In 2010 I saw 100 different movies in 100 different theaters. Here are the details.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Strategy, Part 1

It's been a movie-filled month. Looking just at the end result, I'm 22% done with my goal in less than 10% of the time. Now that I'm a bit less green, I'd like to share some of my thoughts on the strategies I'm employing to accomplish this goal. Then, toward the end of the year, I can reflect on this topic with all the lessons I've learned and things I wish I had done differently.

Movie Selection
Bay Area theaters have already exhibited more than 150 different movies this year. Wow. Coming into this project I had no idea there would be so many movies to pick from, so this is an exciting discovery. It means I don't need to compromise on quality (too much) to achieve my goal. No zombie movies, no Cats & Dogs.

In December I intentionally avoided going to the theater, which means the 60+ movies available in January that were held over from previous months were almost all eligible for my project. This has given me more choice (and therefore flexibility) in January than I expect to have in the coming months. February and March are notorious for their few and dismal offerings. Being 22% done in just one month isn't necessarily that far ahead of the game, since I was seeing two month's worth of movies.

Movies only stay in theaters for so long. The December releases were in more danger of becoming unavailable than the January releases, so I prioritized those. The new January releases that I've neglected will still be in wide release in February. Still, I must pay close attention. Of the 150+ movies that have been in theaters this year, only 56 are still in release. Depending on the box office receipts and competition within its own genre, a family movie like Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel can linger longer than it deserves (134 showings per day still available in the Bay Area), while more recent releases like Daybreakers (46 showings) and Leap Year (35 showings) can be snuffed out almost instantly. I hope to see Youth in Revolt soon; at a dwindling 21 showings it is in danger of disappearing in just one or two weeks. Currently the most widely shown film in the Bay Area is Avatar, with 352 showings per day.

Theater Selection
There are roughly 130 movie theaters within 50 miles of my house. This includes theaters as far north as Sonoma, as far south as San Jose, and as far east as Livermore and Brentwood. For various reasons I've added Santa Cruz to the mix, and, in a pinch, might include Santa Rosa as well.

When I first hatched this plan, I discovered a feature on Google Maps that will identify, en masse, the locations of a type of establishment. When I searched for category:"movie theater", I was presented with this reassuring map:

There are roughly 170 red dots in the radius I described. No problem. But I began to discover that this feature is user-driver, and as such is rife with errors. Theaters have multiple listings, are listed in the wrong place, or not at all, and many business are listed as theaters but aren't. When I now say there are 130 theaters, those are verified listings, where, with some foresight, I know I can catch a movie. If you're interested in tracking my progress geographically, look at this map that I'm updating as I visit theaters.

I will run out of theaters long before I run out of movies. Each time I fell a movie, another will rise in its place the next week. But when I visit a theater, that theater is off the menu, permanently reducing the number of potential showings available to me. To take an extreme example, in the past two weeks alone the Castro showed twenty-five different movies on its single screen that no other theater is likely to show this year. I visited the theater once, and will now miss out on hundreds of other unique titles they're sure to offer (there are more than twenty slated for February that will no doubt be unique to that theater). When I visit such a unique theater, I must ensure it is for a unique offering, like Sabrina, rather than It's Complicated, which I could see anywhere. I'm trying to save these theaters for fun film festivals, so I can broaden my experience of the types of film offered in the Bay Area. But as I visit the independent theaters, my future movie selections will become increasingly mainstream.

I face a different problem as I visit the large circuits. When I knocked off the Century 20 Daly City, 88 daily showings became unavailable to me. That's roughly 2% of all the 4000 daily showings in the Bay Area. Fewer showings means less flexibility. If I still want to catch 2012, I have to do it at 9:00 PM at the West Wind Drive-In in San Jose (and it's paired up with Legion). This isn't a big problem now, but as I continue to hit the megaplexes, what seem like endless options will begin to dwindle down to odd hours in far off places.

But hey, that's what makes it a challenge!

And in case you haven't yet heeded my warning about theaters closing down, you might be interested to know that the Naz 8 Cinemas in Fremont was showing movies three weeks ago, but has now closed its doors.

The Grand Lake Theater is only a few downhill blocks away. I can leave my apartment on foot and be sitting in my cushy seat within ten minutes. Additional transportation costs: $0.00. In contrast, the Century at Tanforan in San Bruno will cost me a 1.5 mile walk to the BART station, and a round trip ticket for $8.40. Anywhere I drive burns gas, and gas costs money. So, transportation is expensive, sometimes nearly doubling the cost of the ticket. I've decided not to think about it, though, anymore than I am about the cost of concessions or admission tickets (though I do prefer matinee prices). These are sunk costs, necessary for my quest, and it will only depress me if I add it all up.

But I do need to be efficient nonetheless. I work full-time, so the movies need to be in the evenings and on weekends, and I'd rather make one trip to Sonoma than three. Here's an example of the day I planned out a few weeks ago (my trips aren't usually this complex, but I like to show off).

This is a battle plan. Know the terrain. Have contingency plans. Supply lines must be maintained, transportation accounted for. And always, always have an exit strategy.

(Two weeks ago I was at the SF airport past midnight. I inserted my BART ticket in the turnstile, but the ticket had too low a balance. So I began to walk toward the machine to increase my ticket, when I notice that a security guard is casually following me. "Can I help you?" he asks. "No, just need to put some more money on my ticket," I say. "Which direction are you headed?" he asks. "East Bay," I say, and I suddenly know what he's going to say, and I'm filled with dread. "I'm sorry, but the last train already left," he says. I could imagine myself spending the rest of my life in an airport. "When is the next train?" I ask. "4:00 AM," he says. Ouch. I was already tired; the prospect of waiting three and a half hours in the airport, and staggering home in the wee hours of the morning, made me start eyeing that third rail in a new way. Luckily, the people I came to meet at the airport—Mica and her mom, Carolyn, stalwart movie buddies both—hadn't yet left the parking garage and were kind enough to give me a ride back to Oakland, waaaay out of their way.)

But back to being efficient. I hope to see a lot of movies in San Jose on Tuesdays, when I'm already in the South Bay for work.

On any given day, I might not feel like traveling very far, and so, at the recommendation of a friend, I'm spreading out my visits to the theaters nearest me. I hit the Grand Lake early (in case I want to visit it again), but not yet the other theaters in Oakland and Berkeley.

I suspect I will become an increasing burden on my friends as the year progresses, trying to coax them out at odd hours to inconvenient places, but remember, it's for posterity.

My initial plan in December was that I would interview someone at each theater. I followed through for my very first visit, to the Bay Theatre, and that was enough to convince me of the following: I'm not a journalist; I can't write fast enough to accurately quote someone; I don't have interesting questions to ask; it was rude of me to ask for an interview on the spot, rather than scheduling ahead; and the internet knows everything anyway! Not to mention I'm shy.

So, as you can tell if you've made it this far, my documentation has taken the form of photographs (another reason to visit the theater during the day) and online research. Interior photos that don't malign the beauty of the auditoriums are often not feasible, but I do what I can. For the research, in addition to a theater's individual website, and two books by Jack Tillmany, the following are indispensable: The Numbers, Cinema Treasures, IMDB, and Apple.

On the home front, I have two FileMaker Pro databases that are helping me out. The first is my Showtimes database. Each day it scrapes the HTML from IMDB's listings for my favorite theaters, stuffs the data in all sorts of tidy places, and spits out a nice report that tells me what's playing where, and how I can get there.

That's right, Edge of Darkness has 31 times the daily showings of Creation. As I see movies and visit theaters, those movies and theaters drop off the report, making it shorter and shorter.

My personal movie database, which I'll describe in more detail at a later date, is the place I look to reconstruct my own viewing past, such as to answer how many times I've been to a theater, and when.

That's it for now. Thanks for reading. So far this has been a lot of fun.

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