Movies

How to Cram for Infinity War in as Few Films as Possible

Like many of you, I’m sure, I already have my tickets to see Avengers: Infinity War this weekend. Unlike most of you, I hope, I won’t be using those tickets. A nasty abscess and a brief flirtation with sepsis have nipped those plans right in the bud. But oddly enough, this unintentional timeout has given me a chance to do something I probably wouldn’t have had time for otherwise: Actually prepare myself for the movie.

 

Mind you, I don’t have time, nor the desire, to watch every Marvel Cinematic Universe film leading up to Infinity War. But it is the 19th in the series and the culmination of every one of the films before it, so the assumption is that you’ve seen most if not all of them at some point since their release. And I have. I simply need a refresher to get me in the right mental and emotional space heading into this monumental event film.

 

So, while my buddy Dave was sitting by my side in the hospital last night, patting my head and asking if he could have all my Hot Toys figures if this whole thing goes south, we brainstormed the lazy nerd’s essential viewing guide for heading into Infinity War. Good nerds that we are, we had rules, of course. 

 

First rule: Six films, max. Reason: So people can actually get this marathon done before this weekend. 

Rule B: We’re not worried about the location and particular powers of every Infinity Stone (the powerful gems, remnants of six singularities that pre-exist our universe, which have served as MacGuffins for many Marvel films to date and which give Infinity War its name). Reason: You’d literally have to watch nearly every Marvel movie to get that, which violates Rule One. Plus, you can just look up any number of YouTube videos about the Infinity Stones and catch up that way.

Rule the Third: Try to include as many relevant characters as possible in as few films as possible without having to watch Avengers: Age of Ultron. Reason: Age of Ultron was just terrible. No, seriously, y’all—that was a bad movie.

 

Rule 4: This list has to work equally well for people who’ve seen all the films and people who haven’t. Reason: Because some people haven’t. 

 

So, with those rules in mind (and with a morphine drip in my arm, so take it for what you will), here’s my list of films that should serve as a quick refresher course in the overall state of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) leading up to the events of Infinity War

 

Captain America: Winter Soldier. Nope, don’t you dare blame the morphine for this one. Look, I realize that Winter Solider is a fully terrestrial film, with no hint of the cosmic or mystic sides of the MCU that are obviously going to be so important in the new film. But Winter Soldier is essential viewing because it sets the stage for everything that happens to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in the years that follow it. On top of that, it’s simply one of the best action movies ever made (and a pretty solid espionage flick at that), completely irrespective of its status as a Marvel movie. 

Infinity War

Winter Soldier is also an essential re-watch because Captain America: Civil War doesn’t make much sense without it, and Civil War is really the film that leaves the Avengers in the personal, emotional, and legal states they’re in heading into Infinity War. If you can’t quite figure out why Captain America looks like The Walking Dead’s Rick Grimes in the Infinity War trailer, this one has your essential reminders. Civil War also serves as Spider-Man’s introduction to the MCU, and he looks to play an incredibly important part in the new film. (For what it’s worth, you can watch Spider-Man: Homecoming on its own if you want. It’s a hoot and a half. But it’s not essential viewing for the purposes of Infinity War prep.)

 

Next up: Guardians of the Galaxy, a film high in the running for best pop-music soundtrack of all time, and also our best glimpse at who this big, bad villain named Thanos really is, what he wants, and what he’s willing to do to get it. What’s perhaps most interesting is that we learn less about Thanos from his actual screen time than we do by watching his favorite “daughters,” Nebula and Gamora, who play central roles in this one.

 

And you just have to follow that up with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Dave reached over to check my temperature when I threw this one out, because it’s not an obvious pick. It has less to do with Thanos and the Infinity Stones than its predecessor. But again, it goes back to learning about Thanos by proxy. The interactions between Nebula and Gamora in this film tell you a lot about who the Mad Titan is. Vol. 2 also sneaks in a lot of history about the cosmic side of the MCU that I have a sneaking suspicion will become way more relevant in this upcoming film. 

Infinity War

Of course, you also need a heaping helping of immersion in the mystic side of this universe, and for that we turn to Doctor Strange. I’ve seen more than a few headlines recently along the lines of “WHY DOCTOR STRANGE IS SO IMPORTANT TO INFINITY WAR,” and I haven’t clicked on them. Any of them. Because spoilers, duh. But I can tell you this: It’s a pretty safe bet that the Time Stone featured so prominently in this film is at least one of the reasons Thanos’ sights are set on Earth in the new film. So, if nothing else, consider this (along with Guardians of the Galaxy) your essential primer on the power of Infinity Stones individually. It also has Rachel McAdams in it. Rawr. 

 

Last up, Thor: Ragnarok, the film that, as best I can tell, leads right into Infinity War. It also answers the important questions: Where the heck were Thor and Hulk during Civil War? And how are they gonna get back to Earth? Also, make doubly sure you stick around for the mid-credits scene in this one. But seriously, you should already know that by now.

 

So, lemme have it. What essential movies did I leave out? But more importantly, which of my movies would you drop from my six-film crash course to make room for your pick, and why? 

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Great ‘Last Jedi’ Demo Scenes

The Last Jedi

Following up on Dennis Burger’s lengthy examination of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I thought I would detail some of my favorite scenes from the movie. While Jedi has been a bit divisive amongst Star Wars fans—read the almost 100 comments on Dennis’s post on the Rayva Home Theaters Facebook page—now that I’ve had the chance to view it a couple more times at home, and after viewing the fantastic included two-hour documentary titled “The Director and the Jedi,” which examines many aspects of Rian Johnson’s filmmaking decisions, I’ve come to appreciate this movie in ways I couldn’t or didn’t during my initial theatrical viewing.

Regardless of your feelings about this latest installment in our favorite space opera, this is the best the franchise has ever looked or sounded and makes for reference demo material at home.

 

Much of Star Wars: The Last Jedi takes place in space, and you’ll marvel at the clean, deep, dark black-level detail of this terrific 4K HDR transfer. During the film’s first moments aboard General Hux’s ship, the floor, work stations, officers’ uniforms, and General Hux’s top and trench coat are all black. But a properly calibrated video display will reveal that these are all slightly different shades of black with clearly visible texture and detail.

During the scene where Rey trains on Ahch-To, note the texture in her staff, along with the detail in the stones around her. When she lights Luke’s saber, the blade glows hot blue-white against the sunny background, the HDR image retaining the dark and deep shadow detail of the craggy rocks while the light of the saber blade exceeds that of the sun!

 

HDR is used to great effect throughout the film, but especially during the bright outdoor scenes on Ahch-To and anytime a lightsaber blade is activated. The images from the 4K DI are reference in every regard, and virtually every frame will push your video system to its limits.

 

One of my favorite scenes is when Rey visits the dark place on Ahch-To. It just looks so cool, and the Dolby Atmos sound is terrific, swirling around the room as she snaps her fingers. Just following this is a conversation between Rey and Kylo by firelight with a closeup of their hands with fingerprint detail so amazing you could submit it to the FBI for evidence.

 

Check out the detail of Kylo’s wounds when he is communicating with Rey. You can clearly see the effects Rey’s lightsaber attack had on his face and chest from the end of The Force Awakens, as well as the scar in his side from Chewbacca’s Bowcaster. These are the subtle details that really come through in full 4K resolution.

 

The lightsaber dual between Rey and Kylo and Snoke’s guards and the finale battle on Crait look and sound even more awesome at home than you remember from the theater. Kylo’s poorly constructed saber crackles and sizzles erratically, barely containing the blade’s energy, and the ultra-sharp detail makes this more visible than ever before. (Jedi’s audio levels are a bit lower than some other titles, so be sure to turn the volume up to near reference level to truly experience the full impact of the immersive Dolby Atmos soundtrack!) The reds explode off the screen in HDR, producing rich, vibrant detail along with brilliant whites and deep, dark blacks. The orange-red of the Rebel pilots’ flight suits has never looked richer, and even old C3PO gets a visual upgrade from this 4K transfer, with his gold outfit shining brighter than ever before.

 

This is the demo candy you’ve been waiting for!

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

Bringing Order to Movie-Collecting Chaos

movie collecting

I have been spoiled by how easy it is to customize my movie collection on Kaleidescape. I can organize it by director, actor, year of production, decade, genre, music composer, set designer, and on and on. Kaleidescape allows me to create organization out of chaos.

 

But not every movie I own is downloaded on Kaleidescape. I would need to spend tens of thousands of dollars to digitize close to 17,000 movies. Most of my movies are catalogued via DVD Profiler. This handy software by Invelos has allowed me to enter my entire collection in an app that exists on my desktop, iPhone, and iPad. Over the years, DVD Profiler has saved me a lot of money for another reason—it has stopped me from buying titles I already own but had forgotten were in my collection!

 

Two years ago, I started buying digital copies of certain independent, classic, and foreign movies that are only available only in HD via download. For example, there are many ‘30s and ’40s musicals available on regular DVD, but if you want them on HD, you have to buy them on iTunes.

Recently, for convenience sake, I started buying digital copies of some movies I already own on DVD. Watching them with the click of a button is so much easier than pulling out a ladder and trying to reach a DVD on the upper shelves of my movie library. Of course, I would never do that with Blu-ray discs—the loss of quality would be unacceptable.

 

As my collection of digital movies—mostly purchased from Amazon Prime—grows every week, I’m having a new problem: How do I find a movie that I know I bought without having to do a cumbersome search for it? Amazon allows you to alphabetize the movies you own from A to Z, Z to A, or by most recent addition—but that’s it. If you want to go straight to the title you want, you must search for it letter by letter, which kills the impulse of watching something on the spur of the moment.

 

There are apps that do a great job organizing our photos so we can easily find what we want. Why aren’t there any apps that can do the same for a digital movie collection?

movie collecting

How difficult would it be to create such an app that could be used with Amazon Prime, Netflix, or Vudu to allow us to access just the movies we own and organize them any way we want? If any of our readers has any idea how to do develop such an app, please leave a comment here. Not only would I be happy to help them with my thoughts; I can also work with them to figure out how to market the app.

Theo Kalomirakis

Theo Kalomirakis is widely considered the father of home theater, with scores of luxury theater
designs to his credit. He is an avid movie fan, with a collection of over 15,000 discs. Theo is the
Executive Director of Rayva.

Blade Runner: Appreciation vs. Love

Blade Runner 2049

It all started with a casual work-related phone call.

 

Mike Gaughn and I were having one of our semi-regular chats in which we try to solve all of the problems of the universe, from the nature of political discourse to the state of entertainment-related journalism. And somewhere in the midst of all that, he mentioned Radiohead: “A band that I appreciate, sure,” he said. “A band I know I’m supposed to enjoy as an educated critic. But I just don’t like Radiohead.”

 

And it was in that moment that I finally came to terms with how I feel about Blade Runner 2049.

 

The original Blade Runner from 1982 is, without question, one of the most beloved science-fiction films of its generation. It was and is a nearly unparalleled achievement in terms of art direction, design, and cinematography, and it deserves every ounce of critical and academic analysis to which it’s been subjected over the years, through no less than seven different iterations, five of which you can find on the fantastic five-disc Blu-ray release from a few years back.

 

Roughly once a year, I pull that fantastic collection down from my shelf and dig deeply into one of its various cuts, as any good geek is required to do by Geek Law. I’m fascinated by its narrative and thematic evolution. I’m blown away by its ambiguity and the discussions it inspires.

Blade Runner 2049

There’s just one problem. I don’t actually like Blade Runner. I give it all the credit it deserves and absolutely agree with every laudatory treatise on the film that has ever been penned. But for all that, Blade Runner just doesn’t move me. It doesn’t engage my heart in the same way it engages my brain. For all its brilliant reflection on the nature of the soul . . . it just doesn’t strike me as having one itself.

 

Which brings us to Blade Runner 2049, a film I would have told you this time last year should have never been made. From its very conception, the mere existence of Blade Runner 2049 offended me, despite my respect for the work of director Denis Villeneuve.

 

I’m ashamed now to admit that I completely skipped 2049 in its commercial-cinema run. I didn’t bother to read reviews. I existed in a weird little bubble where I managed to convince myself this unnecessary sequel didn’t exist.

 

Until, that is, my daughter wanted to discuss it. And even then, I only begrudgingly watched so I could objectively defend the hatred for the film that I knew I would feel.

 

I didn’t, though. Hate it, that is. In fact, from the opening scene, I found myself absolutely engrossed in what felt like an impossibly perfect continuation of Ridley’s Scott’s 35-year-old masterpiece. In its tone, its look, its feel, its sound—in every tangible respect, Blade Runner 2049 feels true to the original in a way I never would have dreamt possible. It doesn’t merely capture and explore its predecessor’s themes—it expands on them in a way that’s shockingly relevant. As a work of science-fiction and social commentary, I’d daresay it’s actually more poignant than the original.

Blade Runner 2049

If there’s one major difference between Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049, though, it is this: Villeneuve’s sequel—while every ounce as aloof and at times as ambiguous as Scott’s original, while every bit as dense and worthy of intellectual discussion—has something the first film doesn’t. It has visceral, unbridled, unapologetic humanity. It has a heart, guarded as it may be.

 

It’s a film I’m absolutely glad I bought on UHD Blu-ray, partly because it utterly deserves to be seen in a pixel-perfect presentation, with Atmos audio and razor-sharp 4K. But more than that, it’s a film I absolutely need to own in a physical format, because it’s one I’ll be returning to again and again, not out of a sense of obligation but out of desire, and I can’t bear the thought of access to it being blocked by access to the internet or the whims of some corporate streaming contract.

 

I appreciate the original Blade Runner. I have the utmost respect for the original Blade Runner. I will defend it as a work of art until the day I die. I just don’t love Blade Runner.

 

Blade Runner 2049, though? I absolutely, positively adore it. 

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

The Story of Kaleidescape’s Movie Store

Kaleidescape Movie Store

I was so pleased with John Sciacca’s article on the Kaleidescape Movie Store that I thought I would tell a story . . .

 

For as long as Kaleidescape has existed, we have endeavored to present the finest cinematic experience in the comfort of your home.

 

For nearly a decade, we have offered metadata to precisely position the screen masking based on the measured aspect ratio of the movie, and the ability to play the movie with other user preferences such as Dolby TrueHD or DTS-HD soundtracks, language preferences, subtitles on playback, etc., so that everything is automated. This can be done on a per-player basis, of course, so each room can be tailored to meet the needs of that audience. It is like having an automated projectionist at home.

 

To this day, whether you purchase a movie on a disc or from the Kaleidescape Movie Store, we offer event cues to control lightinglights down when the movie begins and lights slowly coming back up when the end-credits rollto reproduce the cinema experience.

 

Our user interface was designed to appeal to different user preferences. It has always been responsive and intuitive to use. Each view has a purpose: If you know something about what you want, use the List View and the sorting feature. If you wish to find movies similar to the one you have chosen, then select the Covers View for suggestions. If you want to create custom categories for films in your library, choose the Collection View. The Collections View also automatically remembers the new film, paused movies, movies with favorite scenes, and titles with the bookmarked Play Song feature for concerts and musicals.

 

Kaleidescape earned its reputation as a system designed for movie lovers who had DVDs and Blu-ray discs, so we didn’t want the ability to buy movies for download from our online store to add clutter to the onscreen display. To purchase movies, the browser-based Movie Store has incredible filters, 80 curated collections, and the ability to browse movies by parental control and different movie formats. We also developed a powerful search function so users can find the content they want easily. Our goal was to deliver the same engaging experience whether someone is browsing through the titles in the Movie Store or in their personal movie library.

Kaleidescape Movie Store

As we rolled out the Strato Movie Player and populated the Movie Store with amazing 4K HDR titles, we realized we could use our creative, patented Covers View to integrate the Store into the onscreen display. It took us a few iterations, but we believe we have come up with something our customers will love.

 

Rather than the arcane “browse and move to the next page repeatedly,” we decided to offer a Pivot function as a powerful filter that can instantly take you to a page full of great movies comparable to the one you selected. Our powerful metadata allows us to present an enormous amount of details about each film so you can change your mind as often as you want as you look for exactly what you would like to purchase.

 

We offer thousands of movies in our store, but our focus is less on the number of titles and more on their quality. Of course, we need a critical mass of titles from the best brands of content providers to have a credible offering, and we do, having licensed titles from the Top 24 of the 25 content providers in the United States. The real difference lies in our quest to help customers find hidden gems when they seek movie entertainment, including those that may not have broad appeal.

 

Our value proposition is: Kaleidescape is the only way to experience an Internet-delivered motion picture in true 4K Ultra HD and lossless surround sound.

 

“The truth is, for me, it’s obvious that 70, 80 percent of a movie is sound.”

Danny Boyle, Director

Steve Jobs, Trance, 127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire

 

Kaleidescape focuses exclusively on luxury home cinema. We offer the premier online store for purchasing Hollywood movies. It is essential that we present the full motion picturenot throttled video and a stereo soundtrack. To put it differently, Kaleidescape delivers more playback bandwidth for the soundtrack alone than internet streaming services provide for the whole motion picture.

 

The Kaleidescape Movie Store on Strato is an exemplary feature of a brand that strives to be different because there will always be an audience that wants the best product or service within that category.

—Cheena Srinivasan

Cheena Srinivasan is the co-founder and CEO of Kaleidescape.

REVIEWS

Incredibles 2 review
Ant-Man review
Blade Runner: The Final Cut review
Lawrence of Arabia review

ALSO ON CINELUXE

Disney Gambles Big on Star Wars Streaming

Disney streaming service

For Star Wars fans, last week was a gift that just kept on giving. Not only did we learn that Rian Johnson, director of the upcoming The Last Jedi, is launching a trilogy of films independent from the Skywalker Saga, but Disney also dropped a bomb about a new live-action TV series set in that beloved Galaxy Far, Far Away. This is huge for a number of reasons, not least because George Lucas tried and failed to create a live-action show before selling the Star Wars franchise to Disney in 2012.

 

Maybe more significant, though, is how Disney plans to distribute the series. It’s not coming to the airwaves, nor Netflix, which currently serves as the exclusive home to several Disney-produced Marvel series, including the highly acclaimed Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Instead, the Star Wars show—along with Disney’s films and other properties—will reach consumers’ eyeballs by way of a new streaming video service launching in 2019.

 

It should go without saying that I’ll be signing up for said service the minute it launches. But I think Disney is making a huge mistake. Maybe not in the short term, mind you. I think it’s reasonable to expect that Disney’s stock will get another bump and Netflix’s will take another hit as the studio moves all its films and most of its TV shows to its new, exclusive platform.

 

And for what it’s worth, apparently Disney has no plans to evict Luke Cage and the rest of the Defenders from the only home they’ve ever known, so that’s a plus.

 

I can’t imagine many if any people will dump Netflix entirely for DisneyFlix or whatever it ends up being called. But I still think this move is a net-negative for the streaming-video industry, and for consumers in particular. Why? Because we’re already seeing people approaching a breaking point with the continued fragmentation of the streaming market.

 

In other words, I think we’re reaching Peak Subscription Saturation. For me, subscribing to this new Disney service just to get my weekly Star Wars fix likely means I’ll be dumping Hulu. And if I were also a Star Trek fan subscribing to All Access just to watch Discovery, I’d likely be looking at dumping CBS’s streaming service instead. (Spare me your whining, Trekkies—Star Wars is just better and you know it.)

 

The simple fact is that most people are cutting the cord because of the value proposition. Expensive cable-TV bundles that force you to pay for ESPN if you want to watch Cartoon Network are increasingly becoming a breaking point for most people.

 

Could the exact opposite problem start to hurt the streaming market? Could we literally end up with too much choice instead of too little? It’s entirely possible. After all, who wants to pay $6 or $8 or $10 a month just to watch one TV show? Are you willing to pay $100 a month or more just to have all the streaming apps you would need to subscribe to if all the studios and content providers start their own services? I know I’m not.

 

In the end, I have no doubt Disney’s new streaming service will be successful. Playing the Star Wars card is pretty much the same as having an “I Win” button. But if this streaming fragmentation continues, I also know this just as surely: We—the geeks, the nerds, the regular cinephiles, and the TV junkies—will be the biggest losers.

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

REVIEWS

Incredibles 2 review
Ant-Man review
Blade Runner: The Final Cut review
Lawrence of Arabia review

ALSO ON CINELUXE

How Video Games Changed the Movies

video games changed movies

One of the laziest and most ubiquitous criticisms leveled at movies these days is to say they’ve been somehow corrupted by video games. It’s a dismissal based primarily on ignorance—the assumption that video games are nothing more than flashy computer graphics and frenetic action. And while it’s true that more and more movies rely on such crutches (I’m looking at you, Michael Bay), I would argue that video games aren’t to blame. Movies like Transformers are simply a result of cheaper digital-rendering effects and lazy writing.

 

If anything, the influence of gaming on movies has been a net positive, but not in the ways you might expect. The biggest change Hollywood has made in response to the overwhelming dominance of the video-game industry—it is, after all, bigger than the music and movie industries combined—is in the way movies tell stories. Specifically, the way they draw you into the narrative experience.

Video games have long had an immersive edge over movies. With games, you’re an active participant, not merely a distant spectator. Can there be any denying, for example, that the aesthetic of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down was, consciously or not, influenced by video games? And I don’t merely mean its action sequencesI mean even the film’s most pedestrian dialogue exchanges, which are often framed in such a way that the character being spoken to is so close to the camera as to spill out of the screen. The film’s over-the-shoulder cinematography sometimes so closely mimics the camera angles of third-person action games that you almost feel your hands reaching for a phantom controller.

 

It’s not just aesthetics, either. The very narrative structure of games is starting to sneak into movies in inventive ways. Contrast, for example, two very popular “time loop” films—1993’s Groundhog Day and 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow. Mind you, I realize they’re different genres altogether, but that alone isn’t enough to account for the radical differences in the way these films deal with the concept of being forced to repeat the same events over and over again. In Edge of Tomorrow—which, by the way, director Doug Liman has admitted was largely influenced by the storytelling experience of games—the protagonist isn’t merely there to learn one overarching lesson from his repeated days. He literally learns from every death, much as is the case with video games.

 

I would also argue that the upward trend in the length of films has at least a little to do with games. Before you scoff, hear me out. Video games, by and large, spread their narrative over eight, ten, thirty, sometimes even hundreds of hours of gameplay. They’ve trained us to sit for longer stretches of time to absorb a story—and in a way that’s not quite like reading or like binge-watching a TV series.

 

You could argue whether or not that’s a good thing, of course. But what it boils down to is that the influence of games on the current state of cinema doesn’t simply boil down to pretty lights that hypnotize.

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

REVIEWS

Wonder Woman review
Blade Runner: The Final Cut review
Lawrence of Arabia review

The State of the Sunset, Pt. 2

The Sunset Drive-in is wrapping up its season, getting ready to hunker down for another Buffalo winter. This was one of the worst summers in the drive-in’s 67 years, with a double-whammy of bad weather and bad movies driving box office down 25%.

 

But their numbers have bounced back a little since we last checked in with them, thanks partly to the distributors’ unprecedented decision to shower the Sunset with a steady stream of first-run movies well past Labor Daya move born not of beneficence but from a desperate need to shore up their own dismal summer receipts.

 

That burst of first-runs and an unexpected stretch of warm, dry weather that lingered well into fall kept 2017 from being a disaster. But Sunset owners Mario and Denise Stornelli have seen enough bad years during their second-generation tenure at the helm to know that next year could go either way, and that it all, somehow, turns out OK in the end.

 

 

What are your admission prices?

Mario  It’s 9 dollars for each adult, and then 11 to four is 4 dollars. And 11 and under is

Denise  Noadults are 9 dollars. Five to 11 are 4. And four and under are free.

 

In New York City, you can easily pay $14 dollars a person to see a first-run movie. IMAX and 3D movies can be around $25.

Denise  Holy Christmas!

Mario  That’s what’s so nice about us having a double feature for the same admission. You know, if you don’t like the first movie, there’s a second one just at the end of the first one.

 

But it’s not just the prices that reflect that you’re in a very small town. People are far more attuned to what goes on at the Sunset than they would be to any movie theater in a city or at a mall.

Denise  You know, you’re absolutely rightthat’s what happens. In this area, because you’ve been through winter in a colder section of the country, when spring breaks and people start seeing movies on the marquee at the drive-inand we do open the concession stand weeks before we start showing moviespeople just want to get out of the house again. And it’s kind of an unconscious associationit just goes hand in hand: We see the drive-in’s openO, spring’s here!

 

If you go to a mall or city theater, you’re just there to see the movie, but going to a drive-in is a whole experience.

Denise  It’s a tradition.

 

For instance, your snack bar isn’t just for popcorn and soda.

Denise  Well, we do get a lot of feedback about that. A lot of people joke that they come for the food and then just hang around for the movieso, yeah, I think the food matters.

Mario  We always get good compliments.

Denise  But we don’t dictate that people have to patronize the snack bar. If they want to bring in their own food or whatever, we don’t police that. You know, the drive-in’s for family, and we do OK. We don’t let them to bring in grills and set up stuff like that, but otherwise it’s OK. So I think people do appreciate it.

 

And there aren’t a lot of options for places to eat in a small town.

Denise  I think that’s one thing that’s kind of appreciated more now, because you’ve got so many things that are franchised, and that’s more like assembly-line food. And don’t misunderstand meI’m not saying anything against it. I’m just saying sometimes an independentalbeit us or a different placepeople like the homestyle, you know what I mean?

 

It’s unusual to have the owner of a business cooking every piece of food that comes off the grill.

Mario I don’t know what it’s like to have somebody cooking it for me.

 

So what made you decide to offer a full-blown menu?

Mario  Actually, back in the ‘60s, my mother used to work for her uncle in the wintertime, cooking at his diner. So my dad asked her, “You want something to do in the winter? We’ll get a restaurant going here.”

Denise  Instead of working for somebody else, work for yourself. We’ll just make the drive-in into a restaurant.

Mario  And that’s what we did. So we started breakfast. And we used to be open all night. And then the menus kept on getting bigger and biggerbut this is as big as it’s going to get. And everything is made fresh, you know what I mean? There’s nothing packaged ahead of time.

 

What was the worst period for the Sunset? A lot of drive-ins resorted to showing porn during the ‘70s.

Denise  Well, my mother-in-law would never have shown those.

Mario  I mean, we used to play Disneys all the time.

Denise  His mom and dad were definitely of the generation that would never have gone for thateven if it meant profit. They had morals; they had standards. My in-lawsI know them. They would have shut down if that would have been the only thing available to them. We’re in a small town. You know your neighbors here. You know what I mean? You know the community. And that would have reflected on them, and they wouldn’t have done that.

 

I know converting to digital was rough for you because it was such a huge expense.

Mario & Denise  We had no choice.

Denise  We wanted to do one screen at a time. But then the distributors told us, “Well, if you do that, by the end of the year, you may not have a product.” Well, no product, no business.

Mario  But it’s worked out OK for us.

Denise  In the spring, we’ll have the five-year commitment done.

Mario  And we’ll celebrate in April.

Denise  But the initial purchasing of the projectors—I never want to have to do that ever again. Ever. It was horrible. And until they’re paid for, that noose is around your neck.

 

It’s undeniable that people are beginning to have a big preference for staying home to watch movies instead of going out. How do you think you’ll fare?

Denise  I can’t put an opinion on it because I’m not that well versed on it. But I’m hoping the public will still want to come out and watch movies in this atmosphere and landscape because we’re a lot different than going to a theater. Coming here is actually more like watching movies at home.

 

Is there anything else you wanted to say about how business has been this year, or what you’re looking forward to next year, what has to happen differently as far as the movies?

Denise  No, because we really don’t get a choice. 

Mario  It’s just, if the movies are good and the weather’s good, we’ll be OK. You know what I mean? It always straightens out, in other words.

—Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

Fear & Loathing in the Star Wars Ticket Line

My dad and I were cruising up I-65 this past weekend, on our way to enter our droptop ‘Vette in a local car show, and since I was the one in the driver’s seat I got to pick the tunes. Pop’s a mountain man, mind you, raised on the outskirts of the Cumberland Plateau, so to his ears any music that could even vaguely be described as pop or rock is positively pornographic. And not in a good way. So, to play it safe I queued up the score for The Empire Strikes Back.

 

“Hey, that’s Star Wars, aint’ it?” he asked, delighted with himself for actually recognizing a piece of music in my library. “You gonna camp out overnight for tickets for that new one?”

Star Wars ticket line

There was a mocking twinkle in his eye when he asked that. To this day, he still ribs me for being the first person in line for tickets to see Episode I, the first person in all of Montgomery to procure tickets after 18 hours of standing/sitting/
sleeping in that line, and for making the front page of our local newspaper as a result.

 

That’s just not how it works anymore, I explained. The Internet, I told him, has pretty much killed the whole camping-out-overnight-for-tickets experience.

 

Here’s the thing, though: After suffering through the unpredictability and panic of procuring tickets for The Last Jedi this week, I miss those good old days of sleeping on concrete overnight in oppressive Alabama air. This year, as with The Force Awakens two years ago, Disney decided in its infinite wisdom to tie the onset of ticket sales to the release of the trailer for the film. And some knucklehead in marketing learned zero lessons from 2015 and decided to again tie the unveiling of the trailer to the halftime show for Monday Night Football.

Star Wars ticket line

Innumerable Reddit threads were created in an effort to foretell exactly what time that might actually equate to in the real world. Theater chains across the nation were flooded with calls from panicky nerds like myself begging for a more precise window. “After the trailer airs,” is all we were told. But we were told the same tale two years ago, and tickets actually went on sale hours earlier with no notice, famously breaking the Internet.

 

So, the missus and I, in an effort to avoid a similar technological meltdown, drove to our local AMC just before the start of the game and formed what quickly became a line. The ticket agent was clueless as to why. “That movie doesn’t come out until December!” We implored her to call her manager. “He says he thinks they might go on sale tomorrow.” We insisted they should be on sale any time now. “It’s not even in the computer!”

 

Around that time, a hooded nerd near the back of the line announced that tickets were on sale at the other big cineplex in town, two hours earlier than promised, but their website had just crashed. Half the line fled immediately for their cars. The crowd that remained teetered on the edge of rioting, because if there’s one thing we nerds just don’t know how to deal with, it’s unpredictability.

 

Thankfully, just before things turned really ugly, the woefully uninformed ticket agent announced that, hey, whatdoyaknow?—tickets for the first IMAX showing just popped up in her computer. $25 apiece. Some special fan event or something. Do we want to buy those? And almost instantly, that semi-chaotic line of nerds turned into a mosh pit. 

Star Wars ticket line

I understand the position Disney is in. They’re in possession of one of the few movie franchises guaranteed to turn a profit at the box office, in a market that’s definitely trending toward Slumpsville. They want to drum up excitement. They want the Internet to be abuzz.

 

There’s a fine line, though, between excitement and anxiety, and for the second time in two years, Disney has managed to drum up consternation and angst in the lead-up to pre-sales of pretty much the only movie event temping enough to get my butt into a cinema seat. And, hey, I’m sure it worked to their financial advantage again this time, especially given that they duped so many hopped-up Star Wars fans into paying double-price to see the first showing. But how long can this bubble possibly last?

 

Speaking as the biggest Star Wars fan in the known universe (and yes, I have the prize from besting the president of the Star Wars fan club in a trivia contest to prove it), I’d say not much longer. Because if the chaos and uncertainty of buying tickets this time around has even me considering sitting out opening night when Episode IX rolls around in a couple of years—or, shudder the thought, waiting for the home-video release—then big cinematic tentpole events like this are surely doomed. At least when they’re as poorly planned and misleadingly marketed as this one.

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

REVIEWS

Wonder Woman review
Blade Runner: The Final Cut review
Lawrence of Arabia review

The State of the Sunset, Pt. 1

Middleport, NY is one mile by one mile square. It has, generously, 1,800 residents. It’s a Rust Belt town with a pension-based economy. There haven’t been decent jobs on any meaningful level here since the early Reagan years.

 

And yet it has one of the few remaining fully functional drive-in theaters in the U.S. The Sunset has been in continuous operation for almost 67 years. Far more affluent parts of the country haven’t been able to make drive-ins work, partly because they need large swaths of land that tend to get gobbled up by big-box stores, McMansions, and condos. The land around Middleport isn’t worth much, so the drive-in survives.

 

But its survival has a lot more to do with the focus and tenacity of its owners, Denise and Mario Stornelli, than it does with piddling real-estate values. This year threw them a couple of big curves, though. It rained almost every day during the prime of summer—and not just passing showers but steady downpours and violent storms, which used to be unusual in this part of the country but are becoming more and more common.

 

And the box office sucked—not just at the Sunset but everywhere in the U.S., where it was down 16% overall. 

 

I talked to Mario and Denise about how they fared.

 

 

How has your box office been?

Mario  It’s down a little bit. About a quarter.

Denise  At least 25, 30 percent.

 

Was that due to the weather or the quality of the movies?

Mario & Denise  Both. (Mario laughs)

Mario  Weather less than movies.

Denise  Because if the weather’s bad but you’ve got a good crowd, it doesn’t matter. The weather’s never been that much against a good product.

 

Has anybody said anything about the quality of the movies?

Denise  The clientele, they’ll talk to us about weather and the movies, because they’re avid goers. And they themselves knew there was really no big blockbuster out this year—nothing—no one picture you could put your finger on.

 

Were there any standouts?

Denise  Wonder Woman did better than they anticipated.

 

Anything else?

Denise  There was War for the Planet of the Apes, but I don’t remember that doing that well. But we just had it a lot. This has probably been one of the worst Labor Day weekends we’ve ever seen. The weather was good, so it wasn’t the weather, but the movie choices were really not good—not at all.

 

What kinds of movies do you think do best? Who do you have to appeal to?

Mario  Kids.

Denise  Kids movies—kids rule.

Mario  Then we get both the parents and the kids.

Denise  Yeah, the kids want to come, the parents have to bring them. They make it, sometimes, a family affair. A woman approached Mario and I. It was her little girl’s 3rd birthday. And they made a whole Sunday out of it.

Mario  They put up a tent.

Denise  They paid for the people who they had invited to come for the movie, because it was her daughter’s favorite movie.

Mario  Annabelle?

Denise  No, not Annabelle—that’s not a kids movie.

Mario  Leap.

Denise  Was it Leap? But I don’t know what that was about. They invited the family, they set up a tent, they had it all decorated with balloons and bought a cake. It was a really nice thing to see.

 

I see you’ve got the new Lego movie. That should do well.

Denise  I saw that today, and it’s really cute. 

Mario  It’s unusual for them to give us first-run this time of year. I was surprised they gave me two new ones this week. And we’ve done OK with them—it’s helped us out, you know.

 

The distributors are probably loosening up because they have to make up for the lousy summer.

Denise  Normally when school starts, they start recycling over and over the ones we’ve already had. And when you’ve got people that patronize you regularly—I mean, they can only come and see the same movies—

Mario  This is a small town. And all the towns around this are small, so we want to change the movies frequently. When we only had the one screen, it was hard to play movies and hold them too long, because then you lose your steady customers. But with three screens, at least it gives you a change.

Denise  You know, Mike, you got to remember two things. The business has been here 67 years, the same family. Second generation. But it’s a business that depends on variables we have no control over. You’re against weather, and you’re against product. The thing you have to remember is, it’s not new. You have good years, you have bad years. And you just take what comes. You don’t want to make a big gripe about a bad year. It’s a bad year. But we’ve had good years. And that’s the other point. You know what? You look at the news, and you look at other areas of the country—it could always be worse.

drive-in movie theaters

There’s probably no one secret to it, but how have you managed to stay in business when thousands of other drive-ins have failed?

Denise  I can tell you the reason. (she gestures toward Mario) It’s ’cause of him. It’s a lot of sacrifice, and you’ve gotta have self-discipline.

Mario  She’s just being nice.

Denise  No, no—really, Mike—if it wasn’t for Mario. When you’re working 7 days a week, in the best season in this area, and you’ve been here every single year—you’re giving up a lot of family time, and there’s a lot of sacrifice that you make—honestly. Because if this business is open, we’re here. We need no one else to run it. You can lose too much. It takes a lot of self-discipline. And if it wasn’t for him—I’ve gotta tell ya—the best of any of the rest of us would have buckled. Because even my son, who might be the next one—it’s not so much the sacrifice for Chris, but he doesn’t know if he can be what his father is.

Because, honestly, it’s really hard. A lot of vacations and celebrations are this time of year—you don’t go. I mean, my kids graduated, I went—I came right back to work. It was on a Saturday. It’s just the way it is. The flip of that is, nowadays, it makes a good living, OK? It really does. And to have a job that does that, and seems appreciated, nowadays—then you just are grateful for what you’ve got, and you do what you’ve gotta do, right?

Michael Gaughn

 

In Pt. 2, we speculate on whether the drive-in experience can survive the
steep decline in theater attendance & the rise of streaming

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, marketing, product design, a couple TV shows, some commercials, and
now this.

Mario Makes a Sub

Sunset Drive-in owner Mario Stornelli has prepared
every piece of food that’s come off the snack-bar
grill for over 40 years. In this short video, he talks
about some of his experiences while whipping up his
signature cheese burg sub.

REVIEWS

Incredibles 2 review
Ant-Man review
Blade Runner: The Final Cut review
Lawrence of Arabia review

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