Saving Movie Theaters From Extinction

January 10, 2011

Yesterday, one of our community members named Sabrina posted an insightful comment that I want to highlight and then expand upon. Sabrina’s post:

“I’d welcome back the “old” Hollywood so long as there are quality movies to watch, and good theatres to visit. I’m pretty excited about what some small independent theatres in Oregon are doing now to woo adults back into movie theatres: including meals with night showing, serving alcohol at those specific, and having classical entertainment such as opera, and airing older classic movies as though they were first runs. It’s time to make movie-going an event again…a honest to goodness “date night” thing.”

Thank you, Sabrina. You are so very, very right!

From Bringing Back The Old Hollywood:

The Decline and Fall of The Theatrical Film Experience: Rudeness, Cell Phones, Texting, Ads, and High-Priced Cholesterol

The slide in the fortunes of The New Hollywood can also be traced to the degradation of the theater-going experience itself.

Inconsiderate, even rude, behavior is widespread.

People talk to each other during the film as if they were watching television on their couches at home. Even more vexing is that many people actually get very hostile even if they are politely asked to desist.

Cell phones ring and text messages are received and then answered.

In Woody Allen’s classic Annie Hall, there is a sequence in which Woody is standing in line for a movie, listening to another person pontificate about Marshal McLuhan’s media theories. (McLuhan’s seminal 1964 book Understanding Media coined the phrase “the medium is the message.”)

Allen then brings McLuhan himself on camera to tell the pontificator that he is dead wrong about everything he has said about McLuhan’s work.

Woody then turns to the camera and says “Wouldn’t it be great if real life really went like this?”

In today’s theaters, Woody might to have materialize the spirits of Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Emily Post to tell patrons that telephones were not intended to be used in movie theaters so they should  “please shut up!”

Ticket prices have also soared and the cost of concessions has become almost comical.

Recently, my wife Lauren and I purchased a small bottle of water at a local chain theater for four dollars and twenty-five cents. That same bottle cost exactly one dollar at a local supermarket two blocks away but then again most theaters have concession police that try to stop you from bringing in your own drinks or food.

It’s a dubious distinction but concession prices in theaters have now become as eye-popping as they are in airports.  Both are selling products to a captive audience. To be fair to exhibitors, however, their profit margins are so paper-thin that they have to make as much as money as possible on concessions. More on that in a moment.

Many theaters now charge up to six or seven dollars for a box of popcorn with enough industrially manufactured artificial chemicals to clog even the cleanest arteries. Just reading the ingredients could set off alarm sirens at every cardiology office in the neighborhood.

Opera, Rodeos, Corporate Meetings, and The Battle of The Bands: Didn’t They Used To Show Movies Here?

It’s important to note here that theater owners are absolutely not to blame for the cost issues that we audiences face today when we go to the movies.

In fact, owning an independent theater today must feel a bit like having had all your money invested in pay phones just before cell phones were invented.

For years, theater owners have in fact been just scraping by.

When the cost of property maintenance, personnel, utilities, leases, and such are added to the fact that studio distributors demand incredibly tough deals over box office receipts, most theaters are lucky to just break even on the films they exhibit.

Theater owners basically then have to sink or swim off the concessions they sell. That’s why popcorn and other concession prices are so high and why theater managers and ushers are not as vigilant as we might like them to be about unruly patrons. With such meager, if any, profit margins, theaters are very reluctant to discourage anyone from attending a theater.

Many independent theaters have already closed and even the major chain theaters are desperately searching for other events to screen such as The Metropolitan Opera and corporate meetings.

Huge chain multiplexes at least have attractions like 3D. Smaller, independent theaters are facing a daunting combination of high costs and fewer and fewer films that audiences are willing to pay to see in indie theaters.

The studios and all theater owners are facing one similar challenge:

The millions  of people who have stopped going to theaters and have instead adopted the mantra of:          

“I’ll wait until it comes out on Pay-Per-view or DVD.”

So, those are some of the problems. Tomorrow: Some potential solutions.

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