The Los Angeles Times caused a stir with the publishing of an article highlighting a movie theater that features a jungle gym next to the theater seats in one of their auditoriums. The idea is the brain child of Mexico based theater chain Cinepolis. Several of their theaters around the world feature a Cinepolis Junior auditorium consisting of bean bags, a play area in the theater, and designated “play time intermissions” during family films.
Film journalists all over Twitter had their jimmies thoroughly rustled at the sight of a plastic tube slide jutting down a movie theater aisle. However, when I shared the article on my personal Facebook page, a few people supported the idea. Heated discussions ensued, and the more I thought about it, the more I tried to suss out the root cause of why a theater chain would arrive at the idea to begin with. But first, let’s break down the arguments for and against this kind of theater going experience.
The Young and The Restless
There are two arguments in favor of this type of experience. The first is that the environment encourages restless children to be restless. Being a kid at the movies can be tough. It’s a counter-intuitive experience. You have to sit down in a dark room and be quiet for up to an hour and forty-five minutes without doing ANYTHING else. “I watch movies at home all the time and I get to run and play during those. Why is this any different?” a child might say. So as a kid gets restless, a parent is saddled with trying to keep the fussy child quiet or leaving the theater. Some movies offer a cry room, but that can be isolating and still doesn’t provide an alternative stimulus for the little one. The judgment society throws at parents who can’t keep their kids quiet anywhere public is swift and primal. And while any theater worth its salt will happily give a refund to parents with restless children, it’s still an annoyance for the parents and the business.
The other argument is strictly economic. Family films make more money than any other genre of film. PG-13 and R-rated films are for the Friday night crowds. Large groups of teenagers with nothing to do and couples on dates. But something like The Smurfs guarantees a family of four. That’s already double what a couple will pay for a new John Wick picture. So aiming a theater squarely at families who may feel uncomfortable bringing their squirmy ones to the movies widens the appeal of that family shelling out for a trip to the theater. Also, theaters have to do something. Premium formats and bigger spectacles have evened out a once tanking industry, but theaters are not as profitable as they once were. Combined with Amazon and Netflix’s success at The Oscars and Netflix’s deal with Disney in full swing, a new bubble may burst. But what if, in the middle of all this panic, theaters were actually doing a disservice to their clients by offering these extra amenities?
The Movie is The Thing
The other side of the issue has arguments worth considering as well. The first is that of “why?” Movie theaters have operated in essentially the same way for over a hundred years now. Dark wall, bright room, loudspeakers. They are engineered to draw your focus to the picture. Watching the movie is the activity. That is why you are there. The picture may be boring, vapid, or a shameful attempt to pilfer the pockets of well-meaning folks. But it’s all art and it all must be considered. When boiled down to its core components, the movie theater can sound elitist. However, it’s anything but. The movie theater is one of the most even playing fields you’re likely to find. Facing the same way as strangers for a couple hours and reckoning with someone else’s creation against your own life experience and world view is a special experience. But it’s a skill that must be learned. And movie theater jungle gyms delay that learning opportunity.
The earlier a child can learn how to sit and absorb a movie, the better. And that absorption might lead to them deciding they don’t like movies. That’s perfectly fine. We don’t need a world full of movie critics. But at that point, they have made a decision. Early development of critical analysis and decision making skills are essential in this day and age. Playground equipment in a movie theater stunts this growth and sets the precedent that the movie is secondary. It will breed rooms full of people talking and texting while a movie happens behind them. And that will hurt the theater industry. When the theater becomes the same as watching Netflix during a party, the cheaper option will win. However, setting all of these arguments aside, something still sticks out. A theater chain thought this was a good idea in the first place. Because they saw kids becoming increasingly more restless.
Kid movies aren’t for kids anymore. In 2016 I found myself telling people, “I really liked it! If I were a kid, I would have been bored,” about almost every single children’s movie I saw. The BFG was a wonderfully sweet film about creativity and storytelling. I almost fell asleep during it. Zootopia had a lot to say about every single “-ism” in the book. But it also featured in-jokes and callbacks to major adult popular culture and current event touchstones. My favorite animated film of last year was Moana. Moana is also the only family film I didn’t say would have bored me as a child. It’s an entertaining adventure, and it’s ABOUT something. But it captures the imagination first and foremost.
I owe my entire writing career to The Lion King. Seeing The Lion King in theaters is one of my earliest memories. We arrived during the elephant graveyard sequence, but it didn’t matter. I was enveloped in the movie. I watched it every day for months after it hit home video. The story is so simple it’s almost threadbare. It’s about fathers and sons and growing up. All of it is very relatable. But it’s also Hamlet. And it deals with finding your place in a complicated legacy.
Kids movies and hefty themes aren’t mutually exclusive, but they’re hard to pull off. So the answer to all this may not lie in playground equipment or on-site daycare. The answer has to do with HOW our family films are about what they are about. They are either about too much or not enough. We must hold family entertainment to a higher standard, and not try to ease the blow off kids movies that are boring for kids with needless distractions. Vote with your wallet. Because when the movie’s good enough, the movie is the thing.