There was a time when a night out at the movie theater was a cheap source of high-value entertainment. The average consumer didn’t have a television or a sound system that could match what a movie theater could offer. Furthermore, prices were relatively affordable provided one stayed away from the concessions stand, which have always been gouge-worthy. “Dinner and a movie” was still a viable date plan and a nighttime cliché for bourgeoning young couples everywhere who didn’t want to invest too much money into someone they didn’t really know. These days relaxation decisions usually come down to either dinner or a movie – not both. Movie theater ticket prices are simply too cost prohibitive. Furthermore, while restaurants are redesigning and diversifying their menus to provide extra value despite rising costs of doing business and declining consumer spending power, movie theaters – and perhaps the Hollywood movie industry in general – have resorted to gimmicks.
Movie theaters are not in an enviable position. All of the odds are against them, starting with the clientele. At any given showing the average moviegoer may have to deal with cell phones ringing, touchscreens illuminating the darkness as people text, restless children, teenagers making out, feet kicking seatbacks, loudmouths and more.
In an essay about hating the movie theater, I observed:
First and foremost, people suck. You ever use a public restroom and find that the person before you didn’t flush? You’d think that that simple action would be ingrained into everyone’s behavior since they do it on a daily basis at home. It should practically be reflexive by now. But, it isn’t. That bottom-of-the-barrel level of courtesy simply cannot be met by society and these are the same people you’ll be watching movies with….
The second problem with the movie theater is that when one of these offenders rears its ugly head, it’s up to the offended to resolve the situation. So now, a relaxing time at the movies has turned into a high-stress confrontation. As the offended, the chances of resolving the situation in an adult and peaceful manner look slim, since, after all, you are dealing with a person who thinks that answering their cell phone in a crowded theater is appropriate behavior. Yeah, try convincing them that flushing the toilet is a good idea, too, while you’re at it!
So you have a couple of other options. You can try to intimidate them, which will probably make the situation far worse, unless you’re in a much bigger group. You can move seats, but that’s tricky when you’re with people and you’ll also lose the prime real estate you’ve picked out. You can also leave and get an usher, which really sucks, because now you’ve definitely missed part of the movie and the usher will most likely be some zit-faced kid who’ll just tell the offender to “please keep it down.”
Bad experiences typically stick with people much longer than good experiences because people only expect good experiences, especially when they’re paying for one. Having to deal with other people’s inconsideration is enough to make movie lovers stay home and rent.
In the last two decades home entertainment has progressed by leaps and bounds with above average consumers able to own very respectable home theater systems. Even if the average high credit-rated consumer only owns a high definition TV and a Blu-ray or DVD player, sometimes that’s enough to keep them home, resulting in a greater number of below average consumers per capita filling movie theater seats, exacerbating the experience. Furthermore, the high value of home entertainment should not be underestimated. The clarity and bonus features on Blu-ray discs with an HDTV are simply amazing, especially when high refresh rates can make footage look almost tangible. The introduction of HDTVs and Blu-ray players with 3-D capabilities should have movie theaters further quaking in their boots.
Video games aren’t doing movie theaters any favors either. Not only are MMORPGs, like World of Warcraft, acting as huge free-timesinks, but even innocuous first-person shooters are keeping more butts on couches longer with their carrot-dangling achievement systems. Plus, video games have always strived to replicate the movie experience, and modern games have done it, one-upping actual cinema by creating functional interactive movies.
The rental market is another force, sucking value from movie theaters. There are just too many ways to enjoy a vast selection of cinema at home. Drive down to the store and pick up some movies. Subscribe to limitless movies by mail. Stream limitless movies online. Today’s smartphones even allow owners to rent movies and watch them via their phones. It’s also worth lumping the thriving piracy community into this group, too.
Finally, the movie studios also seem to be actively working against the theaters as well; first with quick video release dates and second with mediocre films. When I was a kid it seemed like it took forever for a film to come to VHS. These days it’s just a couple of months before a movie is available on video. In some cases, the video release is uncomfortably too close to the theatrical release date, like with the recent Alice in Wonderland. Some UK theaters even threatened to boycott the film over the move. Then there’s the matter of entertainment value. Modern cinema seems to be on a disappointing trend of lackluster storytelling. This year’s crop of films – the summer batch most importantly – is a great example. They simply don’t have the storytelling that will really capture audience’s attentions and convince them to use their decreased spending power at theaters. Regarding a few recent films: The Karate Kid was almost a carbon copy of the original, and the parts where it wasn’t didn’t work, especially with too-young actors. Grown Ups had almost no story. The Last Airbender was poorly written, acted and directed. It takes a cynical mind to assume that audiences will simply endure whatever studios throw up onscreen.
To combat all of this, theaters have been forced to raise ticket prices, diversify their offerings and adopt poorly implemented technology in an attempt to beat the home theater experience. Increased prices typically wouldn’t be an issue if they reflected an increased quality of entertainment, which most moviegoers will probably attest isn’t the case. Although, increased prices may reflect increased cost of doing business so I won’t berate theaters too much on this point. I also commend movie theaters that attempt to offer more services, like the Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood, CA and Gold Class Cinemas around the world. These theaters have embraced the old date package of dinner and a movie by providing restaurant service at the theater. The Arclight has a small, crowded restaurant area in the lobby and the Gold Class theaters actually provide high-end dining to customers while they watch their movie. In the latter example, however, the ticket price (roughly $25US) certainly reflects the extra service, which doesn’t include the price of the food items.
Unfortunately, other theaters aren’t able to offer the same services and are forced to settle for cheap alternatives. One theater I frequented during my college years required their staff to talk to the audience before rolling the film. This poor, acne-ridden soul explained the THX surround sound and how the chairs reclined, while also half-heartedly trying to pump up the audience while being heckled by college students – like me. Other theaters sometimes provide complementary live-action displays before the movie starts to set the mood. When I watched the opening of X-Men, the sad theater employees bounded up and down the aisles dressed in X-Men costumes. Wolverine stood in front of the screen with his mutton chops glued to his cheeks and his un-retractable blades sticking out of his knuckles while Mystique battled with Storm in some of the worst stage-fighting you can imagine. More recently, a team of Asian martial artists were hired to break boards and fight with glittery plastic swords at The Last Airbender screening as a way to make up for the lackluster fights in the actual film or to lower expectations or to compensate for the dearth of Asian actors. Or all of the above.
The most disappointing move by theaters, however, is the adoption of 3-D. The concept of 3-D films is not an issue in and of itself. It’s when theaters charge exorbitant ticket prices for the technology that the problem arises, because the price of admission doesn’t fit the product. Most of the time, as Working Author contributor Lindsey Darden observes, it’s a 2-D film with 3-D glasses. Next time you watch a “3-D” film take off your glasses during the movie and see if there’s any real difference. Chances are you’ll be able to watch it just fine and it’ll look brighter to boot.
I sympathize with movie theaters and understand the choices they’re making in order to survive. With so many other sources competing within the same entertainment arena, a decrease in product value and a declining quality of moviegoer, it makes sense that movie theaters need to reinvent themselves. Theaters need to capitalize on their role as social gathering places. As such, I predict that movie theaters will take on more and more services, like renting out blocks of time for business presentations or church gatherings. A small coffee house could easily be installed in the lobby. Some theaters currently show big title fights to give boxing fans the feeling of being ringside with real live people without having to shell out big bucks. Whatever movie theaters decide to do in the name of self-preservation it certainly shouldn’t be nothing.