Personal Statement: It's Been Reel

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Illustration by Claire Abdo and Katie Spak
Tuesday, January 10, 2017 - 6:37pm

A little under a month ago, I received a Facebook notification that the Regal Cinemas Bethesda movie theater in my Maryland hometown was shutting its doors after more than 20 years of business. “Thank you, Bethesda. We will miss you” has now replaced the multiplex’s film titles that used to casually scroll across the marquee.

What was once a staple of downtown Bethesda slowly became a deserted theater with sometimes more employees than movie-goers milling about the concession stand. What was once a hotspot where the likes of boxer Mike Tyson, sportscaster James Brown and I — yeah, I'm feeling I should be in the same category — would go to catch a movie on a Saturday night, is now merely a place to meet up with friends. The place where ushers once donned burgundy uniforms with ear pieces and perfect customer service turned into a place constantly plagued with air conditioning failures in the summer months and teenage workers who were too busy to clean up the popcorn crumbs and soda spills in Theater Eight.

I had two or three birthday parties at Regal Bethesda, as we referred to it. I don’t even remember what the movies were or how old I was, but I distinctly remember those birthdays as being some of the best. Going to the movies with a bunch of friends, passing popcorn down the row to make sure everyone got some. Racing over to the candy machines, sliding quarters into the slots and eagerly awaiting a handful of M&Ms to drop into my cup. Afterward, heading next door to Uno’s Pizzeria (sadly, also a distant memory) to construct make-your-own pizzas.

What was once a special experience, from birthday parties to date nights, became a way to go out with others without having to talk to them for at least an hour and a half. What used to be appreciated by everyone had merely been demoted to satisfying middle schoolers enjoying their newfound independence, senior citizens attending 10 a.m. screenings to ensure the matinee rate and small children mesmerized by the newest animated sensation. What used to be a place where people of all ages went to make memories became just a building with too many seats.

With the demise of Regal Bethesda goes the theater of my childhood, along with old-school aspects of movie theaters that have been lost in the shuffle and replaced by newer — but not always better — features. The spontaneity of movies has been replaced by expensive tickets that must be reserved at least a day in advance to claim a good seat. Yes, reserved seats in a movie theater is now the norm. No more pushing in line to grab a good seat to the latest box office hit. Just like everything in our lives nowadays, something as classic as going to the movies can be purchased without any human interaction needed at all. The adventure can be calculated and meticulously planned into our schedules.

But reserved seating aside, there is nothing like going to the movies. The lights dim, you sit back in your seat, brace for impact and delve into the storyline. And for the next two hours, you’re immersed in darkness and transported to another universe. Watching movies in a theater on a big screen will never change for me. From trailers to credits, I instantly become invested in the characters and the plot and the setting, the dialogue and the music and everything that encapsulates the story set before you.

For two hours, it’s a constant fight worth fighting — combatting the talkers, the texters and those who open their candy wrappers with such ferocity that it seems like they need to bring in the National Guard to open a stupid bag of Skittles. It’s watching previews and mentally noting which films you want to see and others that you’ll take a hard pass on — including the requisite thumbs up or down motion you give to your friend sitting next to you.

For those fleeting hours, you forget everything that’s not in that one theater on that one screen — your bad day, your looming exams, your laundry list of things to do. Because for just this magical moment, none of that matters. The only thing that matters is what's on the silver screen.

When I was 2 years old, I saw my first movie, “The Emperor's New Groove.” When I was 3, I saw “Ice Age,” but walked — actually more like sprinted — out of the theater because the tiger scared the living hell out of me. When I was 5, I saw the new “Peter Pan” movie with my mom and was afraid to even step foot into a large, dark room and watch a movie with just four people in the theater. When I was 6 years old, I saw “Because of Winn-Dixie” and threw up 20 minutes into the movie because I had food poisoning. I never did find out what happened to that dog.

At Regal Bethesda, I saw my first PG-13 movie, “Shall We Dance” and my first R-rated movie, “The King’s Speech.” I also snuck into “22 Jump Street” even though it was R-rated and I was too young to buy a ticket and went to a “double-feature,” paying for one movie, then slipping into a second right after (I know, I'm sort of a badass).

Over winter break, my mom and I went to see the instant smash-hit musical “La La Land,” a genuine throwback to classic cinema. This film perfectly solidifies why films are so special, especially on the large screen. The surround-sound that grabbed me into a world full of song and dance, the bright colors pristinely displayed in high-definition quality that fully engrossed me into the plot, were electrifying. This is the power of coupling a wonderful film with an irreplaceable movie theater experience.

All these memories come from going to the theaters. Not sitting in bed watching Netflix on my laptop or streaming Hulu on my iPhone, but actually going out to the movies. And, yes, it’s well worth the investment of paying upward of $14 a ticket.

Not only do I have less time to see movies in theaters while I'm at college, but the rise of online streaming and television has unfortunately made going to movie theaters somewhat irrelevant and pointless. Unless you’re a film student or, in my case, have a parent in the film world, the luxury of sitting in plush theater seats surrounded by the requisite popcorn aroma no longer feels so compelling to my generation.

I'm a film buff who demands no interruptions during my movies. Maybe I’m old-fashioned. Yes, I'm the same guy who also likes holding a newspaper in my hand and wandering around bookstores for hours upon hours. But the movies are sacred in theaters, more important than anything else in the world at that exact moment when the lights go down and the image spreads across the screen.

Sadly, I missed the opportunity to experience one last film at Regal Bethesda before its doors closed. But luckily I have endless childhood memories to help me move forward. Thank you, Regal Bethesda, for doing your part in showing me the power of film in its truest form — across the theater’s largest screens. I will miss you.