Movies · Streaming Guides

Jungle Gyms in Movie Theaters Are Dumb

By  · Published on March 27th, 2017

A little perspective from a parent.

Look! It’s just what every multiplex needs: a playground for the boring moments in any movie.

A couple weeks ago, Film Twitter was lit aflame anew, but not by the latest potentially overhyped festival release or the fallout from last month’s Oscars. No, what raised folks’ ire this time was an announcement of a new kind of innovation offered by a Mexico-based movie theater chain, Cinepolis. There are already a slew of options intended to lure audiences away from their living room into the theater, from dine-in possibilities at chains like Alamo Drafthouse to reserved seating and extended legroom at the Arclight. Cinepolis went the opposite route of chains like Drafthouse, which try to emphasize the moviegoing experience as opposed to distractions. They now have Cinepolis Junior, which offers a “colorful play area near the screen in front of the seats, a jungle gym, and cushy beanbag chairs.”

Social-media responses ranged anywhere from “This is a painful monstrosity” to “No, seriously, this is a painful monstrosity.” The best defense was barely a defense at all, as some tweeters pointed out that Cinepolis Junior – which currently is only available in two Southern California theaters – would logically only be applicable for family films, so anyone worried about their experience of watching Kong: Skull Island or Get Out being ruined would be relieved. As with a number of add-on options to a movie ticket, whether it’s 3D or D-BOX or dine-in, Cinepolis Junior tickets will cost $3 extra; thus, it’s probably safe to presume that anyone seeing, say, Beauty and the Beast in the new theater will know what they’re getting themselves and their families into before they step inside. If, the logic goes, people know what they’re getting and are fine with it, where’s the harm?

The harm is much the same as when, last year, the CEO of AMC Theatres said that he would consider encouraging more cell-phone usage in his theaters in the hopes of luring more people to the box office. For various reasons – higher ticket prices, the frequency of new content on Netflix and other streaming brands, etc. – theater exhibitors are worried that they’re losing audiences to the living-room experience. Attempting to right a sinking ship makes perfect sense; attempting to do so by almost literally replicating the living-room experience in a movie theater makes no sense. Adrian Mijares Elizondo, Cinepolis executive, tried to clarify:

“The whole idea is to make it easier for parents to take their kids to the movies and let the kids have more fun.”

Speaking from experience, I can at least agree with this much: it can be challenging to bring a child to the movies. I’m the father of a 2 ½-year old who is (a) a big fan of movies like Inside Out, Zootopia, and (shudder) Trolls, and (b) in no way able to focus entirely on a movie that he would do well in a theater without getting very restless and antsy, even if he’s enjoying the movie.

So, on one hand, I get the impetus: if my son had the ability to run around on a jungle gym while a movie like Zootopia is playing right next to him, it would be an “easier” moviegoing experience. (Of course, as the LA Times article notes, “running is prohibited” in the American version of Cinepolis Junior. This either means there would be a jungle-gym attendant in the theater policing the kids, or the parents would do that themselves. I’m betting on the latter, which means I’m betting there would be a lot of kids running around.) But no matter how it’s sold to me, both as a cinephile and as a parent, I have no idea why on Earth I would want to spend upwards of $40 for the privilege of not really paying attention to a new movie while my son plays on a jungle gym. There’s an indoor jungle gym near my house that’s presumably larger than the one Cinepolis Junior offers; admission for my son would be $8. And there are countless outdoor playgrounds my wife and I could bring him to for free. Why would a jungle gym be a value-added option to my family’s moviegoing experience?

My living-room experience isn’t that extreme: I don’t have a fancy sound system, just a fairly standard (for the current TV climate, at least) 40-inch HDTV. And, as the parent of a toddler, there are a lot of toys in our living room. So when my son’s desire to watch Trolls last weekend wasn’t sated by an iTunes rental, we purchased the film for $20. He can now watch it to his heart’s content, while playing rambunctiously in the same room. It’s not a focused experience; neither is the Cinepolis Junior experience, but at least I know which toys my son is playing with in our house, or with whom he’s playing. To pay for the Cinepolis Junior experience is to pay a lot more money than usual for the privilege of accessing a jungle gym, not a movie that my child would ideally have expressed interest in seeing. (Why else would we be at the theater as a family if not to see something he supposedly wanted to see?)

I realize that exhibitors of large theater chains are concerned about losing revenues and audiences to the living room. Because of my current writing load and being a parent of a young child, I can easily admit that my own theatergoing has dwindled over the last few years. Most of them when I do see a movie, it’s at a screening for members of the press as well as members of the public who get free passes; these screenings are almost always overseen by security staff who hope to ward off cell phone usage. That means these are among the least disruptive screenings you’ll ever sit through. So, basically, they’re not representative of the typical experience. The few times in the last six months when I have gone to the theater to see a film outside of the pre-release environment, I’ve gone to one of a few nearby theaters that offer the right kind of value-added options. The mostly local theater chain in Arizona, Harkins, constructed a multiplex near my house with the biggest non-IMAX screen in the state, a bar in the lobby, a slew of concession items that go beyond popcorn and candy, and recliners in each theater. If it was fully dine-in and actually enforced a no-cell-phone policy, it would be the equivalent of an Alamo Drafthouse. (The Phoenix area recently, mercifully got its first Drafthouse, though.) That said, Harkins does have a dedicated play area for kids…to hang around in while Mom and Dad go see a movie for a couple hours.

The experience I had at the fancy new Harkins multiplex, when watching movies like Arrival and John Wick: Chapter Two, was what I want from a movie theater, as a cinephile. As a parent, when I do start bringing my son to the movies – I might try with Cars 3 this summer, but it’s still too early to tell – I would want him to watch the movie. As a nearly-3-year old, he’s already easily distracted and restless. Whenever he gets to an age where I think he can handle sitting down in the same seat for upwards of 2 hours, let alone whether or not a movie is too scary for him, I want him to focus on the movie. (And if he can’t focus on the movie, then we’ll be making an early exit so we don’t ruin anyone else’s experience.) Cinepolis Junior may have been created for the purpose of appealing to families, but what it offers is a more expensive combination of what I can find in my own house. Why not just do that?