From Betamax to Streaming: A Nostalgic Journey Through Empty Cinemas


I recently visited the cinema section of SM Cabanatuan and noticed "Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga" was now showing. 

There were no lines and the attendant looked bored and sleepy. The vibrant energy of movie-going had vanished, replaced by empty seats and silent halls. It reminded me of when cinemas were the beating heart of our social lives.

In the 80s, the excitement of a new movie was palpable. Cinemas in the Philippines offered double features—two movies for the price of one ticket. 

After watching the second movie, I would often leave with a headache, my eyes struggling to adjust after nearly five hours in the darkness. The smell of buttered popcorn filled the air, mingling with the musty scent of the theater—a mix of wood, leather, and human odor. 

Colorful, hand-painted billboards by local artists adorned intersections, announcing the latest films and drawing us in like moths to a flame. We eagerly awaited the weekends, then hurrying to get our tickets. 

Inside, the buzz of conversation mixed with the rustle of candy wrappers and the hum of anticipation. 

Cinemas had a unique atmosphere; if you made the mistake of sitting at what they called the KKK (kataas-taasan, kadilim-diliman, and kadulo-duluhan), you might disturb a pair whose intentions were far from watching the movie. 

A unique aspect of the old cinema experience was the sight of movie reels being delivered by men on bicycles between theaters. These delivery guys, navigating through city streets to bring films to different theaters, are now a distant memory, forgotten in the digital age. 

It was a communal experience, a shared escape into different worlds.

With the rise of technology, home entertainment began to change our movie-watching habits. 

Betamax and VHS revolutionized our experience. I remember the thrill of renting a tape from Videocity, the joy of finding that one movie you had been dying to see. 

My family would gather around the VCR, the sound of tapes rewinding filling the room. The picture quality was grainy, but it didn't matter. It was the experience that counted.

In the 90s, more changes came. Rotary phones and phone booths became a staple of communication. The metallic clang of the booth door, the tactile feedback of the rotary dial—these sounds are etched in my memory. 

The internet made its debut with dial-up connections, the cacophony of beeps and static a herald of a new era. Browsing the shelves of rental stores became a ritual, the tactile feel of cassette cases a familiar comfort.

Then came the pagers and early mobile phones. EasyCall and Pocketbell introduced us to the concept of instant communication. The beeps and vibrations signaling a new message were a novelty. 

Early mobile phones were clunky, but texting was a marvel. It was the beginning of a shift in how we interacted and consumed entertainment.

The digital age brought DVDs and faster internet connections. Streaming services emerged, offering movies at the click of a button. 

The convenience of home viewing began to overshadow the cinema experience. Why go out when you could watch from the comfort of your couch?

Cinemas, once bustling with life, started to see fewer visitors. The empty seats and deserted hallways became a stark reminder of changing times. 

I remember the last time I visited a cinema before the pandemic, it was with my daughter, and we had made it a rule that if it were a superhero movie, it had to be watched on the big screen. 

When the Philippines got hit by the pandemic, I simply refused to go to the cinema even after they lifted the public ban. 

The stark contrast to the past was undeniable. It wasn't just the movies that had changed, but our habits and social interactions.

Reflecting on the loss of the communal cinema experience, I feel a deep pang of nostalgia. 

Shared laughter, collective gasps, the thrill of being part of an audience—these are experiences that streaming services can’t replicate. 

Standing in the quiet cinema of SM Cabanatuan, I wonder about the future of cinemas in the Philippines. Will they see a revival, or will they continue to decline?

There's a magic in cinemas that can't be replaced, and I hold onto hope that one day, we will see a return to the golden era, where cinemas once again become a hub of social interaction and shared experiences. 

Until then, I’ll cherish the memories and look forward to what the future holds.

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