filmgoing

Making screen time matter

Back in June, I wrote here about Philadelphia’s troubling lack of a signature movie theater in Center City. We’re the only major city in the U.S. that lacks a major movie theater in its downtown area, and despite years of false starts, it hasn’t had one since 2002.

The glamorous interior of Philadelphia's now-razed Boyd Theater. (Photo via CharmaineZoe's Marvelous Melange,Creative Commons/Flickr.)

Not only that, there’s also no major movie house with cinéaste credibility. This was illustrated in October, when 76ers center and noted movie buff Jahlil Okafor admitted in an interview with SB Nation that when he feels like seeing a movie, he hops a train to New York to visit the iPic luxury theater in Fulton Market, rather than stick around the city where he lives.

However, the wishes of Philadelphia movie fans were finally granted in late September, when the Inquirer reported AMC Theatres is bringing a multiplex to East Market Street. The eight-screen complex will be located as one of the major tenants at the former site of the Gallery, soon to be called Fashion District Philadelphia, and will offer food, adult beverages, and what’s described as state-of-the-art projection and sound. Some of the screens will be fitted with the newest film technologies.

According to the Inquirer’s reporting, AMC is coming to town now due to increasing population and affluence in Center City, which the company believes has created enough demand to support such a venue. Film critic Gary Thompson (my colleague in the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle) later took a trip to out to the closest new-style AMC theater in the area, at Neshaminy Mall, praising the Dolby Cinema sound and 4K laser projectors.

While we wait

We’ll have to wait a while for the new theater to arrive; its ETA is fall or early winter of 2019. Since major Philadelphia construction projects aren’t known for their punctuality, it could be even later than that.

But while we wait, there are some things AMC should keep in mind to make sure it gets the Philly movie theater right.

  • The big one: Presentation matters. It’s shocking how poorly a lot of national movie-theater chains present movies. In way too many multiplexes, movies are out of focus and in the wrong aspect ratio. The 3D lenses are left on the projectors for 2D movies and, since films are no longer on film, software malfunctions lead to delayed showings.

The Philadelphia 76ers' film-loving player Jahil Okafor leaves town when he wants to watch a movie. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia.)
The Philadelphia 76ers' film-loving player Jahil Okafor leaves town when he wants to watch a movie. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia.)

AMC, unfortunately, has a reputation as one of the worst offenders when it comes to this issue. At AMC theaters, “masking,” the process of fitting the screen to match the width of the movie itself, is often done wrong or not at all. A customer-service employee recently admitted to filmmaker Mike Williamson that AMC now has a “no-masking policy.”  

These easy-to-correct mistakes won’t fly here; if AMC wants to reach a discerning audience, it must present the movies at their best, right out of the gate. Even if the equipment is state-of-the-art, it means nothing if the people working there can’t run it properly or don’t care enough to try.

A few more suggestions

Some other advice:

  • Know movies. Beyond technical proficiency, it’s very important for the theater to hire staff who know movies, their history, and their significance.
  • Spread it around. The new theater will have eight screens. The same movie should never be on more than four of them at the same time.
  • Get festive. There’s no reason why the new theater can’t become a key venue for the Philadelphia Film Festival as well as the growing number of other film festivals on the calendar each year.
  • No texting allowed. Much of a losing battle as this may be, the new theater should have a zero-tolerance policy toward texting or phone usage during movies.
  • Keep it Philly. AMC isn’t exactly known for giving its theaters local touches. But Philadelphia’s cinematic tradition is so vast that there are all sorts of opportunities for special events. How about commemorative screenings for the anniversaries of Rocky, Philadelphia, and The Sixth Sense?

There’s nothing quite like seeing a big movie with a large, enthusiastic crowd on a Saturday night in the city. That feeling has been largely missing in Philadelphia for many years. Last December, I tried to replicate it by taking my kids to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on opening weekend at the Prince Theater. But the theater was about a third full and almost completely dead; I think the same venue drew a larger crowd that same weekend for a musical revue starring Tom Wopat.

But on the way back to the car, we passed the former Boyd Theater, razed two years ago following an unsuccessful effort to preserve it. I couldn’t help but think the movie experience would have been better at a classic venue like that.

Can AMC deliver the movie experience that we’ve all been missing for so long? We’ll find out in two years. Maybe they can even get our local athletes to stay in town when they go to the movies. 

Our readers respond

Richard da Silva

of Center City/ Philadelphia, PA on November 20, 2017

It's certainly true that Philadelphia "lacks a major movie theater in its downtown area." However, doesn't this statement slight the three Landmark Ritz theaters in Society Hill (not all that far from Center City) and the Philadelphia Film Society's Roxy on Sansom Street between 20th and 21st Street? I bristled a bit at the omission of the Ritz trio especially, originally founded and owned by the entrepreneur Ray Posel and managed so well by Jay Ayrton, because I spent so many years of my youth working there, and now in middle age go once a week to view the unending stream of fine films on offer.

I would be interested in learning from Mr. Silver about the typical fare an AMC complex would run. As a film fan, I would welcome more choices, but I don't know the sort of movies AMC offers.

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