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I tried to love movie theaters again — but this is a disaster

Movie theater seats and screen
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

I went back to a regular movie theater, a multiplex if you will, recently, and it made me want to stay away as long as I could. And then things got worse when I saw what tech is doing to the theater-going experience. It's all turning me into a gigantic snob about movie theaters, and a snob that feels incredibly justified about it all.

No, this isn't about that debate over seeing movies in actual movie theaters, which became a very thorny point of debate recently, as directors including Christopher Nolan and Denis Villeneuve raged against the best streaming services as HBO Max and other big companies pushed to release movies online during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Seeing movies at home can be just as great as in theaters, with different reasons for both: the communal and focused nature of the theater vs the convenience and safety of one's own home.

But if the future of the movie theater is anything close to where the likes of the AMC and Regal chains are taking it, I'm worried about the future. And I'm hoping Hollywood accepts releasing movies at home at the same day as in theaters, though I doubt it will happen.

Regal is turning theaters turn into mini Times Squares

This past weekend, I managed to find time to go to see the campy and fan service-filled adventure that is Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City. Except a funny thing happened on my way into the theater, I walked through the staircases and second floor lobby to discover it's all become a series of giant ads. See for yourself.

the second floor lobby at the Regal Union Square 4DX & ScreenX in NYC

(Image credit: Henry T. Casey)

I stood there, in sort of awe of the mindnumbingness of it all. Each of the Eternals cast members walked up to the pillars, a revolving door of dead-eyed looks. Not even the "prestige" films were safe, as Kristen Stewart ran across the side of one pillar in a scene from the Prince Diana biopic Spencer as the poster for the film stood on the other side. Of course, Spider-Man swung on each screen he could as the hype for Spider-Man: No Way Home intensified.

the second floor of the Regal cinemas in Union Square

(Image credit: Henry T. Casey)

Then, in the theater, I paid the price for arriving too early as I got to see a whole lot of Noovie (the successor to The 2wenty). Noovie, if you haven't seen it, pairs ads with AR space-shooter games and the always-overeager Maria Menounos as host. Yes, The 2wenty was always pretty shameless about its ads, but these AR games — where they're encouraging you to get to the leaderboards — are ridiculous. 

The AR game in a Noovie at a movie theater

If you refuse to play these AR games, you're stuck with this nonsense while sound effects play. (Image credit: Henry T. Casey)

And if you haven't seen Noovie yet, and want to gawk at its inanity for yourself, don't worry: a new deal was just signed to bring Noovie to 39 more theaters.

I could have just walked straight through this chaos, or gotten to the movie right at the start time, but as someone who used to enjoy being at the movie theaters? Wow, I'm happy to grow old enough to become Grandpa Simpson shouting at the clouds, at only 37 years.

AMC made things worse

At around 11 p.m. on Sunday night, I was ready and waiting to buy movie tickets. Some of you are likely shaking your head, wondering how the hell that sentence is possible. Movie tickets aren't PS5 consoles or concert tickets, right? Well, not when they're movie tickets for the most anticipated movie of the year, Spider-Man: No Way Home. I was in charge of buying tickets for myself and four of my friends, one of whom had clued me into a 12:01 a.m. ET on-sale time. Making matters more complicated, AMC decided to make the entire experience even more hellish by adding the three most cursed letters in tech today: NFT.

Yes, AMC was offering a total of 86,000 NFTs — those vague and hyped pieces of blockchain-secured art — to people who pre-ordered tickets for the December 16 pre-opening day screenings of Spider-Man: No Way Home. This is the kind of nonsense that will make movie going all the more difficult and obnoxious, creating a situation where people are trying to scalp tickets for the movie for high above retail. It's not like movie tickets are expensive enough as it is.

To paraphrase J. Jonah Jameson: to hell with getting non-fungible photos of Spider-Man, I just wanted tickets for Spider-Man.

Spider-Man in Spider-Man: Far From Home

(Image credit: Marvel/Disney)

I refuse to actually care about NFTs, but at that moment I was going full JimCarreyTyping.GIF trying to make sure I got tickets for the next Tom Holland Spider-Man movie. Why? Well, because I know spoilers are hard to avoid, and because the folks across the pond in the U.K. get Spider-Man: No Way Home on December 15, earlier than those of us in the U.S., and I hate spoilers. 

Fortunately for me, AMC and Fandango aren't the only ones selling movie tickets. And I had always planned to see Spider-Man: No Way Home at an Alamo Drafthouse near me. So, I practiced a little trick I've learned over the years: start searching before they're supposed to go on sale. So, as the latest Succession episode ran in the background, I was poking around Alamo's website and pumped my fits in the air when I found that tickets had gone up slightly earlier than anticipated. But not for the location or time I wanted. So I kept refreshing the page, just like I was hunting for a latest-gen console, and eventually it all worked out. For me that is.

As midnight struck, AMC's app embraced the sad trombone sound effect and started to buckle under the pressure. The funny tweets hit the net fast and furiously as AMC failed to actually sell tickets. My friend Kerry shared a screen from her device that said "You're in line for tickets" with an estimated wait time of more than an hour. 

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But that didn't work out, as she captioned it "Welp after 40 minutes of refreshing, the AMC app kicked me out. Time for bed." Some found success at around 1:46 a.m., while another (warning: this has a video with foul language) noted that the app kept crashing when they would get close to buying tickets. 

Sure, Nicole Kidman is supposedly loving the experience at AMC theaters, it must be nice to be so rich that you don't have to worry about the actual nightmare of buying tickets for in-demand movies.

Even my favorite theater isn't perfect — but it's good enough

At the end of the day, I'm glad that I still have movie theaters outside of AMC and Regal that I love to support. Or at least I was until I went to see Eternals at the Alamo in Brooklyn. Still my favorite theater overall, this Alamo theater (and the new one in downtown NYC) have done away with the buffered seating that kept people slightly socially distanced. 

An Alamo Drafthouse theater

(Image credit: Henry T. Casey)

Alamo gets so much right. It doesn't have the excessive lobbies or annoying pre-show content I've ranted about above (quite the opposite, it has well-curated clips related to the film you're about to see). Plus, its no talking and no phones policies are more than welcome. But I am not excited for socially distanced screenings. I can make do if the movie matters enough to me, but I won't be indulging in Alamo's delightful menu if I have a stranger sitting right next to me. Not when new Covid-19 variants pop up like Marvel movie leaks.

But, for now, I'll keep going to the Alamo theaters, and other small, less mind-numbing alternatives to the multiplexes. I just hope Alamo brings back buffered seating, and ignore the nonsense that bigger chains are doing. 

The more movie theaters turn into these terrible experiences — both going to see the films and buying the tickets — the more streaming at home seems like the true right alternative. Nothing can truly touch an Imax screening of Dune, but that's the exception that makes the rule. If only Disney would re-start Disney Plus Premier Access, which seems to be put on hold.

Henry T. Casey

Henry is a senior editor at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and all things Apple, reviewing devices and services for the past six-plus years. Prior to joining Tom's Guide, he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. He's also covered the wild world of professional wrestling for Cageside Seats, interviewing athletes and other industry veterans.