Marcus Theatres: Dream-lounging toward the arthouse apocalypse
Is there a place for Madison film lovers at a new theater hyped for cheesy style over cultural substance?
Sterling Cooper doesn't sell personal, affecting advertising campaigns; they sell ad space with a Don Draper surcharge. Dunkin' Donuts doesn't sell delicious custard-filled delights; they sell coffee-like swill with a sugary treat to make the caffeine go down easier. And Marcus Theatres—the Milwaukee-based theater chain whose crown jewel theater, the Palace Cinema, just opened on the west side of Sun Prairie, replacing its Eastgate Cinema near East Towne Mall—doesn't sell movie tickets; they're serving up recliners with on-demand nachos, with a slight upcharge for having The Avengers playing in the background.
Oops sorry, " DreamLounger DLX." Yes, the headline cinematic technology being trumpeted by the largest theater chain in the Madison area is a reclining seat. And plenty to help you grow an ass to fill it, from the traditional trough popcorn, nacho cheese and Milk Duds to an extended menu with everything from crab cake to chicken parmesan, all delivered seat side by eager wait staff hoping moviegoers are as eager to leave a tip behind as they are to leave a trail of garbage.
I worked for Marcus for ten years, if my bias isn't showing.
Playing second fiddle to in-theatre dining and branded seating experiences is the only thing worth a damn that movie theaters can offer in terms of new technology these days–Dolby ATMOS–speakers that line every surface of the ceiling and walls and deliver a sound experience unlike anything you can produce at home, at least for the moment. That Marcus feels that bears about as much value for the consumer as fucking recliners should tell you exactly how much Marcus thinks you, Johnny Moviegoer, give a shit about how your movie looks and sounds. How your ass feels and expands are clearly the bigger priority to you, the discerning consumer.
Marcus, like every theater chain in the country, makes their money on the extras around the periphery of the film experience, so despite my griping, there's business sense to a lot of what has gone into the Palace. But the fact that they're so transparently telling us that the movie is secondary to the experience—to the point of branding the seats we sit in and hoping we accidentally stay after the movie thinking we've wandered into a local pizzeria or pub—tells you that they don't take their mantle as would-be custodians of film culture in Madison even remotely seriously.
Consider that this new theater moved just outside of Madison, away from the east side's poorer communities and any form of public transit to join Sun Prairie's outward colony for subdivision dwellers (I also grew up in SP so I'm allowed to hate on it). Consider that despite having higher capacity screens with digital signage and projection (more flexible equipment that can be used to split screens between more movies more easily), the Palace opened with just five or six movies across their twelve screens, not a limited release to be found. Consider that Marcus leans heavily on minimum wage labor, worked hard during those bursting Avengers weekends but cut liberally when a weekend release is a bust, and rarely offered anything that resembles a living wage for the trouble. Consider that despite the promise of digital ticketing and on-demand seat selection, this is the TSA-esque nightmare corral that you enter in order to get through into the actual theater:
All of this speaks to a company who spends a lot of time thinking about dumb names for fake restaurants and not a lot of time about what people who love movies actually value when they head to the theater.
A real investment in the film culture of Madison doesn't look like this. Maybe that's not the business Marcus is in. Maybe "magical movie memories" is just corporate speak for "eating your feelings while watching Paul Blart."
But Madison's filmgoing culture is worth investing in—things like the Wisconsin Film Festival, UW Cinematheque, WUD Film, and Four Star Video Heaven demonstrate a healthy audience of Madisonians eager to pay for an emphatically film-centered experience, rather than what Marcus is serving up.
We need a theater on the near east side, or even on the isthmus, with a small, knowledgeable staff that's paid a living wage to run a modestly-sized theater aggressively booked with second-run hits, rare gems, limited-run wildcards and old favorites for families and adults alike. It's the kind of pipedream theater that would only work if it was owned, run by and frequented upon by people who absolutely adore films and seeing them with their kin. You know, the ones still paying to see movies that aren't on Netflix.