Friday, May 15, 2009

I want the old Salem Cinema back!

That subject is striking, I know. But I can't help it. Last night we went to Salem Cinema's new swanky digs to see Sunshine Cleaning. As a huge fan of Salem Cinema, I had driven by this block hundreds of times during the build, and the anticipation was killing me (as was the choice of the red and turqoise trim detail on the outside -- whoever chose those colors should be shot). Worse, schedules made it impossible for me to catch anything there during the film festival.

I hope that I'm simply not getting it, that I'm the only one, and that this is Loretta's dream come true and it turns out exactly as she wishes, I really really do. But this customer is sad, reminded once again that bigger is not necessarily better, and that the character inherent in the unique is worth much more than the perceived quality of the new and shiny.

What is wrong in the experience for me is hard to convey for it's not tangible: the vibrant, intimate buzz I felt when I visited the old location is gone. It felt like walking into a womb, going down under and into a small space, where you often stood elbow to elbow with your fellow movie goers as you bought your ticket (beneath the whimsical handmade letters, sparkles and string of tiny lights). I met people in those lines. I was welcomed by faces I knew behind the counter. The whole space was filled with the vibe of their love and dedication. That they didn't know me personally didn't matter; often they remembered what movie they'd last seen me come in for. I was welcomed by staff that were happy, laughing, smiling, close enough to touch.

This new location is dramatic and new, for sure... but it's also hard and cold. The ticket window experience especially is a buzzkill -- gone is the intimate warmth of talking directly to someone just six inches from you, for now it's a security window manned by someone about 2-3 ft away beyond a big slab of glass with tiny slot to slide the cash through and a mic/speaker combo that cuts off what the person says. I had to ask the price three times because her answer kept coming out as, "fzt dollars." The solution would be to say, "That will be xyz dollars" but she clearly isn't aware of what the speaker does, and instead looked at me like I was an idiot. The speaker didn't kick on until after she'd said the number. She looked at the computer that operated the ticket printer more than us.

Inside, the area is dark, stark and dramatic, well lit by the plethora of windows at the front. The details are very nice (lighting, etchings on the windows, etc.) but most of the front area is taken up with a crowd of very hard lined black tables which are corralled by traffic ropes. Why? I didn't see any offerings at the snack bar that would warrant such seating. Why not a selection of comfortable long couches that are inviting and personable, where people could meet to chat before or after a show, injecting life into the space and drawing people in as the people talked and enjoyed a dessert? Something to provide a bit of softness to the area.

The popcorn is still great, and the little cake-under-glass case showcasing truffles got us and we tried a raspberry chocolate ball of heaven. Concession prices are outrageous (4.75 for a 32 ounce soda and about the same for a medium sized bucket of popcorn) but that's the norm at theaters, and I understand that's where a lot of the profit comes from.

The theaters have cushy seats, stadium seating, and good picture and sound which is a good thing. Of course the prints of a lot of independents are going to fall well below the caliber of their tools, I get the feeling.

But on the inside, it looked and felt just like the large, corporate giant theaters.

Oh, goodie.

Part of the problem is my own history with independent cinema: they've always been alternative venues that wore their shoestring budgets and outlander theater style with pride. I like the different, the funky. Like what was with that funky ass lighting beast at the front of the theater in the old Salem Cinema? I loved that thing! It wasn't in the Bijou, and I doubt it is elsewhere -- although I do seriously hope it IS somewhere!

Underlying my unease, too, is an assumption, one that I hope is wrong, that such an expansion came with the spectre of signifigant personal and business debt. I hope someone's independent wealth, good fortune, or excellent business acumen allowed the project to be created with cash, because to imagine the usual incredible debtload required to do something of that caliber makes me feel a little queasy.

At least in our theater, there was an okay turnout for a Thursday night. Not many people bought concessions, so the numbers aren't really adding up in my head, but I'm sure there are economies and issues of which I'm not familiar; I just hope it's all good for those involved.

And I'll try to get over the loss of a very comfortable old friend.


  1. You bring up some good points. I actually liked the new theater, but maybe it's because I first experienced it during the film festival, which had an air of excitement and cameraderie. I do agree with your idea about couches or something a little warmer in the entryway.

  2. Oh, this makes me sad. We've not had a chance to visit the new theater - but I always loved the old one and hoped the new one would just be three times as wonderful. I don't like change!! ;-)

    Cheers, Cindy

  3. And I don't want you to think you won't like it -- you might LOVE IT! So get on over there and see a flick!