Movie News & Reviews

A playground in a movie theater? What are we teaching the next generation?

Look, in the interest of full disclosure, I know I’m going to sound like an old man here. I’ll own it.

And in true old man fashion, I’m going to start off discursively, which is a 10-cent adverb meaning “with a rambling story about something that happened 20 years ago that may or may not have anything to do with my main point.”

(Like my wife tells my children when I get going, just roll with it.)

I was working at the time in a smaller town at a smaller news organization — back then we just called them “newspapers.” On a rare weekend off, my bride and I went to see the movie “Speed.” I always point to this precise moment as the beginning of the end of civilization.

For you whippersnappers who haven’t seen it, “Speed” stars Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock as passengers who have to keep a bus going 50 mph on the L.A. freeway lest a bomb planted by Dennis Hopper blows everything to smithereens.

On that lovely evening, in an age before cellphones, the show was interrupted by a well-meaning theater employee not once, not twice, and, no, not three times. Four times during the movie, staff made an “emergency” announcement.

The final interruption came just as Sandra Bullock prepared to jump the bus across a gap in the highway. Right as the freaking bus is in the air, a squeaky voice of a pimply teenage boy emanates from the back of the theater: “Emergency phone call for Jon Borgenjorg. Emergency phone call for Jon Borgenjorg.” Or whatever his name was.

I left that theater so dadgum irritated that I wanted to march right up to the manager and say, “Look, man. Your people interrupted this movie four (expletive) times because of a so-called emergency phone call. There aren’t four emergencies in this town in a month. I know. I work at the newspaper.”

But I didn’t. Instead, I’ve let that feeling fester in my gut for the last two decades, relating it to folks every time there’s a change at my local cineplex.

B&B Shawnee has newly opened ScreenPlay, an auditorium featuring not only a movie screen but a long orange tube slide, a netted climbing area, fancy lights, a disco ball, some plastic animals for children to crawl around on, toddler activity areas and seats that are easily wiped down. You know, for kids.

I was fully prepared to hate it.

To their credit, the B&B people, who are very excited about the possibilities of ScreenPlay, had their reservations as well.

“Frankly, I was a bit dubious at the outset,” said Paul Farnsworth, public relations manager. “There are two auditoriums in the country with a similar concept; both are in Los Angeles. Our president of marketing went and said, ‘Man, it was crazy. When it was movie time, the kids just sat down and watched the movies.’ And I said I’d believe it when I see it.”

No doubt. Because, let’s face it, some folks in Kansas City are no fun to see a movie with.

Old folks want to blame “the kids,” but it’s not just “the kids.” It’s people of all ages.

Sure, we have teenagers gossiping together, but we also have senior citizens asking their spouse, “What’d that guy just say?” And they’re not using their indoor voice.

We have dads who aren’t about to let an empty popcorn tub go unfilled and moms who can’t go two hours without getting some nachos.

And the phones — OMG, the phones. I’ve been to three movies at three theaters this week and in each one, someone near me has whipped out a phone during the flick. It happens at nearly every film I see.

People are texting. They’re checking Facebook. They’re tweeting. Heck, at “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” a few weeks ago, a woman in front of me spent a good 10 minutes on Amazon shopping for jeans.

So when a theater chain installs a playground in a movie theater, you have to wonder if we’re inadvertently creating the next generation of terrible moviegoers.

At the same time, we all have to accept that times are changing.

People are just as happy to stay at home and watch movies, either on a big high-definition TV in the living room or in bed on their teeny-tiny phones.

Which has led theaters to do anything they can to get folks back into the cineplex — 3-D, immersive sound, rumble seats, Smell-o-vision.

Ryan Davis, creative manager and programmer at Alamo Drafthouse Mainstreet, has done everything but bring in a live shark for screenings of “Jaws.” Not for a lack of trying, mind you. They recently gave out cap guns at “Predator” and Viking hats for “How to Train Your Dragon 2.”

“The crazy things that we do, it’s just a taste to get you to come in and watch the more hardcore cinephile stuff,” Davis said.

Officials with AMC say they have no plans to follow B&B’s example. But they do all they can to bring folks in, too. Recliner seats. A whole new menu of flatbread pizza, chicken and waffle sandwiches and the like. Booze.

AMC rep Ryan Noonan says the chain’s objective always remains to keep attention on the screen. From staff training to menu design to clinkless plates, the chain’s dine-in auditoriums are created to eliminate distractions. The theaters had to install a wall between rows of reclining stadium seats to keep people from falling when they were walking in the dark.

The side benefit: The wall blocks out the phone-dependent knuckleheads in the rows in front of you.

“Definitely one of the benefits to the wall is it helps keep your focus up on screen,” Noonan said.

And while you and I might hear “in-theater playground” and cringe, B&B has done a very smart thing: The pre-show in the ScreenPlay theater actually teaches kids how to watch a movie.

A man dressed as a police officer on the screen sternly tells parents they are responsible for their children. He playfully reminds youngsters not to push each other, to go down the slide one at a time feet first, to remember that the seats are “designed for their behind” — not for playing.

And the amazing thing is: The kids really did listen. When it came time for the show at a ScreenPlay preview Thursday night, they all made their way to their seats to watch “Despicable Me 3” next to their moms and dads.

“We’ve taken every effort to make sure that people are informed and that the expectations are clear,” Farnsworth said. “And it’s fun to watch, too. It’s really encouraging to see even in little kids the excitement and the weird reverence they feel. When the lights go down, they know it’s time to watch the movie. Play time is play time, and movie time is movie time.”

No one’s going to walk in to B&B’s ScreenPlay accidentally. For one thing, it costs $2 more per ticket. Signage plainly states this isn’t your normal theater. And the ScreenPlay auditorium won’t be the exclusive venue for any film.

Watching the kiddos play before the film and during the 15-minute intermission this week, I was reminded of another old-timey experience: the drive-in near where I grew up.

There was playground equipment and lots of running around and hollering. When it was time to go watch “Corvette Summer” or “Smokey and the Bandit,” we’d hightail it back to the family station wagon. Mom might slide a little closer to Dad. My brother and sister and I might watch the movie; we might not.

These thoughts brought back more movie memories: My normally quiet father talking fast and nonstop about the ’50s and hot rods after seeing “Grease.” An uncle yelling, “Yeah!” in a crowded theater when Christopher Reeve took flight in “Superman: The Movie.” My wife sliding her fingers between mine during “The Secret of My Success,” the film we saw on our first date. My teenage son hiding his eyes on his daddy’s shoulder this week during the preview for Stephen King’s “It.”

This is what all these innovations and experiments are really about: to get people into theaters not just for the love of movies, but also for the love at the movies. Maybe that’s just me being sentimental, but that happens when you get older.

David Frese: 816-234-4463, @DavidFrese

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