In 2009 the movie studios made an amount of money that can only be properly expressed through the scientific measurement of ‘buttloads,’ so obviously getting people into theaters isn’t as hard as some would like to make you think. People go to the movies, and in large numbers. But that doesn’t mean they’re liking it. One of the truisms about moviegoing is that it’s a crap shoot – for every great experience you have, you have one that’s totally ruined. It’s because the theatrical exhibition business seems to have quit giving a shit a few decades ago; now most movie theaters are run by neglectful owners who just collect your money at the door and maybe remember to keep the film in focus while you watch. It isn’t just the size of the theaters that have shrank since the days when my grandparents went to a movie palace and saw a double feature with a raft of cartoons – it’s the very moviegoing experience that has gotten crummier.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. And there are some very small, very simple (and admittedly possibly very expensive) steps that could really change the face of going to the movies. The time to make these changes are now – while attendance is very high at the moment there’s an entire generation getting used to Bit Torrenting movies and watching them on their phones. 3D and all that are fads, and will likely be available at home soon enough anyway. To keep numbers high you have to make going to the movies a treat again.
1) Hire some fucking ushers. I mean, seriously. We have actually gotten to the point where the talkers and texters outnumber the real people in a movie theater. At some point the theaters owners simply ceded the auditoriums to these fuckers. Look, I know that their money is just as good as mine, but guess what: if you don’t let these shitheads ruin the experience, I’ll probably spend more than they do.
One of the many reasons I love the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin Texas is that they have a stringent no talking policy, and they will kick your ass out if you break it. Read this blog entry from Alamo owner Tim League for more about that. Knowing that their movie won’t be interrupted by rude people will really bring back many more folks to the theater – the kind of folks who have the money to buy high end home theater systems but would be happy to spend it at your establishment instead.
2) Hire some real fucking projectionists. This is about to become a serious issue, if the 3D fad holds up. I’ve been hearing stories of improperly projected 3D screenings of Avatar, and screwing that up is way more serious than misframing a print (which happens all the time. When you go to the movies and see the boom mic in every shot – that’s the projectionist’s fault, not the filmmaker). Once upon a time projectionists were unionized professionals; now they’re often part-time morons. We need real, professional projectionists making sure that the sound and picture quality of our films are top notch. And that includes replacing dim bulbs, probably the number one source of poor movie picture quality.
3) Keep the babies out. Hey, I know this list isn’t revolutionary. There is a lot of obvious stuff here, but for some reason the obvious has not yet penetrated into the minds of theater owners. So that brings us to this obvious item, which isn’t saying keep all babies out all the time – just keep the kids out of R rated movies at night. I don’t really care that you’re scarring your four year old by bringing him to Friday the 13th, I care that my enjoyment of the film is being hampered by him screaming and screaming and screaming.
If you just need to get to the movies and aren’t smart enough to figure out how to get a babysitter, go to a matinee. Theaters should make this mandatory; their systems should be incapable of spitting out child tickets to an R-rated film after 5pm.
4) Have reserved seats. When I first moved to LA I was aghast at the idea of reserved seating at the Arclight Cinema in Hollywood. Now I love it. There are a couple of reasons: one, I don’t have to get to the movie theater an hour and a half early. I can go to dinner, do some shopping, fuck around in general and get to the theater last minute and still have my great seat. But even more than that, if I get a great seat at a packed screening it increases the likelihood I am sitting next to a human and not some kind of Morlock mongoloid. See, the good seats go fast for packed screenings, and the people who want good seats tend to be the kind of people who don’t text through entire films. Of course some of them still do, which is why even a theater with good reserved seating needs more fucking ushers.
5) Sell me more stuff. This is probably the trickiest idea to implement, but I also think it’s the best. When I walk out of a movie I really, really liked I’m quite susceptible to further marketing for it. I might buy a toy, or a soundtrack, or the original novel, or the cool teaser poster. So sell it to me!
The arguments against this are many: space is already at a premium in movie theaters (it’s why screens are so small these days). Stocking inventory would be a nightmare, as you just wouldn’t know which films would be hits and which wouldn’t. And what do you do with all the extra inventory when a movie is out of theaters in three weeks? I don’t know, figure it out. We live in the future, don’t we? We should be able to burn soundtracks on the spot, or load them right up to iPods. And there are even printing on demand services for books. But while this would take a lot of thinking and hard work, I know it would also pay off, if invested in properly. Some theaters do this already; the Landmark in LA has soundtracks and books on sale, but they keep them in a glass case in a weird spot between the bathroom and the ticket taker. Existing space would need to be rethought and changes would need to be made, but I know deep down inside that people would spend money on extraneous merch when they walk out of a movie. They do it at sports events and concerts, and the future of theatrical exhibition should be making it feel like that- like you’re having a night out, not like you’re killing time at the mall.
And here’s a really revolutionary idea: Sell me the DVD or Blu-Ray on the way out. Yes, this won’t work for Transformers, but for smaller films it could be a goldmine. Did you just see Antichrist and really like it? Here’s the DVD to take home. It’s the next step in day-and-date video on demand, and I think people would pay more to take home a movie they just saw and loved. A lot of people will get upset at this idea, but I think the very way we consume movies isn’t changing, it has changed. Let’s start admitting that and figuring out how to make more money from it.