Ten years ago today, an ordinary movie theater that looked like any other built in the 1980s—with the customary shoebox auditoriums, pink-tiled concession stand, forever ketchup-stained carpeting, hallways barely wide enough to contain the exiting masses, and a distinct absence of any of the electronic signage that has become ubiquitous in today’s megaplexes—closed to the public and was shortly thereafter demolished and turned into a Staples office supplies store.
I mourned—and still mourn—the occasion as if I had lost a family member.
Looking at photos of the AMC Encinitas 8, or the AMC Wiegand Plaza as it was originally named in 1982—after the city’s longtime builder family, who pioneered Encinitas in the late 19th Century—you’d be forgiven for dismissing it as just another ’80s multiplex to bite the dust. It was the kind of complex that, if still around today, would have almost certainly been converted into one of those recliner joints where they serve $15 frozen chicken tenders and $18 New Amsterdam martinis with your $22 movie, like the one-time Edwards La Costa 6 three miles down El Camino Real, now a Cinépolis “luxury” cinema. Indeed, the very similar Burbank, CA mall AMC that I attended throughout college to remind me of my high school days scooping popcorn was just converted into one of those faux-fancy “fork and screen”-style theaters, with its former self barely recognizable to the everyday onlooker.
But no matter how natural and convenient an impulse, to dismiss the AMC Encinitas 8 simply for its prefab architecture and dated décor would be a mistake. Removing my personal nostalgia from the equation as best I can for the moment—though, I admit, this is a tough proposition given I saw hundreds of movies there throughout my life and spent two formative years sweeping the halls and threading the projectors—there are two profoundly important reasons to remember the Encinitas 8 and theaters like it. The first involves the development of American culture in the last quarter of the 20th Century and the second involves the tradition of moviegoing specifically – though to pretend the two aren’t as tightly interlocked as the double-helix would serve as an outright rejection of the cinema’s continued importance altogether.
The first point is that some of the most vital and significant American cultural sites built in the ’70s and ’80s—the shoebox multiplex among them—are today outright ignored for political reasons.
Let me begin by noting that physical media has recently become an item of popular revival: vinyl is more purchased today than it has been in thirty years, filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan have made very public cases for keeping celluloid capture and projection alive, and even good, old-fashioned letter-writing is making a comeback as we become alienated from our iPad Minis.
And yet, the primary sites of cultural consumption that are enjoying revivals alongside these media formats are those perceived as capital-I Impressive or capital-C Cool enough to match the liberal ethos of the hipster class who are ushering in the revivals (in an admittedly valiant undertaking nonetheless). In other words, the dilapidated single-screen movie palace built in the nineteen-teens, the family-owned corner record store, and the historical landmark post office have all been primary sites of heightened interest as of late, the subjects of many a GoFundMe campaign for renovation/restoration. But what about the forgotten AMC Encinitas 8 or the Warehouse Records location a block north, which were every bit as important to the exhibition/consumption of America’s popular arts in their time?
Our detrimentally selective memory—and ensuing appetite to preserve certain cultural relics and not others—makes logical sense in this case. Forgive the following oversimplification, but as a general premise, it computes. To the liberals appreciably most devoted to remembering and reviving such cultural sites, institutions like the AMC Encinitas 8 are vilified as relics of Reagan-era prosperity, which they feel is better forgotten as it contradicts the very premise of their worldview. And to the conservatives who once ushered in the construction of such sites—once replacements of the single-screens that the hipster class are working so hard to now protect—these sites must be vanquished and once again replaced by the so-called bigger and better.
Only when conservatives remember these corporatized relics with a sense of nostalgia that liberals find objectionable—as is the case with the many Levittown suburbs across the country, which have earned an enduring legacy—do they remain enshrined in our cultural consciousness, albeit as an item of historical critique. The AMC Encinitas 8s of the world, sadly, are not even afforded this tarnished legacy due to the absence of such rightist nostalgia, merely left to be forgotten. Sure, many a former patron will continue to look back on the place fondly while they drive an inconvenient extra 15 minutes to the now-closest movie theater (so many suburban multiplexes were never truly replaced), but in the grander sense, there will be no memorial beyond this meager blogpost.
Which brings me to my second point: despite the public’s ultimate dismissal, the ’80s multiplex was incredibly important to developing who we are as American moviegoers today, more so than the current megaplex, which has been progressively designed to take what people like about the home viewing experience and make it bigger and louder and therefore better. (In other words, currently megaplexes attempt to take the going aspect out of moviegoing, unless you equate going with merely leaving your living room, a low bar).
I won’t bore you with the litany of longstanding academic and journalistic conclusions about the multiplex and the formidable role it played in broadened access to film in the suburbs, the symbiotic relationship it developed with the proliferating American blockbuster, its furtherance of a ritual movigoing culture, and its movement of the focus from the movie theater as a spectacular site itself (no longer an architecturally marvelous palace) to a text-focused room with four walls.
And because I’m not simply going to regurgitate what scholars and film-writers alike have already said, this is where I must let nostalgia enter the picture. Get ready for the tears. To be able to communicate what was so special about the Encinitas 8—and many other theaters like it—to me personally and to the community, compared to the soulless eighteen-screen megaplexes that define moviegoing in the 2010s, I’m going to have to get a little (okay, a lot) sentimental and grandiose.
I had been to movies at the Encinitas 8 all my life. The earliest memory I have of it was 1995’s Power Rangers: The Movie in Theater #4, a few months later followed by Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls, my first PG-13 movie (at age 6), seen by accident when my mom wanted to go having liked the first one but didn’t realize the rating. But generally, my parents were La Costa 6 people – AMC was always perceived as the rowdier, more teenager-friendly choice between the two theaters. The Diegueño Middle School campus police officer once warned us to never go to AMC on a Friday night because there were supposedly drug deals going on – a kind of hysteria only ever voiced to children in virtually crime-free suburbia. (In my subsequent two years of working there nearly every Friday night, I never saw so much as a joint, although our security guard did smoke Marlboros between sets.)
It wasn’t until I worked at the theater, and really started getting into the movies (and movie theaters in particular), that I realized what made the place so special—and, I think, very different from the impersonal megaplexes of today, which are built to similarly prefab, corporate architectural specs. This specialness lied in its undeniable sense of community. It sounds utterly cornball, but in a growingly isolated world—broadband Internet took off in my teenage years, as did the neighborly tensions perpetuated by the Bush Administration and the Iraq War, however tame they may seem in the Trump era—fellow citizens were able to come together and enjoy the common interest of entertainment.
This sense of a shared experience had long been a function of movies, of course, but never before the multiplex had one theater been able to pull in as diverse a group of people at single site at a single time, thanks to the wide variety of product. At the Encinitas 8, movies were able to live up to their roots as a populist medium: at $8.50 for adults and $5.50 for children, nearly everyone in the community could afford to take part in the experience on a semi-regular basis. While they not have been seeing the same movies, every demographic—fathers and sons, middle-aged couples, teenage girls, working-class Hispanics, you name it—all came to the same cultural hub with the common goal of enjoying a film.
“But we still do this at the megaplex,” you might be thinking. Well, to a degree I suppose, but certainly not in as close of quarters, which actually matters a great deal. Boy, do I miss those rock-hard, barely-separated chairs, strange as it may sound. When you spend as much time in movie theaters as I do, you realize, for example, that comedies don’t play as well in auditoriums with recliner seating, the contagiousness of shared emotion dissipating as the space between bodies increases. For this very reason, some comedy directors reportedly refused to test screen their movies in stadium-seated auditoriums when they were first introduced. For all its corporatized innovations, the multiplex, with its cramped seating in confined spaces, brought us literally and therefore spiritually closer together in film viewing—more so than the cavernous palaces of yore did for decades, unable to sell out their 2,500-seat capacities in the latter years of operation and often relegated to second-run status.
And just as my beloved multiplex enhanced a sense of a united community, so too did it break down communal barriers. Every so often, a member of one demographic group would venture into a neighboring auditorium playing a movie targeted at another and be enriched by the experience. I’ll never forget when, shortly after beginning the job, an old man in a wheelchair came up to me and noted that he had already seen Cinderalla Man, the only “adult” fare playing at the time. (When I told him Fantastic Four was the second-highest grossing movie in the country, he refused to believe me, asking me where I got my education.) I recommended Batman Begins, which had been marketed as standard comic-book hoopla, but was actually something more – Christopher Nolan’s grimly allegorical, idea-filled piece of fantasy that launched the enduring Dark Knight trilogy. The man was hesitant given his predisposed notions about the Caped Crusader (George Clooney, anyone?) but took my advice and ventured into Auditorium #3, only to come out two hours later and rave about the film, saying he misunderstood what a modern blockbuster was. (OK, I’m paraphrasing his comments in retrospect, but the spirit was the same.)
I contend that these types of experiences tapped into cinema’s ability to break down prejudices about other audiences—ergo, people—and (because I’m in a sappy mood) bring society closer together. As advanced online ticketing and low-capacity, reserved seat recliner auditoriums that sell out hours in advance have taken over the contemporary megaplex, this sense of seeing a movie by happenstance—taking a risk and emerging from a darkened room enlightened—has declined. And if you do happen to end up at the megaplex not knowing what you’re going to see, you’ll likely decide by staring at the screen on an automated kiosk or your phone, not by asking a pimply-faced, teenage Danny Baldwin (who sees everything playing) which titles you might unexpectedly enjoy.
Lastly, the projection was better in the multiplex era. I know I’ll take flack for this claim, but it’s true. Certainly, the waning days of 35mm film, bound to poorly maintained platter systems, brought moviegoers a wide array of presentation fuck-ups. In my first solo projection shift (after a mere six hours of training), I forgot to thread the treasured animation classic Barnyard through one projector roller and the entire print ended up on the floor, dirty and scratched for the rest of its run (and my personal conscience has never quite recovered for it). But in the multiplex era, there were still, by and large, dedicated projectionists who cared about things like illumination and focus and framing. Now, if you end up in an auditorium with a 3D lens attached for a 2D movie—which happens to be as many of a third of certain exhibitors’ screens—you’re going to endure a movie with subpar illumination. Period. End of story. And don’t even get me started on the entirely fixable quality control issues that result from “projectionists” who no longer understand a thing about projection due to the cost-oriented logistics of digital booths. Think about it: did you hear the cry “I can just watch this at home!” nearly often as you do today as recently as even ten years ago, when Blu-Ray and HDTV were both already at decent levels of market penetration, especially among those with the highest regard for picture quality?
For these reasons, a part of me is glad the AMC Encinitas 8 didn’t live to be converted into a recliner theater, with impersonal assigned seating and subpar digital projection, just like the AMC La Jolla 12 twenty miles down the 5 Freeway, where I transferred after my beloved home-away-from-home saw the wrecking ball. That would have ruined its legacy, at least for those of us who once cared about it most. Don’t get me wrong, I often enjoy the convenience and amenities of these theaters like the rest of you, but I miss the days when we had to work for our entertainment, because I think the movies and the experiences were all the more memorable for it.
I’ll never forget such memories, and they continue to inform so much of my movie taste and my regard for the sustained cultural importance of the cinema today. At the AMC Encinitas 8 alone, there was the time I laughed so hard watching Orange County with my dad in a barely-attended Sunday twilight show that I thought my stomach would never recover, the time he and my brother and I saw Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring on opening Wednesday (a rare weeknight movie for us!) and towards the end I wondered if I would be in that auditorium for the rest of my life, the time I saw my first R-rated movie in a theater (Black Hawk Down) shortly after I decided I wanted to start taking movies seriously (because of A Beautiful Mind, which seems hilarious in retrospect), the time we went to see Frailty because I heard Stephen King’s recommendation quoted on a radio spot and I left the theater completely rattled and changed (radio spots with testimonials still work!), the time we saw The Ring and I was the only teenager there on a Friday night with a parent, the time we saw Blue Crush and I was the only male teenager there on a Saturday night with a parent, the time I was the only teenager ever to see 8 Mile with his mom (and we both enjoyed it, goddamnit!), the time we saw Old School a week late after I got the stomach flu when it had sneak previews (remember when they did paid sneak previews!? I miss that), the time that fires engulfed San Diego County and shut down all the schools and we went to see a sold out weekday matinee of School of Rock because it was the only place with enough air conditioning to forget about the smoke, the time we saw Kill Bill: Volume 1 and I had my teenage mind BLOWN, the time I bought a ticket to Seabiscuit (which I had already seen) and my dad bought a ticket to Freddy Vs. Jason (which I wanted to see but he didn’t) and he put them together with his on top so the ticket taker thought we were both going together but we swapped and I saw my first R-rated movie alone, the time I saw The Haunted Mansion by myself and realized that the aisle seat of the right section of Auditorium #1 in the second-to-back row was my favorite seat in the whole complex, the time my mom bought me a ticket to see the R-rated Cold Mountain and I was so scared the ticket taker would bust me (as if Cold Mountain was on her MPAA radar), the time I kind of enjoyed Welcome to Mooseport despite the dreadful reviews, the time I saw Cellular because who could forget that Chris Evans ball-pit scene, the time Eric and I saw both Wimbledon and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow back-to-back (with Pizzicato in the middle) and we both liked the former better and his man’s man dad gave us shit the whole way home when we told him of our chick-flick preference, the time Champy and I got busted sneaking into Open Water so we snuck in at San Marcos the next day, the time I aggressively wanted to like Christmas with the Kranks but aggressively hated it, the time I saw Coach Carter and they wouldn’t give me a student discount without my student ID despite the fact I was a fucking 15-year-old and you wouldn’t normally need your student ID before 6 p.m. but it was different for a holiday period and I hated my life for spending those extra $2 which barred me from getting a pretzel in addition to my M&Ms and Sprite at the concession stand, the time I first saw a movie for free because I started working there and I proudly posted my $0.00 ticket to my Xanga (Dark Water!), the time that guy kept yelling at me that Red Eye’s sound was screwed up but I couldn’t hear what was wrong and I didn’t realize he was just pissed off that we didn’t have surround sound in Auditorium #5 (only #1 and #6 ever got upgraded to anything more than stereo, the former with SDDS and the latter with both DTS and SDDS, but we always used SDDS because it was the superior option no matter what your techy friends continue to say), the time we had to have our security guard issue warnings/introductions before every showing of The Exorcism of Emily Rose to make sure that the teenagers didn’t talk all through the movie (well, talk even more through the movie than usual), the time I thought Jon Heder would have an enduring acting career based on Just Like Heaven, the time all I wanted to do in life was ogle Jessica Alba and her belly button ring in Into the Blue, the time I saw Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story and got really mad at the projectionist (whose name I will not disclose publicly) for scratching the last two reels and interfering with my enjoyment, the time I realized my bosses allowed underage employees to go see R-rated movies unaccompanied and I elected to use my newfound power to go see North Country by myself (incidentally, the first R-rated movie I bought my own ticket for at another theater on my 17th birthday was Transamerica at the also since-demolished Flower Hill 4 and they definitely didn’t check my ID), the time we had to move Get Rich or Die Tryin’ to a smaller auditorium because Derailed was more popular in our upscale suburb (I still love Jim Sheridan), the time I backed my 1979 Volvo into a lady’s Suburban in the parking lot and there was no damage and she told me I could go but I was still afraid she was going to call the cops on me and I could not enjoy Derailed at all (not that anyone could ever enjoy Derailed), the time I saw King Kong on opening Wednesday after school and lamented that there were not as many people there as there were for Lord of the Rings but couldn’t remember if we similarly had LOTR on two screens, the time I sat through Rumor Has It on my half-hour break while eating Dibs and a hot dog and really enjoyed what I saw but it disappeared from theaters so fast that I never got to see the rest of it (to this day), the time a man started yelling at a woman in Last Holiday and my manager sent me in to monitor them for the rest of the movie and I had it spoiled for me, the time my old babysitter came in to take kids to see Big Mommas House 2 and my manager walked over to tell me so I could say hi (at her request) and I totally thought she was a different woman standing in the lobby and I offended her by saying hello to that woman, the time Champy and I somehow ate an entire $5 large Pizza Hut pie and 2-liter Pepsi by ourselves before seeing Nanny McPhee in 17 minutes flat, the time I got so mad at my fellow teenagers for talking through When a Stranger Calls (they musta been SDA twerps), the time Champy and I sat through Tyler Perry’s Madea’s Family Reunion with four elderly white people on a Tuesday afternoon and I realized I needed to see Perry’s next movie at the more “urban” Mission Valley AMC location downtown to fully “get” it, the time I was seeing Inside Man and my manager sat down next to me 50 minutes into the movie and wanted me to explain the whole plot that had transpired thus far because she got held up shopping at TJ Maxx, the time the super cute girl who went to Carlsbad High from my SAT class came to see Stick It and she asked if I could get her free tickets and I couldn’t and I thought if only I could have then maybe she would go out on a date with me (Miranda, where are you now? I will buy you all the tickets you want!), the time The Da Vinci Code sold out every evening show like a motherfucker and I watched the line forming with a strong sense of impending doom while eating Chicken Fries at Burger King on my 15 minute break but experienced immense satisfaction when we later conquered those lines, the time my mom and my brother and I laughed ourselves silly at that stupid corn-cob joke in Nacho Libre, the time I watched Accepted while my pal Michael was interviewing for a job there and I couldn’t concentrate on the movie itself because I was endlessly curious about what was going on 30 feet above me in the manager’s office, the time I busted the same group of preteen girls trying to see Snakes on a Plane three separate times as I watched it myself (even though I had been in their poor shoes just a few years prior), the time I saw The Wicker Man with Champy and Eric on opening day and it ignited a deep and lifelong passion for Nicolas Cage, the time I went to go see Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny and realized I had spent too much time projecting and not enough time seeing movies there, the time I embarrassed myself bringing the manager of the La Paloma our print of Stranger Than Fiction because I realized I had been carrying film reels outside of a can the wrong way for so long when he effortlessly picked both combined reels up at once, the time I realized we were closing and it set in that it would all soon be over, the time I begged my manager to not let our final show ever be Primeval and she thankfully switched it to the excellent The Pursuit of Happyness, the time I missed a private screening of Bella for the band Switchfoot because my manager didn’t call me to come in time and I was already marveling over Justin Timberlake’s performance in Alpha Dog at the San Marcos 18 that afternoon, and the time I saw Freedom Writers with my mom and my brother on the final night of operation and I felt bad that I left as quickly as I did after the credits rolled because I couldn’t bear the thought that there were no more movies to be experienced there and I just wanted to get the hell out.
And that was all just the tip of the moviegoing iceberg. They all blur together into one big, chunky paragraph, weaving the tapestry of an individual’s personal moviegoing history.
It’s hard to believe it’s been a decade since the AMC Encinitas 8 closed its doors. A lot has happened in the intervening years – both for me personally and for Encinitas the city. But there is unlikely to come a January 28 when I don’t think about the place, because it really was, for all its unremarkable surface qualities, a truly magical theater. Now get out and see a movie, preferably in the crustiest ’80s multiplex you can find.