Every year the doomsayers in Hollywood predict a box-office disaster, and every year the movie industry posts bigger numbers. Despite the waning quality of what's up there on the silver screen, audiences continue to attend movies in droves.

But there is evidence that as audience members get older, they don't go to the movies quite as much. Those droves are primarily comprised of teenagers or twenty-somethings. And when a movie is a big hit, it's usually because young people go back again and again to their favorites.The older audience is dropping off. And though some can argue that it's because of all the competition out there - symphony, ballet, opera, stage plays, sports events and, of course, videos and television - there's also another reason.

The theaters themselves.

When you've been to as many movies in local theaters as I have - some 300 a year for 20 years - you see all the problems. But recently I had an experience that sort of summed it all up.

You'll think I'm exaggerating, but I'm not. All of these circumstances occurred one after the other in a single evening at a local movie theater.

- THE SNACK BAR EXPERIENCE: It's Murphy's Law. Whatever line I'm in at the concession stand is the slowest. If you see me, get in a different line. The one I'm in would lose a race to a snail.

That was the case this evening, and when I finally inched my way to the counter, I overheard another server say, "We're out of Diet Coke." Since that's what I wanted, I was naturally disappointed. But I decided to get something else.

As I stepped up to the counter, the server said, "Uh, excuse me, I'll be right back." He then went through a door at the back and disappeared. I mean for five or six minutes!

People behind me were getting impatient: "Is this a line?"

People next to me were taking pity: "Do you want to step in ahead of us - you've been waiting so long."

I decided to forget it and went back into the auditorium.

- THE PROJECTION EXPERIENCE: Now, the show had started. The previews were on the screen. And four problems were evident. The stereo was not on, which muted the dialogue. The house lights (those ceiling lights inside the auditorium) were on. The wrong lens was on the projector, so the characters on the screen were rail-thin and about 10 feet tall. And the masking (the black strip on each side of the screen) was too tight - it needed to be opened so the entire width of the film could be seen.

The lens was fixed first, after several blurry tries. But the person in the projection booth decided to check it out by standing in front of the lens - which, of course, caused the screen to go black. (He stood there for awhile, as if he couldn't figure out that the picture was being projected onto his back.)

By this time, the previews were over and the movie was on, and a theater employee came down the aisle to manually open the masking, which took a few minutes.

After awhile, I went out to the lobby to complain about the house lights and stereo. Eventually, the house lights went off. And finally, about 20 minutes into the film, the stereo popped on.

- THE AUDIENCE EXPERIENCE: Yes, a cell phone did ring during the show. And yes, the guy took the call!

Worse, however, was the moment - while the film was on - when a theater employee came down the aisle with a trail of young moviegoers behind him and shouted, "If you have an empty seat next to you, raise your hand or holler!"

I opted for hollering, "EXCUSE ME - THE MOVIE'S ON!"

Oh, and did I mention that the auditorium hadn't been cleaned very well after the previous show? Sticky, popcorn-laden floors, etc.

In truth, this particular theater is usually a good one - it's cleaner and more efficient than most around the valley. This was a really off night, an aberrant experience. For them.

But at some movie theaters these things occur with such regularity that I actually boycott them. I'd rather drive across town than go to certain venues.

And I do make that drive.

At its best, there is no way to duplicate going out to the movies. No matter how big your big-screen TV is, no matter how many people you invite over - it's just not the same.

Seeing a movie in a theater is a singular experience. But too often these days, it's also a rather frustrating one.