- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2008

Even with budgets in the scores of millions of dollars, spectacular special effects and finely crafted media hype, they don’t make them like they used to.

What passes for a summer blockbuster movie these days - like “The Dark Knight” (opening in the wee hours Thursday) is sure to be - is a stalwart at the bank, yet a victim of its time.

Rewind 30 or so years ago to a steamy summer night in the nation’s capital, and you might find a crowd stretched around the block in front of the Uptown or the Avalon or the Wisconsin Avenue Cinema in Northwest.

Why? Because movies showed on fewer screens and for longer engagements. (Come on, how many times did YOU catch “Star Wars” in the summer of 1977?)

Even the term “blockbuster” isn’t literal these days, said WJLA-TV film critic Arch Campbell, who has been reviewing movies since the 1970s.

“The term ‘blockbuster’ comes from people lining up outside,” Mr. Campbell said. “We don’t have that anymore. People are lined up, but it is inside of a mall.”

Telling your friends that the line stretched all the way to Auntie Anne’s Pretzels just doesn’t have the same cachet. And if you don’t feel like standing in that line, it doesn’t matter, because the summer hit will be playing at 5:45, 6:10, 6:30 and 6:35 and, in a few short months, on demand through your cable box.

Part of what once made summer blockbusters special was that they indeed were hot tickets, said Gary Arnold, a Washington film critic for more than 40 years and The Washington Times From the Vaults columnist. He said that when “Jaws” - the first must-see summer blockbuster of our movie era - opened in the summer of 1975, it played at 500 theaters, “which seemed like a large saturation at the time.”

“Now, a large-scale opening would be 3,000 to 4,000 screens nationwide,” Mr. Arnold said.

Summer hits used to be shown on fewer screens, but they ran for much longer engagements, Mr. Campbell said.

“We live in a speeded-up world,” he said. “There used to be a battle between the [Wisconsin Avenue] Cinema and the Uptown for exclusive rights, or occasionally between the MacArthur and the Avalon. The movies would play for months. There was a time that ‘A Room With a View’ played at the Key in Georgetown for a year and a half, maybe even two years. Now, it is about six weeks and you are done.”

Washington’s taste for blockbusters tends to mirror that of the rest of the nation, Mr. Arnold said. One of his most vivid memories of a Washington opening was the first “Superman” movie, which had its American theatrical debut at the Uptown in December 1978.

“I am sure an aura of excitement can be generated at any larger theater,” Mr. Arnold said. “But I think the single auditorium like at the Uptown or the Cinema really enhanced the enjoyment of those films.”

Mr. Campbell agrees about the demise of the old theaters. He also said that the “wow” factor of big adventure movies has become very stylized. Part of the thrill of “Jaws,” or the first movie in the Indiana Jones series, was that the audience never knew what was going to happen next.

“When I saw [‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’] at the [Wisconsin Avenue] Cinema, no one knew what to expect. When that big rock rolled out and started chasing Indy, a theater full of 900 people went berserk,” he said.

“The element of surprise isn’t as large as it was 30 years ago, because movies are so pre-hyped,” Mr. Campbell said. “There is so much test marketing, so moviemakers know what to give audiences. It is not the most creative way, but probably the safest financially.”

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