Bring Back the Art of the Intermission

Chapter ONE

Part 1: History

There was a time when intermissions were a staple part of going to the movies. The intermission existed for two reasons. The more obvious one, of course, is to give patrons a chance to take a break; have a smoke, use the rest room or get something to drink or snack on (nowadays a chance to check your email or Twitter?). The real reason, back in the day, was to give the projectionist time enough to switch out the reels – which took a lot more effort and calibration to do so properly. Of course with technological advancements, the need for stopping the movie to switch reels became unnecessary and was eventually phased out.

Besides the advancements in technology, I presume that the real reason intermissions became gradually more unpopular happened concurrently with the popularity of the multiplex; where dollars (i.e. revenue) became more important than the customer experience. It was important to cram as many screenings of a film into the day as possible. More screenings = more money right? Well maybe, and it depends on who you’re asking.

While the practice is totally gone from the multiplexes in America today (the last notable film to use the intermission was Gandhi in 1982), one interesting thing to note is that Bollywood still employs the use of intermissions to this day. Reason being is two-fold. One, on average, the run time of a film in India is significantly lengthier than those of Hollywood (though that gap is steadily becoming smaller). And two, it provides a significant source of revenue for theaters as patrons generally fill up on food and drink during this time. Of course I can’t be sure, and I’m not willing to scour obscure sources to find out, but I would bet that a few bags of popcorn, a couple boxes of candy and several sodas, all of which cost the theater practically nothing to produce, would more than make up for the possibility of one (maximum) lost screening.

I humbly submit to Hollywood and filmmakers, please bring back the art of the intermission!

Part 2: Intro of Rationale

First off, I’m not advocating for every film to have an intermission. I’m saying that the complete and total disappearance of the intermission dismays me somewhat and I’d like to see it implemented under the appropriate circumstances. These circumstances of which I’ll dive into throughout this article and which also happen to be (for me) the majority of movies I see in theaters today.

Of course I’ve brought up this plea before. It’s usually met with knee-jerk screams of blasphemy and “just hold it!”. But let’s think seriously about this for a moment. What would be the harm of including an intermission in today’s film structure? Almost nothing. In fact, I’m here to argue that, besides allowing me to go take a leak, it could really bring something new and interesting to the art form.

As mentioned above, North American films are becoming increasingly lengthier. Ten years ago the 120-minute film was a rarity, while today it is quickly becoming the norm. In fact, including trailers and commercials after the scheduled start time of the movie, I’d say you’d be hard pressed to find very many movies today in which you’re not sitting in the theater for at least two hours.

Instead of rattling off all of the obvious (and maybe some not so obvious) reasons on why I want the practice to return, we must look at all of the arguments against the intermission. This is how I plan to attack the topic; by looking at each argument and analyzing its pros and cons and whether each one actually holds any weight. There are four angles one must look at the argument for (or against) the intermission: from the point of view of Hollywood, the point of view of the theater and its employees, the point of view of the film maker and from the point of view of the cinema goer. I of course am coming at this as a member of the latter group. But I’ll indulge a bit to the other three groups, despite my lack of general knowledge.

Chapter TWO: The Arguments Against

Part 1: Hollywood and Studio Execs

I’d like to address the “plight” of Hollywood first. Ultimately, while I understand a studio needs to make money to continue producing movies and possibly take chances on more interesting fare, I’m not really all that concerned with a major studio exec with dollar signs in his eyes. I’m looking at the movies from a mostly creative standpoint that directly affects me. A millionaire not wanting to indulge in a practice because it won’t make her or him that extra million dollars, while valid, doesn’t really concern me. In other words, I’m being deliberately egocentric. After all, the customer is always right, right? Still, I’ll indulge for a moment.

So what might Hollywood (i.e. studio execs) make of a movie creator wanting to add an intermission? I can only think of two things. One, and probably of less importance, is the fact that an intermission may have unintended interpretations by the audience (at least in the beginning of my petition for this movement). In other words, general film goers may extrapolate that the film is a stuffy, boring drama or way too long to sit through regardless of its subject matter if there is an intermission. This is actually a reasonable concern but I can only argue that the ignorance of general cinema goers has been a problem seemingly forever and intermissions would be the least of my concern these days when it comes to doing the absolute bare minimum of research on the film you’re planning to see. People brought their six year-old kids to the South Park Movie for God’s sake.

The other argument against the intermission from the viewpoint of Hollywood has a bit more validity and one for which I have almost no defense. Almost. More screenings equal more money for the studios. That is for certain. So the longer a film is, the amount of potential screenings could drop significantly; especially over a longer time period of weeks or even months. That said, I can come back with two shots: Titanic and LOTR: The Return of the King. To strengthen my argument that longer run times do not equal less dollars, the top 14 grossing movies of all time all run over two hours, with some even running longer than three. The average run time for these movies is 159 minutes. So there.

Part 2: The Filmmaker

The obvious importance of the film maker in this discussion cannot be understated; partly because (s)he might go hand-in-hand with both the audience and the studios. In other words, the director is sort of the middleman between the company and the company’s ultimate customer – you and me. But let’s put aside the argument of studio pressure as I’ve already addressed this and it really only complicates the matter more than it needs to be. Let’s, for the ease of the argument, assume for a second that this is a director with carte blanche; one with basically full creative control over his or her project.

This is the one angle I don’t have much of an argument for or against and I’d love for aspiring or established film makers to sound off on this topic from the point of view of constructing the actual film. Does it really matter one way or another? I would say your answer would most likely be “yes” or at the very least, probably.

Still, from a technical standpoint it wouldn’t be difficult. You just stick it in there at the right place, right? So the only real argument against the idea of the intermission from a director would be the potential for breakage of tone/atmosphere/pacing/what-have-you in the film. This is also the single biggest argument against the use of intermissions that I suspect might come from the peanut gallery as well. It is also the one argument that I entirely agree with too. For now, let’s address it from the point of view of the filmmaker.

So you’re a director/editor and you want (or you’ve been instructed) to include an intermission in your film. How do you go about it without wrecking the style (for wont of a more encompassing term) of your picture? Obviously it doesn’t do much good or make any sense to have the intermission right away or towards the end of your movie. It only makes sense to have it in the middle somewhere. Let’s say your movie is 140 minutes. The most obvious place to include the intermission would be somewhere between the 80 and 115 minute mark (give or take). This might prove difficult, frustrating and aggravating – possibly even infuriating. But wait, does it have to be?

For one thing, most movies today do have a moment or two of down time. It’s usually a tonal “breather,” if you will, for the characters and audience alike. Wouldn’t this be the most obvious place to include your intermission? I realize this is a bit of a cop-out pro-argument, but not egregious. If you’re not convinced (admittedly I wouldn’t be either), how about something better?

Instead of looking at the inclusion of the intermission as a hindrance, look at it as an opportunity. This can be a place to include little extras (from the director or someone on the cast or crew) that might not otherwise be seen by the audience. I’ll get into this a little later, but for now, this is something to think about. What might you see on-screen during an intermission other than just a big “INTERMISSION” logo and a timer? I think the possibilities here could prove interesting.

So I submit that the biggest argument against the intermission (from both the viewer and filmmaker) could actually become the biggest argument for the intermission if done correctly – at least from an outside-the-box, creative standpoint. Again, more on this in a bit.

Part 3: The Theater and its Employess

Next up is the physical theater and its employees. The biggest incentive I can see for a theater owner wanting an intermission seems obvious to me: $$$. We all know theater owners make next to nothing on ticket sales. 90% (a number I’ve pulled from my ass, but I know is darn close) of a theater’s profit comes from concessions. There is a constant struggle between theaters and studios. Throttling or the threat of a blacklisting and many other manner of negative practices that essentially hold theaters hostage is another discussion completely. Nonetheless, theaters make bupkis on tickets. So this seems to me to be a nice compromise between the studios and the theater. Wouldn’t an intermission allow for the potential for huge increases in revenue? You bet your bupkis it would!

Humans are gluttonous creatures; especially in North America. Anyone standing out in a lobby who gets a whiff of buttered popcorn or pizza or sees a patron walking by guzzling on an icy beverage are probably fairly likely to bite the bullet and spend dollars. If one forced me to guess, I’d say the potential for more money, at worst, would be a 10% increase in revenue and at best 100% (or more) of an increase. Most likely somewhere in the 50% range. Hey, I said I’m guessing here. Either way, it’s worth it in terms of dollars! I go back to the Bollywood example at the beginning of this now rather bloated essay. Part of the reason the intermission has not gone away is the extreme profitability theaters make because of it.

As for actual employees in the theater (i.e. not the owner but rather us working stiffs), you’re probably thinking logistical nightmare in terms of scheduling. Why? So a movie is now ten to fifteen minutes longer. Just account for that as a regular running time in the movie. Not hard.

Managers will say “but now we have to account for people coming to concessions while other movies are beginning and others letting out, etc.” Not to sound too harsh because I don’t really want anyone making my job any harder than it already is either, but honestly, cry me a river. Do your job and schedule employees accordingly and make some minor adjustments accounting for people taking a break and the new time structures. Heck, employ people to actually walk into the theater with concessions just like at a sporting event. “ICE COLD COCA-COLA HE-YUH! HOT BUTTERED POPCORN! GET YOUR CRACKER JACKS HE-YUH!” I’ve been screaming for years for this service before the movie starts. Now it can happen at intermission and it won’t tangle up the lines in your lobby and you’re still making money AND making the customer happy. Brilliant!

Another argument from theater employees in the past has been that now it’s also trickier to keep track of people who may be being dishonest and skipping into movies they didn’t pay for. Again, puh-lease. A) First off, I know you don’t really care all that much about screen hoppers; B) This happens all the time anyway. I don’t think this will encourage the practice to happen much more than it already does. C) What do you care? Screen hoppers might actually work in your favor! You’re not making any money off the ticket sale (or lack thereof) from that person anyway and that person is more likely to buy some concessions. So at the worst, it’s an “oh well” situation and at best, the dude bought an extra pretzel and Sprite.

Lastly, getting back to the revenue argument for a second, the more revenue the owner makes, the potential for more hours for you if you want them, and possibly higher wages. Possibly.

Part 4: The Audience

But let’s really get to the meat of this thing. The main reason I bring this whole thing up is for me, the movie goer. The audience if you will. What’s in it for me? Well, lots actually. First off, I gotta go pee!

When you need to use the rest room during a movie, let’s be honest, it sucks. If you really gotta use the rest room during a movie, it really really sucks! Having to pee so much so that you’re squirming a bit or feel a general sense of mild to extreme discomfort can actually ruin a film experience. And in the end, I think that’s the one thing we all can agree on: we want the best possible experience for our dollar that we can get.

Now not only does having to pee make the experience worse because you physically feel discomfort, but also because you’re constantly stressed about trying to predict when the best time to go to the bathroom would be as to not miss anything of importance in the film. This can be difficult to predict and to be fair, if the movie is good, there is nothing you can miss and claim you’ve seen the film properly. In this case, thank the gods for the intermission.

Now you might be saying, as I so often hear, “just hold it” or “don’t drink anything.” With all due respect and no puns intended, I say to those that make these claims, “piss off!”… for so many reasons. First of all, telling someone not to drink anything is stupid. Theaters can be stuffy and dry and even if that weren’t the case, it’s quite enjoyable to watch a film with the comfort of your favorite beverage at your side. It’s like saying to someone, “please enjoy yourself a little bit less.” For how many hours before hand should I not have anything to drink? One? Two? Dinner and a movie? “Well, we can do the movie, but not the dinner part since I can’t drink anything for two hours beforehand.” Don’t drink anything. Really!?.

Drink in moderation. Well this should be a no-brainer anyway, but c’mon. First off, have you seen the size of the drinks at movie theaters these days? I say that last as sort of tongue-in-cheek but in all seriousness and as cliche as it is, when you gotta go, you gotta go. In today’s cinema, you’re in there most likely for the better part of three hours. Regardless of how much liquid a person has consumed throughout the day, I don’t think it’s all that abnormal for a person to need to pee in that time period.

There are any number of various reasons why a bathroom break might be in order for someone: pregnancy, kidney problems, medications, old age, etc. etc. I’m the first to admit I have little patience for seniors (and the elderly) in a movie theater, but shrugging my shoulders at someone in obvious discomfort or having to miss a chunk of a movie isn’t my style either. “Just hold it!” Really!? You’re an ass.

Lastly, how about those of us with the kiddies in tow? It’s pretty unrealistic to think that a 7 year-old kid isn’t going to have to pee at some point. Is a kid really going to care about missing a couple minutes of a movie to go to the bathroom? Probably not. But if it’s a good movie, the parent might care about missing something – especially after they just shelled out fifty bucks to take themselves and their two kids to see the latest Pixar release. You’re not a parent so this doesn’t concern you. Oh really? You’ve never been bothered by a mom taking her three kids out of a movie all at the same time to use the rest room? It can be quite disruptive in my experience.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from having to urinate, I’ll go back to the aforementioned trip to the concession stand. It ain’t just for the profit of the theater, it’s actually more for me. I’d love to get that popcorn refilled or the soda topped off. Maybe something for the ol’ sweet tooth after all that salty nonsense. Coffee for those that are finding the movie a little slow? In fact, I’d be more apt to (and would rather) buy concessions halfway through a film than beforehand. I’ve noticed that most people who buy popcorn usually have it about finished before the trailers are over. I’d love to have that fresh bag of warm, buttery goodness just as the movie is starting to get good!

Chapter THREE: What is an Intermission?

What is an intermission? I think that is the most intriguing question that can be asked here. Traditionally, at least from the films I’ve seen, it’s usually a blank or minimalist screen with the word “INTERMISSION” written across the center. There’s probably a small timer as well, to let the audience know how much time they’ve got before the film resumes. This is also the time for the composer to show off his wares as the overture for the film plays over the theater’s loudspeakers. But couldn’t it be something so much more than just a simple trip to the john or for fattening up? Something to entice the naysayers; at least a little bit?

So first off, the length. Traditionally (I believe), intermission times were between 15 and 20 minutes (I think Lawrence of Arabia was 19 minutes). I might agree that this is a bit excessive; though on the other hand maybe not. You ever had to wait in line in a female bathroom? Still, a 10-15 minute break seems appropriate. I suppose it depends on the film’s overall length, what the intermission is actually comprised of (more on that in a moment) and other factors. Though a minimum of ten minutes is probably necessary for bathrooms and concessions.

As briefly mentioned earlier, the biggest (and in my opinion, most valid) complaint about bringing back the intermission is that it can totally break up a movie’s pace or tone, etc. This is true and maybe there’s no fix for that and my want is totally crippled by this argument. But wait, could the intermission have something within to actually help the story line or the pacing and tone of the film? Maybe. I’m not the creative one – I leave that to a film director. I’m just spit-balling here but I think the credits sequence is a good place to start. Let me be clear, I’m not advocating the insertion of credits here (though that might be a possibility), what I’m saying is that often times a good credits sequence can really set the stage for the experience to follow. Just look at the newest James Bond film, Skyfall. Wow! Now why can’t something like that be employed in the middle? Even a great closing credit sequence is a great way of bringing the audience down slowly and effectively keeping us in the theater. So could the intermission be something visually and/or aurally interesting to stir our senses and keep us in the game? Sure, why not!?

So sure, it could be something surreal and exciting like the aforementioned Bond opening credits have been recently. This would be perfect for a horror film maybe. But what are some other possibilities? How about a quick documentary short about the real guy who was captured by the Nazis or hit the famous home-run or introduced the fiddle to the Native Americans or how the very theater you’re in right now is haunted? Maybe a quick look at the costuming department of the period piece you’re watching; a Looney Tunes short for the kiddies during a Pixar film; a badass video showing the destructive power of the modern Gatling Gun or laser site during Expendables 3? Again, I’m not the creative guy, I’m just dishing out possibilities other than the typical – which I think are endless. What I’m saying is that if done correctly, a break in the film can be artful and interesting. It could actually make the movie better if done right. But at the same time doesn’t need to be seen; it’s a separate entity to the film you’re paying for. Meanwhile, it doesn’t necessarily mean a break in stride or mood or atmosphere.

How else might one enjoy an intermission? How about discussion with those around you? As a blogger and podcaster and someone embedded fairly heavily in the movie discussion scene around the web, as you presumably are too since you’re reading this, I love talking about movies. This doesn’t necessarily require having seen the whole film does it? How are you enjoying the movie thus far? Who is that actor with the blonde hair in the robe; it’s driving me crazy!? What do you think will happen next? How awesome was that scene underneath the tank? I love discussion. Doesn’t always matter when it happens.

To further the discussion, many films these days are not of the “turn your brain off at the door” variety. Many have intricate plots with little to no hand holding. Usually I’m an advocate of the sink or swim mentality but with an intermission (say in something like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy), this could be an excellent time to clarify with others on exactly what the heck is going on.

Lastly, while some might scoff, this is after all the teens of the 21st century. People are itching to check their email, send a Tweet or check in with “Get Glue” or upload a picture of themselves with friends in the theater on Google+ (yes, Google+). Hey, it happens. Better now than during the actual film.

Chapter FOUR: Epilogue

In the end maybe I’m simply a traditionalist. Maybe the old school way of doing things makes me feel nostalgic and I enjoy that. Or maybe I’m just getting old and need to pee. But I’ve been advocating the return of the intermission for many years and it was my latest film-going experience when I saw half the theater all get up at roughly the same time to obviously go to the bathroom that this idea was re-kindled. Does a 90-minute action film need an intermission? Probably not. But like I said right from the get-go movies are long, most have an appropriate “down time” moment anyway and in the end it can be good for everyone involved. What’s not to like about the idea?

Andrew James
Podcaster. Tech junkie. Movie lover. Also games and guitar. I dig music.