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What is the cinematic price for comfort at local theaters?

A multiple choice question for passionate moviegoers:

When I go to the movies, I am most interested in enjoying the occasion with:

A) My brains.
B) My eyes.
C) My ears.
D) My heart.
E) My tush.

If you answered E (and care a lot about B), you should know that the Dipson Theater chain has just made a substantial investment in the Amherst Theater with bigger screens and the same kind of incredibly comfortable reclining chairs they have in their McKinley and Chautauqua Mall theaters.

I’ve watched a movie in one of those recliners and I can tell you it adds an utterly amazing quantity of home comfort to the moviegoer’s experience. And the adjustment of screen size in all three Amherst houses is nothing if not impressive.

So why am I worried? In the middle theater of the Amherst three-plex, there used to be 350 seats. Now there are 133. The number in a side theater went down from 150 to 75.

The question then is: Will ticket prices have to go up to offset the smaller body counts and potential loss of revenue?

I watched the seats being put in by Dipson president Michael Clement and vice president Bryan Spokane. The first words out of Clement’s mouth when we talked about it were that ticket prices won’t be affected. Spokane confirmed it in a longer phone conversation.

But that wasn’t my biggest fear. The question where the rubber meets the road – as Dustin Hoffman might put it – is “Will that potential shrinkage of revenue mean that in programming, the Amherst Theater and the Dipson chain in general will suddenly become cautious and shy away from booking the kind of independent and art films that aren’t as promising at the box office as movies like ‘Brooklyn’ and ‘Trumbo?’ ” As it is now, the extraordinary film “Room” was booked for only one Eastern Hills Mall Theater screen (where comfy seats had already been installed) despite the film winning the audience favorite award at the Toronto Film Festival.

That film is an emotionally wrenching experience entirely without major movie stars which is why it hasn’t proven in other cities to be a box office minesweeper. It doesn’t have the obvious box office appeal of the ultra-lovable “Brooklyn” or “Trumbo” with its big and first-rate cast starring Bryan Cranston of “Breaking Bad,” and with John Goodman, Diane Lane and Louis C.K.

With the new economic realities, won’t Dipson be tempted to be gun-shy about cinematic esoterica fairly often? As it is, the realities of film exhibition in Buffalo keep some movies from us. When, for instance, Jean-Luc Godard made a film in 3-D there was no way we could possibly see it.
But that is an obscure movie event for the hardest of cinematic hardcores.

Spokane reassured me that the new realities will mean no change to the venturesome programming at the Amherst which we have come to count on for decades. What it means for Eastern Hills Mall screens remains to be seen.

“The Amherst is still going to mix art and independent film as we’ve always done” Spokane says. “We’re still going to be an art and independent theater.”

He explained that “attendance has been dipping over the years. We want to give people more. We did lose a significant amount of chairs but we knew that going in and we’re fine with that.”

He said the theater expects the number of sellouts might be greater but points out that tickets can be purchased in advance to avoid it.

Please don’t think I’m being churlish or a downer here. I am heartily in favor of all businesses that go out of their way to show love for patrons. When the Maple Ridge Theaters went the home comfort route to rescue their waning box office, I was happy for them.

I’ve always loved Dipson’s commitment to the quality of popcorn and cookies at its snack bars – and the exhibition on its screens. I never nosh at the movies but I know how happy the food makes others.

But if, like me, you go to the movies to feed your brain, your eyes and your heart, you worry. My tush has had many decades on its own to expand to its current size. It can take care of itself.

Not only have I happily watched films in ridiculously uncomfortable circumstances, I first learned to love movies as an art form at Fred Keller’s original Circle Art Theater on Connecticut Street, a terminally grungy and doomed old neighborhood house that Fred turned into a community-changer until he moved it and expanded with another theater too, the Glen Art Theater.

My colleague Colin Dabkowski has already written cogently about his fears for the suburbanization of Buffalo. To see the Amherst convert to a Maple Ridge model would be an incalculable loss from the great things the Dipson chain has given us for decades.

Clement and Spokane assure us that the new mathematics that come from new comforts at their theaters won’t change that.

Me? I choose to believe them. To quote a famous American: What? Me Worry?


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