There are pictures on the wall of the Glasgow Film Theatre that show it in its heyday. Bit by bit, it’s got a little more cramped. Where there was once a sweeping Deco foyer with plenty of space overhead, a false ceiling has been shoved in to make way for a bar. And now the little café on the ground floor has been gutted to make way for Screen Three.
Digital filmmaking has created an environment where less theatre-goers have to choose between more films. Where shipping a film print to a destination once involved a stack of reels the size of the average drum kit, you can now Fedex a humble hard-drive containing the main attraction. Projection rooms are getting smaller, but so is the average audience size for the ever-increasing archive of content.
Modern cinema design hence favours increasingly smaller theatres like Glasgow’s upcoming Screen Three, allowing smaller groups of fifty or sixty punters to huddle into a space that increasingly resembles someone’s living room.
I spend a lot of my time in such bespoke mini-theatres. In Soho’s movieland they call them screening rooms, because that’s what they are. And for distributors, exhibitors and reviewers, it’s perfectly fine to relax in a plush chair with a posh sound system to assess next month’s movies for review or consideration. What they miss out on, however, is that vulnerable, ineffable sense of community that one gets from being an audience member, in a crowd, in a truly big cinema. I still cherish memories of The Empire Strikes Back, Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park at the vast Empire in Leicester Square. Last October’s Scotland Loves Anime jammed hundreds of fans cheek-to-cheek to laugh and cry and gasp at a roster of films from the apocalyptic Evangelion 3.0 to the intricate Garden of Words. Do audiences miss out on something if they see such epics on a mere laptop? What about if the screen is only marginally larger than your rich mate’s telly? After all, if a giant robot is supposed to be forty feet tall, doesn’t it help the whole movie-going experience if it actually is?
Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History, out now from the British Film Insititute. This article first appeared in NEO # 118, 2013.