Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Five ways for theaters to get butts back in seats

AMC Entertainment’s “Fork & Screen” theater program is the equivalent of business class on an airplane: not quite as posh as first but offering plenty of amenities. For a few dollars more than the price of a regular ticket, AMC patrons are treated to upgraded seats equipped with a personal call button they can use to order food and drinks. The menus include everything from jazzy cocktails to appetizers (the crab Rangoon dip is recommended) to pizza and pasta.
As moviegoers start to ask not just “What’s playing?” but also “What’s on the menu?” theater circuits -- even the two biggest chains, AMC and Regal -- are aggressively experimenting with upgraded services in the never-ending search to boost traffic and improve the bottom line in the fight to get audiences to leave their homes. Catering to audiences’ appetites is also seen as one of the best defenses against letting Hollywood studios dictate the rules in a new world order of VOD and windows.
I will attempt to resist going for the "make better movies" cheap shot in discussing the struggle to boost movie attendance. Truth is, if I could watch first-run movies on demand in the comfort of my own home on my digital HD flat-screen TV with surround-sound, I'd do it. (Y'know, if I, um, had any of that stuff.)

Improving the menu is certainly a good idea, as are reserved seating and even wait service, and while I, as a moviegoer, wouldn't take advantage of those options every time, it might be nice for a super-special movie, or for a date night. Last week we talked about variable ticket-pricing as an idea, one I do believe ought to be experimented with in some form.

Still, there are some more fundamental issues with the moviegoing experience that I feel need to be addressed if theaters - and by extension, studios - want more patrons.

- Enforce a zero-tolerance policy on cellphone usage. I don't think I have to explain this one, do I? If it means installing infra-red cameras in auditoriums, if it means having ushers patrol the aisles every fifteen minutes, if it means generating a small electromagnetic pulse, theater staff seriously need to curtail cellphone activity during a film and make it stick. It'll mean hurt feelings for some people, but you can always call the cops if somebody gets violent.

- Provide a babysitter service. You can charge an extra dollar or two for it, but it's as simple as providing a chaperoned room with toys and maybe a Spongebob DVD or two for the little brats to watch while their parents are watching Saw 28 or whatever. Make it clear that this is a house rule for any film rated PG-13 or higher. Also, and this needs to be enforced at the box office, if a parent with toddlers wants to see a PG-13-or-higher movie and is unwilling to use the babysitting service, then they can't get in. Period.

- Provide some healthier snack options. Recently, theaters have bristled over the possibility that they may have to disclose calorie counts for their snacks, popcorn in particular. While we acknowledge that concessions in general are huge money-makers, and in all honesty I wouldn't want popcorn to disappear from theaters, no matter how many calories they may contain, I see no problem with also offering things like fruit, yogurt, power bars, and similar items for those that want them. It's an idea whose time has come.

- Always provide a 2D option for 3D movies. Some theaters don't do this. I'd imagine most of them are smaller and want to maximize the amount of 3D showings, but not everyone is interested in seeing movies in 3D, especially if they're Clash of the Titans-style transfers from 2D. If it means having 2D screenings only on weekdays before 5PM, that's fine, but always have that 2D print available and make sure the patrons know which one they're paying for.

- Start the movie on time and keep out any latecomers. I don't think I'm the only one who despises the way theaters will say a movie starts at 7:30, then shows 20 minutes worth of ads and previews. I have grudgingly learned to accept that pre-show commercials and fluff programs like "The 20" are necessary evils, but I don't wanna see them once the time on my ticket is reached. Also, people are always gonna arrive late. I get this. Let the trailers serve as a kind of grace period for latecomers to straggle in, but once the lights go down, that should be it. Let the ushers close the doors after the opening credits (if there are any) and keep out all latecomers. Offer them a full refund on their tickets, offer them a gift certificate for their next visit, but keep them out.

I think implementing these ideas will go a longer way than installing a wine bar. If you've got similar ones, fire away.


  1. Good ideas!

    I myself go to the cineplex only a couple of times a year in the afternoon, bringing in a burger and coke, to surf amongst the movies for a while. The theaters are mostly almost empty. I also like to go to a restored old revival house once a year, but the audience there is 90% geezers.

    Still, I want to see cinemas thrive. I've followed Mayo and Kermode as they've developed their acceptable-behavior list for the movies, which includes your "no cellphones."

    So let me come up with an idea to help... hmm... The way I do it, it's all good... So maybe sell afternoon surfing tickets at a discount for those who just want to come in and watch whatever at random, moseying from movie to movie without shame?

  2. I used to sometimes pay for one movie and sneak into others when I was younger. Is that what you're talking about when you say "surfing"? If so, I doubt that's something any theater would encourage. As for afternoon discounts, many theaters still offer that. Even AMC has a before-noon $6 deal.

  3. Great ideas Rich!

    Certainly, I wonder why no one has thought of the babysitting. They only need to build a room with some fun and games for little kids and have a couple attendants in there so you can drop your kids for a small fee.

  4. Provided a theater has the space, it wouldn't even cost that much to put together.

  5. The last one is my favorite. I don't mind watching previews (that's part of the charm of a movie theater, after all), but once the show time starts, the theater is obliged to show me the damn movie, not ads for Coke.

    Play as many ads as you wish before my movie starts...but then stop it.

    Kevin Murphy's book "A Year at the Movies" contains a photocopyable form that essentially says this, and he recommends that you hand this to your theater manager when you leave a film. I agree.

  6. Theaters like the Arclight here in LA do several of these things...most notably, strict ushering and no late admittance. It rules. I actually contacted AMC once asking if they could do anything along the lines of ushering, and they basically responded that with thousands of screens across the country, they simply lack the money and resources to have them all patrolled by staff. The babysitting idea is great in theory, but probably wouldn't pan out in an age of hyper-protective parenting. Most parents will only let Junior be watched by people they've personally vetted. Who are these punks at the movie theater? Do they know about Junior's gluten allergy? Don't they know that Spongebob will stunt his development and he should only be watching educational programs? Having said that, I know that the second-run Academy Theater in Portland, OR offers babysitting at $7.50 per kid during off-peak times.

  7. Good point about the babysitting. I think parents should be allowed to inspect the babysitting area beforehand, to make sure it's a clean, comfortable space run by responsible people.

    That's unfortunate about the AMC, but as huge as they are, I suppose it's not too surprising.

    Thanks for responding! I'm gonna link to your post in my Alamo Drafthouse piece.

  8. Actually, the largest theater chain here in Phoenix (Harkins) offers babysitting service at some of their theaters. I think the kids have to be between the ages of 3 and 8 or something like that, so unfortunately, my wife and I won't be able to take advantage for another 2 years and 8 months (not that I'm counting).

    Don't get me wrong, I certainly like all of your ideas, but really only see numbers 2 and 4 as ones with the potential to get more people into theaters, while the rest serve more to keep the people already there happier. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

    I actually hate the idea of reserved seating in a theater. It's bad enough that morons come and sit next to me in a near-empty theater - I don't need our tickets more or less mandating for the same thing to happen. If some dipshit is near me, I want to the option of moving away to still be on the table.

  9. Well, if the people already there are happier, it stands to reason they'll bring more people over time, no? Anyway, these are just ideas.

    I'm not sure about the idea of reserved seating at the movies. I think there would need to be more to it than just that for it to be attractive, like say, reserved seating plus wait service maybe. In which case, these seats would have to be separate from the rest and of better quality, and all this would cost more money anyway. So no, I'm not sold on it either.

  10. cool ideas but, a cinema is a cinema. you pay your money, you go in. there are a ton of moviehouses and thousands of people passing through each day. there's never going to be enough staff or care to follow your gestapo like rules. and most of your ideas would mean the cinemas spending more money, and would alienate the 14-year-old blackberry users; so y'know, it's all just dreaming right?

  11. It's not all dreaming. May I refer you to this follow-up post:

    When you get right down to it, it's all about demanding a little civility. Have a good time at the movies, sure, just don't spoil other people's good time. No, not every theater will be able to afford to implement these or similar ideas, but I think it's clear that something needs to be done.


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