The Pristine Movie-Going Experience with the Mysterious Academy

Of the elusive pursuits of the world, being able to go to a movie where you don’t get pulled out of the experience every few minutes by your fellow theater patrons’ talking, texting, or kicking your seat is as frustratingly difficult as catching a chupacabra on film. Equally as mysterious is the identity of the folks that voted Shakespeare in Love best picture over Saving Private Ryan in 1998. So in the course of one fall evening I set out to see if I could accomplish both the goal of a perfect movie experience with an actual audience and lay my eyes on members of the shadowy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

I received a friend’s invitation to see a screening of Ridley Scott’s The Martian at Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, California. George Lucas knows how to build a theater. The 300-seat Stag Theater is the bleeding edge of movie-going tech. The seats have a slight recline to them, are plush enough that you sink into your chair without drowning, and there’s leg room. I’m 6′ 4” and knowing I’m going to be wedged into a theater seat for the duration is a factor I always consider before seeing anything. And if you’re seated behind me, I’m sorry.

worst seat

A good enough movie will get me to forget where I am or how uncomfortable the seats might be. If airplanes had seats like the Stag Theater, I’d consider flying more. There’s enough information on the contents and quality of the movie The Martian that I don’t have much to add. It’s excellent. And yes I preferred the book by Andy Weir. But the sound system (Dolby Atmos. More details here: ) is stellar, making sounds pop and bleed out of the screen as if they were taking place around you. This is the way to experience a space adventure.

The 3-D tech has also come a long way. I prefer movies without, but here the effects were simply gorgeous and didn’t detract from the colors and shapes of the Martian landscape. I’d see a 3-D movie again produced at this level.

3d glasses

The audience was the best, too. People laughed at all the right parts. It helped that my friend has one of those “if this guy is laughing I’ll laugh too” guffaws. But mostly they sat quietly and watched the movie. No one talks during a screening at this theater. The attendants are watching. No one opened a phone to check messages. No one ate or drank. While I like popcorn enough to have had a popcorn-pattern tie for my own wedding, the need to continuously stuff one’s face while watching a movie is sometimes disconcerting and often loud.

But watching the crowd before the film began was where we got to play “Guess who’s a member of the academy” while pretending not to look. They were a group of mostly gray-haired men and women that filtered in just before The Martian started. Unassuming, dressed in expensive casual clothes, but old enough that few in this group looked like the employees and guests that comprised the rest of the audience. But none wore anything that spoke to their membership in the cloak and dagger world of cinema accolades.

greater good

I guess you could say they were standoffish until I remembered I rarely speak to people I don’t know and when I go to a movie I want to be left alone. So did they. So no notebooks (apparently after the nominations are made they rewatch the nominees and do take notes) or funny hats. Just moviegoers with an opinion far weightier than mine.

When the credits rolled, people clapped. They also all sat through the entirety of the credits as is custom at the theater, since many there know some of the departments and individuals named in the scrolling text.

Perfect movie experience? Check. Unfortunately our host’s wife didn’t feel the same way. She had a headache by the time the credits rolled. It was the 3-D, she said. Can’t win them all.

So maybe the academy folks are nice. Maybe they’re looking for another Shakespeare in Love so they can give it the honor deserved by the film that spends the most money on its media campaign. All I know is two of them tailgated me home down the dark and dangerous winding road back to civilization. Maybe they were after me so their secret identities would stay safe. Maybe they just wanted to get home. But I didn’t let them pass.

What makes or breaks a movie-going experience for you?

(A special thanks to my pal for getting me in.)

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