“The most wonderful places in the world were not made by architects, but by the people”
To me, this quote by influential architect Christopher Alexander embodies the true beauty of the cinema experience. Sure, the comfort of the seats may factor in, or the size of the screen, but these material aspects control very little in the way of human emotion. Think more of the tension that forms when an entire cinema audience holds its breath, the dimly lit room seemingly awash with hyper-charged atoms. Or that feeling of togetherness you experience when those around you begin to sniffle, as you’re barely holding it together…
So many times, I have experienced magical moments such as this, and yet as the years pass, I seem to visit the cinema less and less. Worryingly, I am not alone. While many Australians still journey to the cinema, the frequency of our attendance has been steadily declining since the early 1980s (Screen Australia 2017).
If we still enjoy the unique experience, why is cinema attendance only continuing to drop?
To help answer this question, I look to research undertaken by Swedish Geographer, Torsten Hagerstrand. In his theory of ‘Time Geography’, Hagerstrand developed concepts which allowed him to analyse how and why individuals link to one another, and their movements in space and time (Ellegard & Svedin 2012, p.20). From this, he identified three types of constraints that limit individuals in their activities:
1) Authority Constraints: Limits on whether, or when, activities can take place in a ‘domain’ controlled by certain people or institutions. For example, a person’s space-time path is normally not permitted behind the candy bar at the cinema (Corbett 2001, p.2).
2) Capability Constraints: Restrictions on the activities of an individual due to biological or physical factors such as the need to sleep and eat, or access to transportation and financial resources (Hagerstrand 1970, cited in Kang 2016, p.130).
3) Coupling Constraints: This refers to the need for an individual to be in a given place for a particular length of time, placing restrictions on one’s autonomous time allocation. To accomplish a task, your space-time path must temporarily connect with those of other people (Corbett 2001, p.2).
These constraints were certainly evident on my last trip to the cinema, and perhaps form part of the reasoning behind cinema declines.
My five-year-old sister Shelby had been staying at my house for the weekend and was desperate to see the new ‘Finding Dory’ movie. The typical coupling constraint of both being available in the same city was therefore irrelevant, and we decided to make a sister-date of it.
Capability constraints were certainly aplenty for this particular visit! We had to book relatively early, as my sister has a 7 pm bedtime, but the movie couldn’t go over lunch, or there would be hell to pay. Settling on a 10:30 screening, we then faced yet another capability constraint – transport. Being without a car for the weekend, we would have to walk to the local cinema, meaning an earlier rise and a battle to get my sister into sneakers! Thankfully, her love of Dory won out, and we got to the cinema without the great sneaker war of 2017.
An unexpected authority constraint was faced upon our arrival when I realised I had left my student card at home. The ‘authority figure’, in this case an almost comically grumpy teenager, denied me the student price and instead demanded I pay the full fee. As I fumbled through my purse in a desperate attempt to locate a debit card, Shelby began to lightly tug on my sleeve…“Um, Rhiannon? I need to go to the toilet…right now.”
Great. I’m almost certain juggling an emergency toilet trip while attempting to purchase cinema tickets counts as both a coupling and a capability constraint! Coupling, because I couldn’t send a five-year-old alone to the bathroom, and capability because damn-it when kids need to go, they need to go!
Despite the hectic planning, the long slow trudge to the cinema, and the ticket/toilet dilemma, our long-awaited cinema trip was an undeniable success. As I watched my baby sister lean forward in absolute captivation, her eyes filling with tears at the emotional opening clip, I knew exactly what I’d been missing out on.
The opening clip before Finding Dory, which was much-loved by Shelby. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tx7cWBEH5Gc
With the introduction of online streaming services that eliminate so many of Hagerstrand’s constraints, one could argue that going to the cinema is no longer an activity worth planning. I would have to disagree. While the hassles of cinema attendance may deter many of us from attending regularly, ceasing these visits altogether would take away a truly unique, even magical, experience.
After the movie, as the credits rolled and the lights rose, Shelby turned to me, gripped my arm, and sighed:
“This is my best day ever Ral…I wish we could come here every day.”
Corbett, J & Janelle, D ed. 2001, ‘Torsten Hӓgerstrand, Time Geography,’ CSISS Classics, UC Santa Barbara: Center for Spatially Integrated Social Science. Retrieved from: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/2t75b8sj
Ellegard, K & Svedin, U 2012, ‘Torsten Hagerstrand’s time geography as the cradle of the activity approach in transport geography,’ Journal of Transport Geography, vol. 23, no. 1, pp. 17-25.
Kang, S 2016, ‘Associations between space-time constraints and spatial patterns of travels,’ Annals of Tourism Research, vol. 61, no. 1, pp. 127-141.
Screen Australia 2017, Cinema Audience Attendance Patterns, accessed 24 August, available at: https://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/fact-finders/cinema/audiences/attendance-patterns