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As 4K televisions and high-quality home theater systems have become more affordable, concurrent with shortened theatrical windows, lots of people have opted to just stay home and wait.
In recent years, theater owners have embraced innovations — gourmet concessions, craft beer and cocktails, seating straight out of a Sharper Image catalog — to try and once again elevate the theatergoing experience well above what the average consumer can cobble together in their rec room. Yet despite their efforts, 2017 admissions were the lowest since 1995.
On the day Avengers: Infinity War — 2018’s top-grossing film so far — is released on DVD and Blu-ray, I’m reminded again of one demographic that seems to have been largely left out of theater owners’ plans to goose admissions: parents of young children. Full disclosure: I am a father of two such, and the options for parents like my wife and me aren’t great. Assuming we aren’t leaving them at home with a babysitter — the going rate for which is now roughly one movie ticket per hour — we run the risk of our kids disrupting the experience for fellow moviegoers. So I started looking for screenings we could take them to where, if one started to cry or, say, start peppering Dad with questions about, like, why is that man’s hat red? Why is the lady’s hat also red but different from the man’s? Where did the hat man go? Is he mean? — at a volume more appropriate for getting the attention of a friend on the opposite rim of a canyon, I wouldn’t spend the rest of the screening making “I’m so sorry. Really, really sorry” eyes at the people around us.
One good option — at least in Los Angeles — is the Cineopolis Junior auditorium in Pico Rivera. The theater features a large play area for kids (only accessible before the credits roll and during a much-appreciated intermission), and seating options including lounge and bean bag chairs. However, the auditorium, perhaps understandably, only screens G- and PG-rated films. (Also, children have to be at least 3 years old to use the play area, which, have you ever tried sitting next to a playground and explaining to a 2-year-old that he or she can’t play on it?)
For G and (most) PG films, the expectation is that lots of kids will be in any given screening, and minor disruptions won’t be a big deal. But a number of four-quadrant blockbusters are rated PG-13, including Infinity War, among other recent releases: Black Panther, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Solo: A Star Wars Story, even Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle — based, you know, on a children’s book and released right before Christmas last year — is PG-13. Does your small child enjoy superheroes and dinosaurs? Many do!
The ideal solution would be the widespread adoption of screenings like Pacific Theatres’ “Monday Morning Mommy Movies,” which offers showings of adult and general audience films where parents are welcome to bring their babies and young children (though I don’t know about the latter for R-rated fare). But as the name implies, the screenings are always on Monday mornings. If one or both parents work, and they can only get out to the theater on evenings and weekends, they’re out of luck. I checked with several major theater chains that operate screens in Los Angeles — AMC, Cinemark, Regal, Landmark — no one offered something similar.
The best available option I found — and maybe I’m burying the lede here, because this is an actual great option, is AMC Entertainment’s “Sensory Friendly Films,” showings where rules about talking and making noise are waived. “While the program is designed for moviegoers with special needs and those on the spectrum, all guests are welcome to attend the showtimes, and we’ve found they are popular with families with younger children,” explains AMC director of corporate communications Ryan Noonan. The screenings, which began in 2007 as a joint initiative with the Autism Society, also keep the sound a bit lower and leave some lights on in the auditorium. And hey! The screenings take place on evenings and weekends — namely, every month on the second and fourth Saturday morning and Tuesday evening — and the evening screenings feature films with ratings above PG. Earlier this year, Regal Entertainment Group introduced a similar screening series called “My Way Matinee,” which also takes place on Saturdays.
So while I was glad to find something — and especially glad to discover that the country’s two largest theater chains now both offer screenings tailored to people on the spectrum — the relative paucity would seem to confirm my thesis re: theater owners not exactly falling all over themselves to accommodate parents of young children. As it stands, these screening are still rare enough that if I want to take my girls, I have to plan it as an event. It would be nice to add “go to a movie” to the list of things parents can just kind of spontaneously decide to do with their young kids. And who knows. Maybe I’ll use that money I saved on babysitting for a few premium cocktails.
Pete Keeley is the copy chief for THR.com. This is one of the only times he’ll write about something not directly related to ’80s action movies.
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