Filmmaker April Wright sees movie palaces as places that give audiences a complete experience.
“Movie palaces were built to take audiences away from their everyday lives,” Wright says. “These buildings have amazing architecture. You remember not just the film you saw, but the entire environment.”
The rise, fall, and uncertain future of these theaters is at the heart of Wright’s latest documentary, Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace. The Music Box, a 90-year-old movie palace itself, hosts the doc’s Chicago premiere on Tuesday, November 12.
The documentary chronicles the time line of and attraction to the movie palaces that boomed from the 1910s to the 1930s. Unlike modern multiplexes, movie palaces typically featured one big screen in an ornate venue located in downtown neighborhoods. These venues typically had seating for hundreds (sometimes thousands) and price tags of up to $4 million. Most were built when the country was on the verge of the Great Depression. To Wright and those interviewed in the documentary, movie palaces were and still are sacred grounds for communities.
“In our country in particular, we have this magical relationship with movies,” Wright says, “and that’s built on the idea that we’re seeing this stuff that’s larger than life and on the big screen.”
A look at movie palaces was a natural follow-up to Wright’s 2013 feature-length documentary, Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie, especially because through that project she became more aware of the number of abandoned theaters in cities like Los Angeles and Chicago. In the new doc, film historians, restorationists, and preservationists discuss how movie palaces constantly shifted their business models, post-World War II.
“When movie palaces were first built, communities put a huge amount of investment and care into this experience of seeing a movie,” she says. “As our country developed, nobody valued that as culturally significant.”
As decades turned, these venues became vacant relics with deferred maintenance. Some were demolished. Few survived, and even fewer thrived with a selection of B movies or art-house and independent films. Others, including Chicago’s own Uptown Theatre and the New Regal Theater, are profiled in the documentary as potentially making a comeback.
Wright’s profile of movie palaces couldn’t be more timely. Film audiences are now overwhelmed with options of what to watch where and when—and often, through what streaming service. Like many moviegoers, Wright is unsure of cinema’s future. However, she’s certain of what is missing when these theaters disappear.
“When the movie palace closes, the community loses a hub,” she says. “What’s lost the most is the community experience, having that shared experience with your neighbors.” v