All I need to know I learned in the movie line
My 11 year old son couldn’t make it all the way The Batman when we went opening weekend. Granted, it was a school night, the film is shot with a deliberately dark and brooding motif, and it’s a three-hour spiraling detective story that’s hard for a fifth-grader to follow. But his head was on my shoulder with 45 minutes to go.
“I’m sorry dad, it was so long and I couldn’t stay awake.”
“That’s no problem,” I told him. “It was long.” One of the longest superhero movies we’ve seen together.
But what I didn’t tell him was that BACK IN MY DAY cinematic experiences like this would have easily been a five-hour marathon. Why the two extra hours? Well, kids these days just have no idea the mental and physical cost it took to get a decent movie seat. The tickets instantly appear on their phones as if it were some kind of Hollywood movie magic.
The TikTok generation don’t understand what it’s like to call Moviefone, navigate the maze of schedules, call all your friends on landline, set a time to meet, then show up three hours early just to buy tickets to be able to queue for tonight’s opening blockbuster. The destination was worth the trip most nights. We liked it. But it’s becoming increasingly clear—as my kids approach the time when they want me to drop them off a block from the theater—that they’ll never experience one of my defining rites of passage. generation: the cinema line.
Did I queue for hours three times to see Titanic at the theatre ? Of course I did. It’s what 17-year-old boys do when they have mixed-gender friend groups and want to be the closest hot body when the opposite sex begins to feel Leonardo DeCaprio’s penetrating glow on screen. I probably spent about ten hours in this movie and six hours waiting in line during the most social time of my life. And I didn’t care. Why? Because the film line is where the shit happened and where the shit was done.
Need to plan your weekend with the guys? No problem, we’ll do it while we wait in line. Want to choose between Chili’s and Macaroni Grill for the next date? Let’s do it while we’re in line. Complain about Mrs. Glanville and precal duties? Line. And normally, this line had no parents.
This film line is also where we learned things. We learned to be patient, to communicate with each other, to form new relationships and to manage conflicts. We have also learned to stand firm and defend ourselves against injustice. God help the group of seven who tried to queue because their only friend held a spot for each of them. GTFO and sit in the front row!
Looking back, it’s nostalgic to think of all the lessons we learned from staying in the movie queue.
I am convinced that any organizational effectiveness I have in my career is partly due to the challenge of simply creating the opportunity be in this line. Gen Xers remember getting the whole list of movie times from Moviefone on the home phone, then calling eight friends to try and figure out the best time for everyone. But then you get to friend number seven and they can’t do the time everyone else can because they have to go to Great Aunt Oder’s 85th birthday party. Scratch everything, start over.
Once you finally entered the queue, the planning was complete and it was time for the real opening act to begin. And we said we hated it. But we absolutely loved it.
The film line, it has been shown, often leads to a better cinematic experience. It increases our anticipation and enjoyment of the movie we are about to see. Consumer behavior researcher Minjung Koo said The edge before the force awakens first that people “make inferences about value from other available sources”. What are these sources available? These are the people who are also willing to wait in line for hours to see the next best thing in the right seat. The collective hive mind of anticipation heightens our enjoyment of what’s to come and confirms the camaraderie as we finally share the movie together.
Paul Scanlon of Legion M wrote in the Huffington Post that standing in line is the moviegoer’s version of a tailgate party. Much like the Sunday afternoon before an NFL game, moviegoers willingly gave up their evening or weekend to spend time online with like-minded strangers, united by a common theme of drowning in a story in technicolor for the next few hours. We might have had nothing in common other than a shared square of carpet or sidewalk, but we knew we were all there for the same thing.
Back then, we looked people in the eye and had conversations with words coming out of our mouths. Today it looks quaint and unusual. My children don’t understand the statement “talk to someone you don’t know”. For us, the anticipation and excitement had been bubbling for weeks, and the day was finally here. We couldn’t resist sharing our theories and expectations with the people stationed near us.
“Have you heard of that new guy, Jar-Jar?” He will definitely be bigger than Chewbacca.
Indeed, sometimes those expectations have failed miserably. For every “I am the king of the world!” moment we have Matthew Broderick and Hank Azaria in Godzilla. At the end of these flops, we wanted to be one of the descendants of lizards who were wiped out in Madison Square Garden. But at the merciful end, we had 250 other battle-hardened comrades with whom we could just raise our eyebrows and shake our heads and know. We suffered together.
In the film line, there were also only two guarantees: first, you were guaranteed to stand in line at the dirtiest spot on the carpet or sidewalk. Second, it was an absolute certainty that the most annoying foreigner you could imagine would be lining up near you. Or the I-saw-it-twice-and-I-will-tell-you guy was next to you. He gave new meaning to the term support.
The last bit of those movie lines that shaped us was critical. There was an end goal in sight. We were working towards a goal. A shared goal. We knew that at the time indicated on our paper ticket, we would be seated together when the lights started to dim. You’d be hard pressed to find anything today that would elicit a more visceral reaction than when the doors of Air conditioning opened and people started coming in. It’s our turn to see this plane full of convicts, brothers and sisters. With this goal in view, we have learned to endure, to cope, and to be patient.
We know that today’s generation of laptops and small-screen obsessives struggle to focus on tasks, lack interpersonal connection, seek instant gratification, and don’t communicate well. Could my children stand to wait in line for two hours? Would I even ask them?
Before we could find out if Harry Stamper’s deep drillers could navigate the iron graphite surface of an asteroid, we waited. And despite what my kids may think today, it wasn’t Armageddon to sit around without a phone and wait and talk and speculate and endure.
We don’t have time for film lines anymore. Maybe if you take a trip to Disney World you’ll be queuing, but even then paying extra at Lightning Lane will get you out of it. We’ve learned to DoorDash-ify our lives and wonder why kids struggle to connect and empathize with others.
“An expectation is a psychological state,” said Don Norman of the UCSD Design Lab recently. “You have to develop a sensitivity or understand why it might matter.” Of course it is important. It is also a psychological, behavioral and social benefit when done with others. And U.S everything need a little more of that. Let’s get in line for it.
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