Why I Stopped Going to Atlanta’s Midtown Art Cinema and Learned to Use Earplugs

Enough is enough! I finally had it with the Midtown when, on April 2nd, I went there to see Brett Morgen’s Chicago 10, a documentary that mixes live action and animation.  When the commercials and trailers started, the sound was so loud I immediately left to protest, only to be told that it would probably not be possible to turn the volume down until the film itself began. This was later confirmed by a manager.  Not wanting to miss the start of the movie, I foolishly went back into the theater, standing in the back with my fingers blocking my ears. I unplugged my ears when the film started, but found the sound distorted (what I saw as an aftereffect of the noise I had been exposed to) and immediately left, angrily asking for and getting my money back.

This was not the first time I left the Midtown because of this problem (usually after my wife and I found the sound of the movie itself much too loud); I even stopped going there for six months last year. This is sad, since, in terms of programming,  the Midtown is one of best  theaters in Atlanta; it shows a wide variety of films, from mainstream to independent, and is a venue for several festivals, including the current Atlanta Film Festival. All this, though, is not worth the damage to my hearing. (Two days later, I realized the damage was such that I was unable to stay at my usual Friday night contra dance and have not tried to go to any other movie theater.)

When I lived in Los Angeles, my wife and I occasionally walked out of theaters because of sound problems; these always involved local multiplexes and my wife blamed youthful projectionists brought up on rock concerts; and the advent of digital sound has certainly allowed theaters to turn up the volume with less distortion. I never had a problem with such L.A. theaters as the Nuart (like the Midtown, owned by Landmark Theatres); and there never a problem during our stay in London, or as a matter of fact in any of the other theaters in Atlanta, including the Tara (Atlanta’s other important art house) and several local multiplexes.

The problem is not a new one and complaints about TV commercials being too loud go back to the early 1950s. I recall a junior high science teacher talking about it and how the local TV station he complained to telling him he was mistaken; he claimed otherwise and he was right. Today, when the sound is too loud during a commercial, you can either turn the sound down, hit the mute button or skip it with your TiVo; in a movie theater, your only option may be to leave the theater; you could, of course, use earplugs, but why should anybody have to use them to see a movie?

A November 27th  article on the WTVD-TV Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, website asks the question, “Are movies too loud?” It does not address the problem with commercials and trailers, but its observations are pertinent. The station investigated the matter after a viewer expressed concern that the sound levels in a theater she took her grandchild to were much too loud.

“He almost immediately put his hands over his ears and a little while later started crying and said it hurt it hurt,” says [Marjorie] Hopkins. “We had to take him out of the movie,” she continued, “We didn’t even stay to see the end because it hurt his ears too badly.”

The station went on to do some random testing.

We saw kids’ movies like The Game Plan, Harry Potter and Bee Movie. We also checked out action movies like American Gangster.

… For the most part, they all averaged well within safe levels as described by the National Institutes of Health.

But, each movie peaked above the safe level, 85 decibels, multiple times. The NIH says those higher levels could damage your hearing after long or repeated exposure.

…. We [also] watched Transformers at the I-MAX in the Marbles Children’s Museum in downtown Raleigh. This time the movie averaged more than 80 decibels. That’s just below what’s considered safe. It also peaked at nearly one hundred decibels.

…Dr. [Edith] Ferris [, an audiologist,] says the decibel readings we found at Bee Movie and Transformers could damage hearing over time.

If the sound levels for the feature presentation are too loud, what then about the trailers, which theaters readily admit are louder still?

The story adds that,

The theater manager at the I-MAX … tells us the studios preset the volume level for movies. He says the I-MAX theater is tested quarterly to make sure it stays within safe volume levels. He also says the staff monitors every movie and if they receive complaints they’ll check it out and sometimes turn down the volume if it appears to be too loud.

I hope what the Marbles Children’s Museum says is true; however, it is obvious the management of theaters like the Midtown apparently do not have the ability or the option to turn down the volume.

Going Over to the Dark Side

The problem of movies being too loud certainly contributes to the ongoing decline of movie attendance. And it looks like I may be joining the crowd.

This past weekend my wife and I went shopping at Fry’s Electronics and spotted a HD TV set playing a Blu-ray DVD of Enchanted (a film we had seen at the Midtown). My wife, who has always been annoyingly blasé about TV picture quality, was startled, and said, “I never knew a TV picture could be that good!” She was especially impressed with the 3-dimensional quality of the image. I was also impressed and realized that the picture was certainly equal to, and in some ways superior to what we saw in the movie theater. Right then and there, we both agreed to start saving for a HD TV and (when they come  out) a region-free Blu-ray player, and set up a home theater.

My fealty to the romance of “the moviegoing experience” and a sense of professional duty has prevented me from making what is, after all, a very logical decision, which an increasing number of Americans are making.

In the meantime, I made an appointment with an hearing specialist and will be ordering a pair of earplugs designed for musicians (though I understand toilet paper will do in a pinch) and writing to Landmark about my decision. I will eventually go back to the movies, being careful to both use earplugs and to come at least five minutes late (to avoid some of the trailers); however, until I have proof they have changed their ways, I will avoid the Midtown.

(Disclosures: Twenty years ago, I worked for Expanded Entertainment, a division of Landmark Theatres, when they published Animation Magazine (I was its first editor). Also, over the years, I have suffered some hearing loss, some of which may have been from causes other than moviegoing.)


Author: Harvey Deneroff

Harvey Deneroff is a Los Angeles-based independent animation and film scholar specializing in labor history. He formerly taught at the Savannah College of Art and Design and was editor of Animation Magazine, Animation World Magazine, and Graiffit (published by ASIFA-Hollywood). He is the founder and past president of the Society for Animation Studies.

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