I’ve seen three movies in theaters while in China. I would have liked to see more, but tickets are usually ¥35-50 and the experience is not always that great. By "not always that great" I mean: "would cause most Americans to walk out and demand a refund." Let me tell you about it!
(This post will mention movie titles but with otherwise be spoiler free.)
The theater is a medium sized room with the doors along the side walls toward the front. The screen is maybe a couple feet off the floor and perhaps twenty or so feet from the first row.
I’m sitting in the front row, nearly front and center, but it’s the best front row experience I’ve had in a theater. Which is to say the screen is filling my field of view, but I don’t feel like I’m too close. The movie was already a minute or two in when we entered the theater, but I don’t think I missed much more than that.
The movie is in 3D, most of them are here. You have to buy 3D glasses if you don’t have them, but once you own a pair you can use them for future movies. They have a little vending kiosk with “stylish” 3D glasses if you want something more fancy than the standard black.
A handful of people exit or enter the theater during the course of the movie. The double doors on either side of the room have no entry vestibule, they just open straight out into the lobby and hallway. Bright light shines in as the doors open and close. Even when they are closed, a thin outline of light can sometimes been seen around the cracks.
At one point someone walks across the front of the room. A few phones chirp throughout the film, but since I'm in the front row and the volume is relatively loud, I don't really notice. I'm the only one who wants to stay to watch all the credits, but my friends dutifully stick around to the very end. (That part seems pretty normal.)
The Great Wall
Different screen, same theater, seats are a bit more comfortable, and I’m seated toward the back, almost center. Seating feels more stadium style, a steeper angle. There’s only one aisle on the right side of the room so anyone sitting on the left has to weave past my seat. A couple people go past and then go back, they must have been in the wrong row.
They don’t show any previews or ads before the movie. When it’s time, the movie just starts playing. Again the film is in 3D. 3D seems to have caught on in China in ways that it has not in the US. The volume is just about right. Some people have complained about the volume in these theaters, maybe I'm just not as picky.
I very much feel like I'm the only person reacting to the film. I tend to laugh loudly and often.
This might be the best of my three movie experiences. The closest to what I would imagine in the states.
I enter the theater complex just as they were closing the door to the screen showing Star Wars Rogue One. I rush to the ticket counter to buy a ticket. I need to wait for a minute while the English speaking attendant finishes up her transaction with someone else and is able to help me. I show them my UIC ID card to get the student/teacher discount: 50% off the ticket price. This drops the price to ¥35. I tell her I want to see Rogue One and while there’s also a showing at 6:30, I decide to just go to the 6:00 one, even if I’m a minute or two late. (I just speed walked here from my apartment and waiting negates that effort.)
She has me choose my seat. The entire auditorium looks like it can seat maybe 50 or so people, but there’s only nine taken seats in the middle creating a blue three by three grid in collection of otherwise yellow boxes.
An attendant rushes to open the door and let me into the room. I'm uncertain where to go and she points me towards the row right in front of me. The movie is underway, so I sit down quickly and pull on my glasses. The guy next to me just sort of stares at me. His phone chirps. Then chirps again. He holds it up and types back a message to whoever he is chatting with on WeChat. He gets an audio message and holds the phone to his ear, the bright screen a foot away from my face and pointing right at me. I can hear a voice play loudly over the speaker. He says something back into his phone and hits send.
His phone continues to chirp for the first 15 minutes of the film. He gets up to take a call, thankfully leaving as his phone ring some obnoxious rap song. He returns after a couple minutes and continues texting. He takes another call, and finally his urgent messages seem to trail off. We get a good half hour or hour of silence from his communication.
Somewhere near the middle of the movie his phone rings again and he answers it in the theater. He talks back to whoever called. I "shush" him, flail my hand in front of him and make some negative sounding nonsense syllables. I don’t want to be too obnoxious, I don’t want to bother anyone else, and I don’t want to actually hit him, but if he’s going to ruin my movie watching experience I want to ruin his phone call experience.
He finishes his call and continues watching the film. I imagine he is embarrassed by my outbreak, but in the dark room, out of the corner of my eye, it's difficult to read emotions. When his phone rings again a little bit later, he gets up and goes past me to take it outside.
In some ways this was a great experience. The intimate setting of the smaller theater was good. The audio volume was nice and the screen was a good distance back. I could have sat in the front row and been perfectly fine. (I almost moved when Mr. Phone kept texting.)
I'm also glad to have had an experience with such obnoxious film-goers. It was enough of a departure from normal that it felt strange, alien, and worth talking about while not being so overtly distracting that I couldn't focus on the movie.