Entertainment

Dennis Burger’s Wishlist for 2018

2018 Wishlist--Battlefront II

More than anything, I’m hoping both the gaming industry and Hollywood do some serious soul-searching in the coming year. The conclusion I hope they reach? We consumers have reached a breaking point when it comes to being screwed over. My evidence in this argument? The fact that Battlefront II, the latest Star Wars video game release, currently sits at a 0.9 rating on Metacritic. Not a 9. A zero-point-nine. Nine-tenths of one point.

 

The reality is, it’s not that bad a game. Not mind-blowingly amazing, but certainly solid. Were I to slap a score on it, it would be a minimum of 7.5.

 

So why the abysmal user reviews? Because the game’s developers burdened the release with cheap money-making tactics that fall somewhere on a spectrum between extortion and gambling. At the behest of Lucasfilm, these money-making mechanisms were shut down right after the game launched, but the damage was done. Gamers had had enough. To pay full price ($60 to $80) for a game only to be nickel and dimed to death when attempting to advance through the experience at a reasonable pace is an insult that simply has to end.

 

Gamers feel as if the only way to force an end to such shenanigans is outright revolt. Only the game publishers have the power to decide whether 2018 is an apology tour or a bloodbath.

2018 Wishlist--The Last Jedi

What about Hollywood? I’m not breaking any new ground with this revelation, but we consumers have had our fill of double-, triple-, and even quadruple-dipping when it comes to non-streaming home-video releases. I worry that Disney will attempt, in typical fashion, to release Star Wars: The Last Jedi as a relatively standard Blu-ray early in the spring and follow it up with a deluxe bonus edition late next year. They got away with it for The Force Awakens. They’ve gotten away with it on so many major releases in the past. I’m not sure they will for much longer.

 

Give us the goodies up front. Give us a UHD Blu-ray, for goodness’ sake. Throw in an audio commentary exploring The Last Jedi’s deep and numerous subversive themes. Give us the tribute to Carrie Fisher we’re all longing to see. Give us all of that without holding back, and we’ll snatch up the physical discs gladly, perhaps even in record numbers. But if Disney gives us the standard tease, or forces us to buy multiple retailer exclusives to get all the bonus features that exist out in the wild, it will simply be putting yet another nail in the coffin of physical media.

—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.

John Sciacca’s Wishlist for 2018

2018 Wishlist
Better Voice Integration

Voice controlwhether Siri, Alexa, or “Hey, Google”seems to be everywhere. And without question, people want to use it more and more for controlling devices in their home. But the reality is, it just isn’t quite there yet. Often in my home, the command, “Alexa, turn on family room lights” will be met with a spinning blue circle and silence, or a reply of, “I’m sorrythe device family room lights isn’t responding,” or “OK,” but nothing happens. When it works, it’s great, but when it doesn’t, it’s maddeningly frustrating.

 

Also, we’re still basically limited to asking for one thing at a time. For example, unless I want to create a specific lighting scene in my Control4 programming, having Alexa turn on lighting in four rooms takes four separate requests. It would be great if we could get to more natural speech like, “Alexa, turn on lights in the kitchen, family and dining room, and start my dinner playlist in the dining room at 25% volume.”

 

UHD Disc Rental

Once you’ve seen the glory that is a full 4K HDR movie with an immersive audio soundtrack, it’s hard to go back to slumming it with just Blu-ray quality. But there aren’t many movies I love enough to shell out $29 or more to own. However, I would be willing to pay Netflix or Redbox a premium upcharge to rent a UHD movie, watch it in the best quality, and then give it back. I already pay Netflix an extra $5 a month to upgrade to Blu-ray viewing, and I’d happily chip in an extra finsky for the privilege of renting UHD discs. There’s a new service called Rent 4K that looks intriguing and might just fight the bill . . .

2018 Wishlist
Solo Movie

While I was on line for The Last Jedi, a theater employee came out and hung a new Coming Soon poster that simply said, “SOLO, A Star Wars Story. May 25.” I was really hoping we’d get a trailer for this movie before Jedi, but no dice. I’m hoping Disney can keep the Star Wars good times rolling, and that the Ron Howard-directed Solo can launch a terrific new story franchise from the galaxy far, far away.

2018 Wishlist
Cheaper 4K Laser

The best way to experience 4K HDR movies on a big screen is via a projector using a laser light source. A laser has inherent advantages over a traditional bulb-powered projector, namely a wider color gamut able to reach farther towards the edges of the Rec.2020 triangle, far longer lifespan, no warm-up and cool-down time, less loss of light over its lifespan, and the ability to completely turn off for truly infinite black levels.

 

But laser comes with a fairly steep price. Previous models from Sony and JVC cost $50,000 and $35,000 respectively. Sony unveiled its VPL-VW885ES at this past CEDIA, and it looked stunning, with vibrant colors and inky blacks at a closer-to-real-world price of $25,000. I’d love to see one of these bad boys available for less than $10,000. I think that would be a huge shot in the arm for front projection . . . and the new projector for my own media room!

 

Not Getting Sick After CES

Nearly every year, I come home from CES and promptly get sick. The level of sickness varies, but inevitably it’s 3 to 4 days of miserable, post-show recovery. Coming home flu-free from Vegas is high-up on my personal wishlist for starting the new year!

—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.

The 5 Best Ways to Get Classic Films on Disc

The floodgates opened in 2017, with a great number of foreign, independent, and classic movies making it to video for the first time in HD. For those of us who love movies, Christmas came every week this past year. Many highly anticipated titles were released, filling our hard drives, our library on the cloud, andif you still love physical media like I doour shelves too. Here are my five favorite non-mainstream video distributors.

 

Twilight Time

Every month, this small label brings to Blu-ray limited editions of classic movies from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, mainly from 20th Century Fox, Columbia, and Universal. The best way to keep up with what’s coming and preorder before it sells out is go to Screen Archives Entertainment.

films on disc

Kino Lorber Classics

Kino Lorber releases on disc classic films from United Artists, MGM, and Selznick International, plus a rich variety of titles from the ’40s and ’50s from smaller studios. Theirs is an ever-increasing library of film gems that as recently as 10 years ago you wouldn’t have imagined would ever make it to DVD—much less Blu-ray.

 

Warner Archive

Great copies on DVD of classic movies from Warner Brothers and pre-1963 MGM films. Warner Archive increased the number of its releases in HD during 2017, making fans like me rejoice.

films on disc

Cohen Media Group

This relatively new distributor distinguishes itself with the dazzling diversity of its offerings, which range from impeccably restored silent classics to mid-20th-century foreign masterpieces to the most recent European imports. If only their prices weren’t so steep.

 

Film Movement 

This subscription service releases little-known independent titles monthly.  As with Warner Archive, most of its releases are on DVD, but its new Film Movement Classics arm seems to be changing that, with selected titles coming out on Blu-ray.

—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.

Getting High on Virtual Reality

virtual reality

Disclaimer: The Rayva Roundtable is not responsible
for bizarre typos in manufacturer graphics

I thought I had a handle on this whole virtual reality thing. After all, I’d experienced a few demos, including a full 360o one from an HTC Vive system in my own home that was pretty darn convincing.

 

So I thought I was well prepared for a demo from VRPark at the recent New York Photo Plus Expo. Their VRPark Capsule looked like it would provide a pretty realistic VR experience. It had two egg-shaped cockpits for a friend and me to sit in, and it moved around on its base to provide motion simulation. I figured it was a virtual rollercoaster ride.

 

But before strapping us in and fitting us with VR helmets, the woman working the Capsule asked, “Do you want the nice ‘travel’ demo or the scary demo?”

 

“Um . . . um . . . let’s go for the scary demo!” I knew it wasn’t real so how scary could it be?

 

The goggles winked alive to the image of a ride at an amusement park. Yeah, OK, a rollercoaster—but then the “ride” pulled us up and back like a giant swing, up . . . and up . . . and UP! Hundreds, maybe thousands of virtual feet into the air!

 

I’d neglected to mention that I have a fear of heights—a completely incapacitating fear of heights. I can’t go on my roof to clean the gutters. When I get in glass elevators, I have to look at the floor.

 

So when we went rocketing into the sky, I was terrified. I had a bird’s-eye view of the virtual amusement park, the surrounding houses, the trees, the whole town rendered in vivid 3D detail. I broke out in a sweat. I grabbed the ride’s handgrips as hard as I could. The motion of the ride and the sounds through the headphones—including people screaming—only added to the intensity.

virtual reality

Yaaahhhh! I kept telling myself, “It’s not real!” Didn’t matter. My primitive reptile brain took over my rational mind. I got dizzy. After just a few seconds, I couldn’t take it and closed my eyes.

 

Then I told myself, I’ll get used to it. I opened my eyes again. It’s not real . . .

 

We were now way high up, upside down, facing the sky and looking at clouds! Then the ride dropped precipitously, almost hit the ground, and swung back up like a pendulum! Gggaaaahhhh! At that point, I was screaming along with the people in the headphones.

 

I had to close my eyes again. But I didn’t want to wimp out through the whole demo so I re-opened them. The virtual ride was now rotating on its axis with the world tumbling end over end. The VR capsule continued to plummet, tumble, spring up, accelerate, and decelerate. I was totally rushing out holy jeezuz H. gawd almighty AAAH! AAAHHH! AAAAAAAHHHHH!

 

Maybe I shoulda tried a yoga or relaxation video. Finally, the ride stopped. I got out, unsteady, sweating—and more exhilarated than I’d been in years. (Sorry, angioplasty doesn’t count.) Whadda ride! Talk about entertainment!

 

Suffice to say my perspective on virtual reality has changed.

 

I’d thought it was a fun way to enhance video gameplay, aid in pilot and astronaut training, and maybe become a stupid novelty for video porn. (Missed that demo at CES.) Now I realize it’s far beyond that, that the line between virtual and actual reality can be readily blurred and not just because of ever-improving technology.

 

At its best, VR overrides your rational brain and evokes visceral, instinctual, and emotional responses so strongly your mind can’t resist. Your id and body take over.

 

If virtual reality can provoke that strong a reaction, I would argue that it might as well be reality. Not a new concept, I know (ref. The Matrix or Neuromancer or any number of sci-fi novels and films). But wait till you try it—then tell me how you feel.

—Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

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.

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.

The Avalanches on Vinyl–Why?!

Mention The Avalanches and you’ll usually get a blank stare in returnwhich always surprises the hell out of me because they had big hits in 2001 with “Since I Left You” and “Frontier Psychiatrist,” and their videos have millions of views. But more importantly, they reinvented pop.

 

I’m not saying they were the first to explore this territoryfar from it. Appropriation has been rampant in the avant-garde ever since reel-to-reel recorders, it entered the mainstream in the ‘80s, and bands like the Beastie Boysa key influence on The Avalanchesand Propellerheads made it part of the lingua franca.

 

But The Avalanches changed everything by not just sampling in a certain way at a certain timethey did it by sampling everything, all the time. And that might help explain why they, like Propellerheads, were kind of a one-album wonder. (They released a second album, Wildflower, last year, but their genius is really contained in their first album, Since I Left You.)

 

What makes their work sublime is that they’re both completely self-conscious and utterly unself-conscious at the same time. The “Since I Left You” track works so seamlessly as a seemingly fluffy retro pop song that most people probably don’t know it’s almost completely made up of samples. And that speaks to an extraordinary amount of effort and taste and talent.

But once you’re aware of the origins of the various sounds and songs, that almost everything on Since I Left You comes from somewhere else, that really the only thing original about it is the way the bandRobbie Chater and Darren Saltmann, reallybrought those existing pieces together, it becomes a completely different experience. And, yes, I’m being ironic when I say “really the only thing original” because an astounding amount of creativity went into crafting these tracks, and a lot of the samples are so heavily manipulated you’d probably never recognize them in their original form.

 

But that’s a big part of the album’s deadly serious playfulness, retaining the essence of what is, for the most part, some pretty trivial raw material while transmuting it into something that becomes an essential part of a radically different whole.

 

The greatest thing about Since I Left You is that it troubles notions of creativity and originality in very fundamental wayswhich both does and doesn’t lead to what I really wanted to talk about here: What does it mean to listen to Since I Left You on vinyl?

 

Unless I’m missing something (which is completely possible), the whole point behind the vinyl revivalor renaissance or backlash, or whatever you want to call itis to assert vinyl’s superiority over digital media. Simply put, that’s nothing but bullcrap because most people don’t have good enough equipmentor, if they do, it’s usually set up in a way that compromises the sound qualityto tell the difference.

 

The so-called revival is really just a vaguely elitist fadand a preference for coloration (a supposedly warmer sound) over authenticity. And boy does that open up a huge can of worms.

the avalanches since I left you vinyl

Since I Left You was reissued earlier this year as a two-LP gatefold, including a limited-release colored-vinyl version. So what are you actually hearing on those LPs? What nuances can vinyl reveal that digital media can’t?

 

I mean, we’re talking about an album made up of samples from all kinds of sourcesincluding, inevitably, old recordsall tossed into a vast bouillabaisse that made it virtually impossible to maintain an optimal level of sound quality. Since I Left You is filled with distortionthe kind of stuff that makes hardcore audiophiles want to rally for an old-fashioned album burning. But that distortionwhich sometimes borders on outright muddiness, and is very much deliberateis one of the most beautiful things about this very beautiful record.

 

So, again, when you listen to Since I Left You on vinyl, what are you really hearing? It could be argued that it’s still an audiophile experience because the vinyl could have greater fidelity than the CDbut faithful to what? It can’t possibly be to any kind of absolute sound, because that wasn’t relevant to the album’s creation, so I guess it’s to all that distortionand the pops, hiss, and sometimes questionable engineering in the sampled tracks, and to everything else that represents the antithesis of audiophile dogma.

 

Which might be why I love it so muchboth the original CD and the recent LPbecause it makes a mockery of all these sacred cows, not viciously, but by doing something really transgressive with wit and a deft touch, and a genuine love for the source material.

 

So if you cue up Since I Left You on your turntable, you can’t be listening to it for any kind of traditional notion of fidelityunless you’re deeply deluded. If you do prefer it to digital, it has to be because of a coloration, because of something that goes completely against the grain of the “vinyl’s better” battle cry.

 

You’re preferring it just because it sounds warmerin other words, because it creates the illusion of comfort in a very cold world. Which means you’re just trying to crawl back into the womb.

—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.

Breeding “The Office”

making The Office

Contemplating The Office while writing it up for a Netflix Series of the Week, I was struck by its phenomenal bloodlines. While a bad or mediocre show can be the result of random accident (or a series of meetings with studio executives, which is pretty much the same thing), the best shows tend to come from lengthy breeding. And even a cursory look at the convergence of forces that resulted in The Office pretty neatly makes that case.

 

I’m not claiming my evidence is exhaustive. These were just some facts I stumbled upon while digging into the show’s history. There could be major gaps in my argument—I might be missing some major connections. But it doesn’t matter, because what little I’ve been able to put together, mostly out of sheer luck, is impressive on its own.

In the beginning was Spinal Tap—and in particular a DP named Peter Smokler, the former documentarian who pretty much singlehandedly created the mockumentary style that began with Tap, spread into TV with The Larry Sanders Show, and went solidly mainstream with The Office.

 

(The photo in my organizational chart/family tree shows Smokler holding up his legendary poor man’s Steadicam—otherwise known as rollerblades. Seems like money was always tight on the Sanders show.)

 

Garry Shandling’s Larry Sanders broke so much new ground it would take a whole series of posts just to list its achievements. But one of its greatest contributions was giving comedy-nerd Judd Apatowwho would rewrite the American-comedy rule bookhis first big break.

 

Sanders was also a training ground for a whole series of directors who would spread the faux-documentary style. One of the most accomplished was Ken Kwapis, who later did episodes of both Freaks and Geeks and The Office.

 

Joel Hodgson’s The TV Wheel always gets treated as a footnote (and is rarely seen) but when you consider its influence, it’s a hell of a big footnote. His somewhat clumsy attempt to regain his reputation after being ousted from MST3K, it’s a pretty funny stab at reinventing sketch comedy.

Two of its writers were Apatow and Paul Feig. Feig also performed on the show (which only lasted one episode), nailing it as the sleazy magic-catalog pitchman in the almost perfect “Pumpernickel.”

 

Feig and Apatow were the guiding forces behind yet another groundbreakingand at the time unappreciatedseries, Freaks and Geeks, which launched the careers of Apatow stock-company members Jason Segel, James Franco, and Seth Rogen. It also featured a series of cameos by Hodgson as the uncoolest hipster ever.

 

Of all the directors who did episodes of The Office—and there were some pretty big names, including Harold Ramis, Joss Whedon, and J.J. AbramsFeig probably had the biggest impact.

 

Geeks’ inspired casting was largely the work of Allison Jones, who did a similarly brilliant job on Arrested Development and on Apatow’s breakout film, The 40 Year Old Virgin. Her deft touch gathering ensembles got her The Office gig.

 

And Virgin was Steve Carell’s breakout film too, of course, which happened pretty much simultaneously with the debut of The Office.

 

Ricky Gervais’ original British Office series was obviously the basis of the American off-shoot, and Greg Daniels, who would produce, write, and direct episodes of the series, was mainly responsible for developing it for American TV. But if you want an explanation for why The Office is so distinct from Gervais’ series, and why it blew almost everything on TV out of the water, I don’t think you have to look any farther than the pedigree outlined here.

 

To study The Office is to cross paths with pretty much everything that’s been great in American comedy over the past 30 years. And that was no random accident.

—Michael Gaughn

making The Office

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.

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.