Sunday, August 11, 2013

Going to the movies in Belgium

I don't know why I haven't posted about this topic before now. I love movies, and I especially love going to the movie theater to see them on the big screen. In fact, it's one of the first things I experienced in Belgium that gave me that sense of culture shock--of suddenly finding myself in an alternate universe where things are almost the same as in "my world" but not quite...

If you go to a movie theater in Belgium, it looks just like a movie theater in the U.S. Here in Hasselt, we have a giant multiplex with 10 or 12 screens that's part of a cinema chain called Kinepolis. You go in, choose your movie and buy your ticket...

And here's the first odd thing about going to the movies in Belgium: All the screenings start at (approximately) the same time. The first one is at 2:00 pm, the second one around 5:00, then another one at 8:00 and the late show is around 10:30. There's some variation--the first showing might be at 1:45 or 2:15, for instance--but in general the times are fixed and they're on the quarter-hour.

Where I come from, every movie has different start times, depending on the length of the movie. The theater allows just enough time to clear and clean the room and then a new screening starts. What's nice about this system is that if you're running late and miss your movie, you can just choose another one that's starting soon. But you do have to check the schedule to find out when your movie is showing, whether it's 3:35 or 7:10 or whatever.

Once you have your ticket, you hand it to the attendant who tears off the stub and hands it back to you. That's perfectly normal. And then you proceed to the concession stand to buy your popcorn... But beware! This is very important: The popcorn in Belgium is SWEET. That's right. They put sugar instead of butter and salt on the popcorn in the movie theaters. 

At Kinepolis, they sometimes have salted popcorn too, but there's just a few sad buckets of it and it's usually kind of stale. Because no one eats it except me.

Also: You can buy beer and wine and take it into the theater. Back in Los Angeles, there's a fancy movie theater called the Arclight, which has a bar. You have to drink your beer or cocktail at the bar, unless it's a special 21-and-over screening, in which case you can take your drink with you but they check your I.D. In Belgium, you just grab your beer instead of a Coke and take it to the register along with your popcorn, candy and nachos.

So now you're comfortably ensconced in your seat with your alcoholic beverage and sweet popcorn, waiting for the movie to start at the designated time... and waiting... and waiting. Hey, wasn't this movie supposed to start at 8:00? Well, here in Belgium, the posted start times are 15 minutes before the movie starts. And by "movie," I mean the previews. So I've learned to show up at the theater at the posted start time. Which I guess is the point.

Finally, the movie starts, and it's great. You're really getting into the story, things are starting to get exciting, the action reaches a critical juncture--and then the movie stops and the lights come up.

Huh? What's happening? Is there a problem? And why is no one reacting?

Well, that's because it's time for intermission. Halfway through the movie, there's a 10-minute break--presumably to let people go to the bathroom and buy more sweet popcorn. It can happen mid-scene, even mid-sentence, without any regard for dramatic tension or story coherence. To me, it's simply outrageous. I'd rather choose when to interrupt my movie-going experience in order to go pee, even if it means missing 5 minutes of the movie.

So there you have it: Your complete guide to going to the movies in Belgium. I wish someone had prepped me before my first trip to the theater. Between the sweet popcorn, the delayed start time and the sudden interruption, I was thoroughly confused. I'm getting used to it now--but I still miss butter on my popcorn.


  1. Hi, while you are absolutely right about everything you said here, you should take into account that those remarks are mainly confined to Limburg.
    True, movies start at fixed hours, but in Leuven for instance, that is not the case. The Kinepolis there has movies starting constantly. Not at fixed hours. More the American way.
    Movies indeed start later than the said time. This has only been the case since a few years. It used to be commercials at 19h45, movie at 20h (the mentioned starting time). But a few years ago Kinepolis changed that. Other cineplexes however don't do that. And certainly not the smaller venues.
    And the intermission ? Yeah, that's Limburg for you. Was freaked out myself first time I went to a movie in Hasselt or Lanaken many years ago. Had never experienced that in Leuven or Brussels. Although it sometimes happens when it's an extremely long movie. But it's rare.

    1. Intermissions are certainly not just a limburg-thing. They do it at Kinepolis Brussel as well when they screen longer films like The Hobbit. And I hate it. Yet it's not something new. At least not for very long films like i.e. Lawrence Of Arabia. There was an intermission moment planned in the film itself. Theaters that preferred not to stop the movie could cut out the intermission title-screen. But it's been around since long.

    2. I thought it was Limburg too cause I'm Flemish and except for once during a 4hour movie I NEVER had an intermission, And like even never heard from it and in Antwerp we have Kinepolis too so that's really strange... :)

  2. Thanks for the clarification! I've only gone to the movies here in Hasselt and in Genk, so I didn't realize these things were specific to Limburg. Yet another example of Flemish regionalism! :)

  3. Wow - I feel like I need to go to Hasselt now to see a movie. Sounds very different from the theaters in Brussels. I have to admit movies are one of the occasions when I become a spoiled American. I miss my big, half-empty movie theaters, endless options for times and films and the odd box of Junior Mints :) The little theaters in Brussels can be jems. I love the one out in Stockel. But the big commercial theaters are overcrowded, pricey and rather dirty.

    1. The Kinepolis in Hasselt is big and pricey, true, but it's also clean and new. I've gone to matinees where I've been the only person in the entire theater--and then paying nearly 10€ doesn't seem like such a bad deal, when you have your own private screening :)

  4. Starting hours, intermission and sweet popcorn are a symptom of Kineopolis, not Limburg.

    I go out of my way to avoid Kinepolis here in Ghent, to the point that sometimes (often) I miss films completely or watch them when I'm out of Belgium.

    Whilst I like the idea of beer in a cinema, the fact that they generally only offer Carlsburg turns my quickly-becoming-Belgian-beer-snob stomach.

    Sphinx is a really great independent cinema here in Ghent, which ticks all my boxes as far as cinemas are concerned, and typically shows much more interesting films than the ones I'm attracted to (explosions, manly stupid robot-end-of-world messes)

    Coming from Australia though - the biggest surprise for me with cinemas here in Belgium is *when* Belgians go to the movies. Australians go to the cinema to escape a hot sunny day, as cinemas are typically refrigerators. Here in Belgium it's almost a crime to go to your local Kineopolis when there sun is out, and for sure there will be no air conditioning.

    Allez. Cinema.

    1. I'm pretty sure the Euroscoop in Genk has the fixed starting times, sweet popcorn and intermission too. We don't have many options for independent cinema around here. I went to a movie at the Kunstcentrum Belgiƫ in Hasselt ("Cloud Atlas") and we sat on conference-room chairs and watched it projected on a portable screen.

  5. Hi Diana,

    I recently stumbled upon your blog, and I just wanted to say that I really love it.
    I'm not an expat like you - far from it: I'm a Belgian living in Hasselt, but your blog helps me to be amazed again by things that I've taken for granted all my life.

    Our obsession with sandwiches & bbq, the 'stoemp' we all love, the way we 'do a terrace': to me, all of this sounds very normal. But by reading your blog, I am reminded that all of this is also extraordinary and special.

    Last time I was at 'de bakker', I looked around and thought: 'she's right! We ARE obsessed by sandwiches!'

    So thanks for your writings, Diana. I'll keep on reading them with great pleasure, while being reminded that ordinary life can be exceptional after all.

    - Karsten

    1. Thank you for your kind remarks! It's funny--even though I started this blog for my American friends and family, I've found that people in Belgium are some of its biggest fans, for the same reasons you stated. I'm glad you're enjoying it.

  6. Hi,

    Just stumbled upon your blog. Having been an exchange student in Canada and having worked/working (as an expat) in very international environments, I love reading & styding these cultural differences. I makes you look at your own culture differently, it pops up surprises for things you take for granted, you learn to put things into perspective but it also learns you to appreciate things from home or from elsewhere. So fun reading here.

    I find movie theatres in Belgium ridiculously expensive and for that reason I hardly go anymore. I am surprised they still do intermissions...didn't think the Kinepolis (in Ghent/Leuven) did them over the last years. Yes they are annoying, yet sometimes welcomed by my bladder :p AT least it is better than watching a movie on American tv where it is interrupted many times? Just impossible to watch anything and to get into the groove then! The movies there on tv are just 8 minutes in between each publicity block to fill the gap in between publicity.

    Yes I prefer salted popcorn with butter!!!

    Haha, fixed starting times seem so natural to me, anything different would confuse me. It gives some sort of guidance: you can go to the early/late movie and have lots of choice . I find it annoying if not all movies play at the given hour eg going at 11pm, I want to have the full choice of all movies they have on. Having fixed hours though creates however huge rush hours at entrance & exit of movie complexes I just realise while a rolling schedule wouldn't.

    Ha and beer....yes thank goodness we are not uptight on drinking alcohol (in a moderate, mature way, visible to youth as well).