I vividly remember the single best moviegoing experience of my life. It was in December of 2015, when some friends and I saw The Hateful Eight, in its special “roadshow” format, at Somerville Theatre.
It wasn’t the plot or the cinematography, or the novelty of seeing it on 70mm film, that I can’t forget. It was the 15 minute intermission in the middle.
As the house lights came up, there was plenty of time for all of us to stretch our legs, step out into the fresh winter air, chat about what we’d just seen, make a pit stop at the bathroom, and return with a cold beer from the concession stand for the second act.
It was beautiful. It has haunted me ever since. Because once you’ve seen a movie with an intermission, it’s hard to go back.
Sadly, they are almost impossible to find these days, even when every big studio is churning out movies that run well beyond the two-hour mark.
Just look at this summer’s lineup. The latest Mission: Impossible is two hours and 43 minutes long. Oppenheimer clocks in at about three hours. Even the Fast and Furious franchise isn’t immune: Its latest installment, Fast X, runs two hours and 21 minutes. Not a single intermission to be found.
It makes no sense.
Nature, after all, calls — does Hollywood really expect us to hold it for an entire evening of cinema? Would they prefer that a majority of viewers miss some significant plot detail to head to the loo? Have they considered our kidneys?
Intermissions, as I learned that fateful night eight years ago, are a blast. Think of the camaraderie we’re missing without them: Buddies gushing over the violent acrobatics in the early part of John Wick: Chapter 4 and anticipating more to come. First dates, instead of sitting in silence for hours, bonding over how great (or terrible!) the new Indiana Jones is so far. Or parents picking the brains of their excited kids about what might happen next in The Little Mermaid (which, by the way, runs two hours and 15 minutes).
It’s not like audiences are in a hurry. Just as directors have gotten comfortable with mega-long runtimes, so have viewers. Box office figures for the latest Avatar (three hours, 12 minutes) make it clear: we’re just fine buckling in for a three-hour-plus epic, so why would we balk at an extra handful of minutes?
Nor do audiences reject innovation. Theaters these days justify higher ticket costs by adding cozier and more luxurious seats, with recliner buttons and retractable footrests. AMC this year introduced premium pricing for the best spots, a first. The Alamo Drafthouse, an upscale theater due to open in the Seaport this year, will serve full meals directly to your seat.
Overseas, intermissions are thriving. In India, it’s hard to find a blockbuster without one. The time to supplement the moviegoing experience on this continent with common-sense updates audiences love is now.
Our beloved local theaters want this, too, by the way. It’s well known in the industry that snack and beverage sales double when they screen old movies with intermissions. If we really want to keep indie venues alive, supporting their bottom lines in this way is the least we can do.
But ask those local theaters and they’ll tell you it’s also about the vibe. Mark Anastasio, director of special programming at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, makes a point of mingling with the customers who’ve been happily interrupted midway through the classic films his theater screens. “It’s really great hearing the lobby buzzing,” he says, and “experiencing a film together as a community.”
Given that, you’d think theater owners would simply insert intermissions on their own. But they can’t. Distribution contracts forbid it. Get caught adding one to a long Christopher Nolan movie, and they may never be allowed to show one again.
So change, if it ever comes, will have to start at the top.
It wasn’t always this way. Old Hollywood directors had no problem including intermissions in big roadshow epics like Oklahoma! and Around the World in 80 Days, which audiences at the time treated like Broadway shows.
In time, as big cinemas prioritized fitting in as many screenings as possible each day, and studios pared movies down to tighter and tighter run times, they all but vanished. These days, it’s just a special treat: an old-timey screening, or in the case of The Hateful Eight, a quirky throwback.
Even preexisting ones are dying out. Theater owners told me that when they received a recent digital edition of The Godfather Part II, the intermission had been whacked. I know it was you, Paramount Pictures.
Getting them back won’t be easy. Longer movies would need to be written and filmed in two parts. Big cineplexes might need new policies and to hire extra staff to handle extra foot traffic in their lobbies, so intermissions are pleasant instead of chaotic. (But put another way: Intermissions can be job creators.)
“It has to be agreed to by everybody down the chain,” says Chapin Cutler, principal and cofounder of Boston Light & Sound, the famed movie theater production company. “If it’s not, it doesn’t work.”
I allowed myself to feel hope this summer when rumors swirled that Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon (three hours and 26 minutes) would, mercifully, have one when it hits theaters in October. But unfortunately, a source close to the film confirmed it will not.
Still, it’s not too late. Marty, if you’re listening, there is still time to reconsider. For the sake of cinema, give us a break!