How megaplex movie theatres shaped the movie industry — for better, and for worse

The movie theatre industry — distinct from the movie making industry — was in trouble even before COVID-19 turned Passively Sitting In The Dark Near Other People For Two Hours While Staring At A Screen into a death sport. But this is hardly the first time that movie theatres had to find a way to draw peoples out of their home to share a big screen viewing experience.

The 99% Invisible podcast from March 15, 2021 explores the rise and fall of the megaplex movie theatres that began to sprout up in the early 90s. They speak with Ben Fritz, author of The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies, and explore how the need to fill multiple screens created a burst of risk-taking creativity in Hollywood that arguably culminated in 1999 … and how that climactic success swiftly lead to a focus on opening weekends with blockbuster movies on multiple screens, effectively pushing out any smaller or more independent features.

I think sometimes people look back and say, "Oh, there must be some kind of cultural movement that made Americans more interested in indie films in the '90s, for example, or something was happening in the culture that we wanted to see these kind of Marvel franchise films starting in 2010." No, it's really the explanation is that the economics of the movie business changed in that time, and that changed the types of movies the studios were making.

The podcast offers a fascinating look at the intersections of creativity and distribution. That includes the evil genius behind the realization that you could charge $15 for a huge-ass popcorn and a huger-ass soda just because you could, or stock the lobby with multiplayer arcade games to target those rascally teenagers, or offer "luxury" recliner chair experiences with waitstaff service delivering cocktails directly to your seat to help me convince my wife to come see Guardians of the Galaxy with me.

There's also a weird but weirdly riveting segment about a dentist who started financing low-budget horror movies just because he could, and getting into the investment game at just the right moment.

At a time when we're all simultaneously desperate and anxious to be caught in a crowd, it also offers a nostalgic reminder of those rare communal movie experiences — like in the video above — where a room full of strangers gets to revel in the joy of narrative catharsis together, forming a momentary but memorable bond. (Oddly, it reminded me of the time my friend and I were the only white people at a sold-out opening night showing of Alien vs Predator, which was a surprisingly memorable experience for such a shitty movie. But that's a story for another time.)

Episode 435: The Megaplex! [99% Invisible]

Image of the multiplex that I've probably spent the most time at in my life by BWChicago / Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)