Why Movie Theaters Suck and How To Fix Them

Today I'm going to discuss something near and dear to my heart, so I hope you'll treat what I'm about to say with the respect and gravitas it deserves... modern movie theaters suck.  Last week my wife and I went to see The Master and these are some of the myriad distractions that prevented me from engaging with the film:

  1. The lady sitting behind me kept kicking my seat and futzing with her cell phone.
  2. An old man several seats away kept mumbling to himself throughout the film.
  3. A middle-aged lady kept shushing the old man to keep quiet, and when the shushing didn't work, she outright yelled at him.
  4. That same middle-aged woman left the film after an hour (along with her two companions) never to return.  They made quite a ruckus when leaving.
  5. A woman came in 3/4 of the way through the movie and sat in a seat next to me.  She started munching loudly on some snacks that she had smuggled in from home, and shifted in her seat.  She then left the theater after 10 minutes.
  6. Halfway through the film, five ushers came in and stood at the entrance crunching on popcorn and talking loudly to each other.

For a long time, movies were my religion and the cineplex was my temple.  I worshipped frequently: with friends, family, and often by myself.  While I noticed the decline in the viewing experience over the years, I kept going because I wanted to give my business to films that needed and deserved my support.  Nowadays, I've largely become a theater expat.  Why?  I don't remember the last time I went to see a movie and didn't have the entire experience ruined by people talking and texting, children yammering at age-inappropriate films, and the relentless stickiness of every surface.  Movie theaters have become a wholly unpleasant way to spend a few hours.  When I go now, it's only for the films that I've been hotly anticipating or that demand a 50 foot screen.  For the rest, my home theater will do quite nicely.  Like me, many of you have stopped going with regularity.  The figures certainly bear that out... despite this summer seeing two films that annihilated the box office (The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises), summer movie ticket sales have declined by $100 million since 2002 and movie ticket sales as a whole are at their lowest in decades.

There's a great article over at Fast Company that discusses how design is the key to improving the theater experience and increasing ticket sales.  The crux of their argument is that theater owners are trying to compete with home theaters, Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV, and Blu-ray.  That means buying the latest digital projectors, sound systems, and investing in 3D and Imax technologies.  Except, home movie watching isn't competing with theaters for business.  Rather, movie theaters are really in competition with Friday night social venues - such as clubs, restaurants, bars, bowling alleys, etc. - and Fast Company argues that theater owners should be rebuilding the entire movie-going experience around that social engine.  Some of their suggestions are fascinating and could work really well: liquor bars, private viewing boxes for large groups, intimate lounge areas near the actual theater.  One of their most intriguing ideas is to set up a "trailer lounge" where you can gather with your friends in a comfortable seating area and watch the latest trailers and discuss them without fear of being shushed.  [I personally suggest instituting a tiered pricing system and assigned seating...the Arclight Theater in Hollywood does this.]

I applaud this out-of-the-box approach and I sincerely hope that some intrepid theater owner will be willing to embrace these innovative ideas.  For anyone fed up with the state of the modern movie theater, the article is a must read.  But Fast Company only gets at part of the problem.  You see, while the act of "going" to a movie is generally a social activity, the "watching" of the movie is decidedly solitary; after all, you are compelled to sit in silence for two hours. So while theater owners can gussy up the pre- and post-show experiences, the movie-watching experience remains largely unchanged.  And that's precisely the problem: the movie-watching experience has been substantially compromised by strangers bereft of cinema etiquette.  Personally, I don't care if the lobby is nice or that the film is being projected with the latest digital technology.  All the amenities in the world can't make me enjoy a film that I can't hear or see because of inconsiderate theater-goers.   Tim League, owner of the Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse theater, agrees.

A year ago, League earned some fame by ejecting a customer who texted during a movie despite two warnings to stop (because of theater policy, the customer was not refunded her money).  League blogged about that incident here.  The customer was so incensed that she left a voicemail at the Drafthouse, which League turned into a "Don't Talk or Text PSA."  Here it is in all it's hilarious glory.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1L3eeC2lJZs&w=560&h=315]

League has hit upon exactly the right strategy for making the movie-watching experience better (and thus more appealing to customers): TOSS THE BUMS OUT!   It is so simple, so affordable, and so effective that I can't believe no one has implemented it in any meaningful way.  In the golden age of cinema, theaters employed uniformed ushers to patrol the theater and remove the riff-raff.  Most theaters don't do that anymore and I can't figure out why.  After all, there's virtually no legal downside.  Businesses can't discriminate on the basis of race, gender, disability, age, etc., but they can generally pick and choose with whom they wish to do business.  Furthermore, businesses are allowed to expel customers from their property for just about any reason.  When you go to a movie, you are being invited onto private property.  Such an invitation is revocable anytime by the business owner because your presence on the property is a privilege, not a right... even if you paid to be there.

Theater chains must know that if they were sued by expelled theater goers they would almost certainly be judgment proof.  So if there's no fear of a lawsuit, why don't they just kick out unruly patrons?  Are they afraid of bad press?  Are they afraid of physical confrontations?  In my opinion, it's most likely inertia combined with a deep-seated apathy; once they have your money, they don't care if you have a pleasant experience.  In fact, some chains, namely Regal and Imax, are doubling down on the bad experience angle by creating "texting friendly theaters"!!  League has spoken out about that here.  He writes that

"By introducing screenings where people are free to text during the movie, you will be creating unhappy customers at every single session.  It really boils down to the undeniable fact that texting in a movie theater is rude, selfish, and adversely affects everyone within view of your glowing device.  The only answer to this debate is taking a hard line.  Texting and talking can not be allowed in movie theaters.  Our spaces are sacred spaces for movie fans... To me, the leniency towards talking and texting is a greater threat to our industry."

I agree with that sentiment and I think most of you agree with it too.  There's a reason why theater ticket sales are down, and I wager it's mostly because going to the movies has become intolerable.  If the theaters don't care about my experience, then why should I pay for that experience?  In response to the rude texter who he ejected, Tim League wrote,  "you may be free to text in all the other theaters... but here at our 'little crappy ass theater,' you are not.  Why you may ask?  Well, we actually do give a f*$k."  I think that more amenities, features, and radical design makeovers will definitely help to increase ticket sales, but undoubtedly the future of the movie theater industry will rest on whether theater owners start giving an old-fashioned f*$k.