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Intermission: The pause that refreshes Just like old days, long film has break

Saturday, February 22, 2003

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Once upon a time, people dressed up in their Sunday best and headed Downtown to see the newest movies. Each theater had only one film on one very large screen, but there were as many as 1,000 seats to choose from. Uniformed ushers with flashlights would lead you to your chair. In addition to the main attraction and the previews, you were likely to get a cartoon, a newsreel, a short subject and maybe even a door prize.

(Illustrated by Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette)

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And if the movie ran longer than 2 1/2 hours, you would also probably get an intermission. The movie would stop in midstream, the lights would come up, a recorded soundtrack would play and sometimes a little clock would count down the time -- usually 12 to 15 minutes -- before the movie would resume.

It gave you a chance to stretch your legs, go to the bathroom or let yourself be guided by a jingle from the only commercial message you were likely to see on a movie screen in those days, the one with the marching boxes of candy and bags of popcorn that urged, "Let's go out to the lobby and get ourselves a treat."

Everything about the way we see movies now is different, and intermissions have become rare even in films that run three hours or more. The "Lord of the Rings" films don't take a break from the action. Neither did "Titanic" or "The Green Mile."

There is a point, however, where enough is literally enough.

The new Civil War movie "Gods and Generals" clocks in at just over 3 1/2 hours. Director Ronald F. Maxwell insisted on adding a 12-minute intermission although he was told that intermissions make a long movie even longer, and that this dissuades people from coming to see it.

"My argument was, we have to think of the people who will go to the movie to see it," Maxwell says. "We've got to treat those people with respect. You cannot ask people to sit for 3 hours and 35 minutes without a break in any movie, let alone one that's so intense and has got so much blood and guts and battle scenes in it.

"You need to take a breather. People need to have a smoke, they need to have a drink, they need to go to the bathroom, they just need to stand up and walk around. And if you don't have that, I think what happens is people start to get resentful."

He points out that intermissions are commonplace in live theater, where shows are written in two or more acts.

Maxwell's other four-hour Civil War film, "Gettysburg," also contained an intermission. So did Kenneth Branagh's four-hour "Hamlet" and Richard Attenborough's three-hour "Gandhi."

The average length of movies has remained relatively stable over the past six years at about 107 minutes. But a study by Entertainment Weekly, measuring running times of movies by 20-year intervals, said the average feature was 90 minutes long in 1932. That climbed to 109 minutes in 1952; to 113 minutes in 1972; and to 121 minutes in 1992.

The trade newspaper Variety reported that in 1999, a record 20 films ran 135 minutes or longer.

Intermissions were most prominent in the 1950s and '60s, although "Gone With the Wind," a four-hour movie made in 1939, also includes one.

"It has never been shown without an intermission," says movie critic Leonard Maltin of the syndicated TV series "Hot Ticket" and editor of an annual movie and TV guidebook. "It's imperative. That's really a no-brainer."

Maltin, who endorses the return of intermissions on his Web site, leonardmaltin.com, says intermissions thrived mostly during the era when a studio's most prestigious films were released as "road shows" -- playing just twice a day in big downtown movie theaters, with reserved seats pre-sold at a premium price.

"The concept was to make it an event," Maltin says, noting that Hollywood was trying to give people a reason to leave their homes and that new gadget called television, which gave them entertainment for free.

The intermission for the four-hour comedy "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" took it one step further. A Los Angeles Times story says the film incorporated sound bites into the intermission, piping them into the lobby, the restrooms and outside the theater.

"Going to see a movie of any kind in one of those theaters was a heightened experience," Maltin says. "The exhibition of movies has become more casual and less structured, if that's not redundant. Now, there are malls and multiplexes. There is no theater manager welcoming you and checking on you. And if you did have an intermission, where would you go? The big downtown theaters often had a mezzanine and a lounge. Now, you hang around the pinball machines."

On the business end, intermissions cut into a theater's ability to show a movie as many times a day as possible. On the flip side, intermissions typically fuel concession sales -- and that can be a real gold mine.

Pittsburgh Filmmakers, which runs the Regent Square and Harris theaters and Melwood Screening Room, has had long movies both with and without breaks. Its screenings of "Lagaan," "The Seven Samurai," "Reds" and "Lawrence of Arabia" featured intermissions, while "Les Destinees," "A Grin Without a Cat" and "2001: A Space Odyssey" did not (although "2001" had an intermission when originally released in 1968).

"I think audiences do appreciate intermissions. You can stretch your legs a little bit, go out and get a cup of coffee or popcorn," says Gary Kaboly, director of exhibitions for Filmmakers. "Whenever we play a long film like that, that's the question most audiences ask us."

To alert moviegoers that the intermission is about to end, Filmmakers staffers will flash the lights and make an announcement that the movie is about to resume.

"In the olden days, they were built into specific spots in the film or story line where it was seen as being appropriate to take a break. The flow and experience were not negatively affected by the break," Kaboly says.

Rick Stern, president of Cinemagic Theaters, says intermissions "obviously give an exhibitor an additional opportunity for concession sales. A lot of our profit comes from that end of the business."

But, he continued, "I think, generally speaking, a film loses some momentum when it's interrupted by an intermission." He wouldn't want to see one in "Lord of the Rings," but thinks an intermission is a necessity in something as long as "Gods and Generals."

Longtime theater owner Jeff Lewine, who runs Star City Cinema in South Fayette, once distributed "The Sorrow and the Pity," a nearly 4 1/2-hour documentary about France under Nazi occupation during World War II. "The original version had an intermission in it, and people complained that the ambience of the presentation was being thwarted."

Today, Lewine says, "People feel like time and money are now equated because there are so many other things to do with the entertainment dollar. The movie studios are reticent to put in an intermission in any film, even though there are some that could clearly use it."

Lewine, former owner of the old Cinema World chain, would love more visits to the concession counter but concedes that "it creates some scheduling headaches. I think some of these longer films would do better if they did have it." He recalls watching the 188-minute "JFK" years ago and wishing for a break.

"It's a new moviegoing audience, in the main, and they don't remember intermissions," Lewine says. "Multiplexes are not set up for intermissions," which could send scores of patrons into the lobby at the very time when others are arriving and stopping at the concession counters and restrooms.

"As an overall concept, though, I would welcome it -- obviously," Lewine says. His theater is showing "Gods and Generals" and he says, "I think we're going to wing it."

Maltin argues that intermissions offer benefits that make the break worthwhile.

"They refresh you emotionally and physically," he says. "You go back into the movie with a renewed spirit."

Staff writer Barbara Vancheri contributed to this report.

Ron Weiskind can be reached at rweiskind@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.

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