Rethinking Theaters::Explode the Multiplex, and Let the Community In

    by Mark Glaser
    April 3, 2006

    i-9e47230f3721af2773a600d11f97db67-Parkway Speakeasy Theater.JPG
    I probably go to see a movie at a theater about once every other week. But with each passing month, I realize just how stale this experience is. Just how broken it is. And I’m not surprised to see that the overall U.S. movie box office revenue was down 6% in 2005.

    As I start to gain control of my media experience — thanks to RSS news readers, podcasts, blogs, DVDs of TV shows and a digital video recorder (DVR) — I start to wonder how my movie-going experience can improve, too. First, let’s look at what’s broken, and then let’s think about what theaters can do to fix it.

    Keep in mind that I am generalizing about my experience at first-run multiplexes around San Francisco, places like the Metreon or the AMC 100 Van Ness. I much prefer the experience at more homey neighborhood theaters such as the Castro Ttheatre or the Parkway Speakeasy in Oakland, Calif (logo pictured above). However, I will give the multiplexes props for good sound and visual quality, as well as the immersive 3D and wide screen at the IMAX theaters (which are actually doing great business).


    What’s Broken at the Multiplexes

    1. The price for everything is too high, from the ticket price (especially buying it online) to the food and drinks to the parking.
    2. The food is horrible, and uniformly bad for you. Stale popcorn, towers of soda, and candy dominate.
    3. The movie times (and lack of good food on the premises) make it nearly impossible to go out for dinner and make an early movie time.
    4. You have no idea when the actual movie will start — due to all the commercials and previews that go on endlessly.
    5. If you get to the theater early, you are bombarded with bad music and bad trivia questions, basically thinly veiled advertisements posing as entertainment.
    6. There is no connection between the multiplex and the community around it. No local films or filmmakers appear there, and there is little to no programming related to the community in which the multiplex lives.
    7. The quality of these mainstream movies seems to get worse with each passing season.
    8. The customer service at these theaters is abysmal, with almost all workers getting minimum wage at best.

    Now, I can’t say that I always have a bad experience at the multiplex, and there’s nothing more fun than watching two or three movies or bopping around to get highlights of various movies for the price of one admission. I think the multiplexes have had a monopoly on our movie-going experience that’s now changing because more people have fantastic surround-sound home theaters — not to mention the rise of on-demand entertainment and online downloads.


    So while we might have put up with the bad food, overpriced tickets and poor service in the past, now we can be choosy about what we watch and when we go out to spend all that money. We are becoming enlightened consumers, and perhaps, with the cheap cost of producing videos or films, we might start to consider ourselves to be better at storytelling than the Hollywood studios.

    So how can the multiplexes fix their multiple problems and win us back? I think the answer lies in the Long Tail, a theory by Wired editor Chris Anderson that technology is helping to end the era of mass-market hits and explode it into millions of niches. In other words, the main problem with multiplexes is that they cater to the mass market, when what we really want is Our Multiplex, a place that caters to our particular tastes and interests.

    One theater chain, National Amusements, is trying out the high-end version of the multiplex, such as the Cinema de Lux recently opened in Milford, Conn. The theater includes two “Director’s Halls” with plush leather seats, reserved seating and express concessions.

    “The atmosphere at Cinema de Lux will distinguish itself to patrons from the start,” reads the press release describing the theater. “Upon entering, patrons will be greeted by the sounds of the baby grand piano on display in the lobby. Guests are free to relax in a lounge area outfitted with comfortable, home-style furniture and complimentary issues of current newspapers and magazines. The lobby will also feature Guest Services, a concierge style service desk assisting patrons with needs such as calling a taxi or purchasing tickets to Director’s Halls. The theatre also houses two private function rooms available for rental for birthday parties and other events.”

    I think that’s one way of trying to attract people, but there are others. What if each multiplex had its own theme for the movies it shows? One might be known for great dramas, another for comedies, another for horror flicks.

    And perhaps the most perplexing problem with multiplexes and new movies in general is how poor they serve the young G-rated audience. It seems that there is about one new G-rated movie every other month, and if it’s a bad movie, you still have to take your kids to it because there’s no other choice. Why doesn’t one multiplex become a kids’ multiplex, with games and food for kids, movies for different age groups, and new and old movies?

    And for adults, I love the idea of good food and drinks at the movies, like what the Parkway Speakeasy does in Oakland, with pizza and beer. That way, you can easily eat dinner and watch a movie without having to rush through dinner to make a 7:15 pm show.

    But what’s most important is to reconnect the local movie theater to the actual community around it. The Parkway does various benefit shows, runs films by local filmmakers, has theme nights and even the “baby brigade” so parents can bring their wee ones to the theater.

    The more the multiplexes can reach out to their customers and make the experience more satisfying and relevant, the more we’ll want to go out to the movies and not stay in.

    What do you think? Do you think multiplexes are still worthy? What are your pet peeves and how do you think they should change? Use the comments to share your thoughts.

    UPDATE: Dwight Silverman, interactive journalism editor — and blogger — at the Houston Chronicle, points me to a great screed by Mark Cuban on this same subject. Cuban, who owns HDNet, the Dallas Mavericks basketball team and the Landmark Theaters chain, says people will always go out because cabin fever will never go out of style. But he thinks theater chains need to work together with studios on DVD sales and on-demand systems.

    I contacted Cuban via email, and asked him for his take on theaters catering to the Long Tail of niches.

    “I don’t think it will be the end of the Long Tail in terms of content, but it could be by demographic,” Cuban said. “Kids, teens, adults tend to like the same kinds of films and then graduate to the next level. We are exploring doing kids theaters and some other demographic-specific alternatives as well.”

    While Landmark Theaters are known for art-house and independent films, I think it’s great that Cuban is considering demographic targeting, especially for kids. As one of the very few executives who “gets” technology and the media shift, he will be one to watch as theaters evolve.

    • I can’t figure out why movie executives don’t get it. It now costs so much to go to a movie that I really have to think about whether or not it’s actually worth it. Forget dinner and a movie — that’s a $75-$100 evening for two people (at a half decent restaurant). The fact that the film alone is $20 for two people is the main problem.

      If movies were $5 per person, people wouldn’t have to think as hard.

      I go to the movies for really big blockbusters, which I see at the one-screen old fashioned movie palace — not the multiplex.

      I also go for some of the more independent stuff at a smaller 5-10 screen theatre which serves good snacks, too.

      It’s not piracy or anything else that’s the issue. The movie industry has lost site of what people want and how people really live.

    • One of the major problems is that America is just overscreened. Per capita, we have more screens than most countries in the world, and we lose a couple of hundred a year because this level of saturation is just not sustainable, especially given the waning interest in both the theater experience and Hollywood films. Additionally, the operating costs (real estate alone) for these 16-20-30 plexes is really out of hand, driving the prices higher than they might have been otherwise.

      Niche theaters are one answer. The ideas you had about good food or a kid-themed theater are good, and they are probably one of the few ways theaters can be pulled out of the muck. Creating an experience for the consumer is probably what needs to happen (even on a small scale, as is the case with the single-screen movie palaces that still draw people). This tact reminds me of Pine & Gilmore’s writings on “The Experience Economy,” which you may find interesting (There is book, but also a much shorter HBJ article).

      As prices rise and home theatre systems keep getting more advanced, the incentive to go out will be less and less, unless theaters themselves become experiences. Currently, they really aren’t. For this reason, the window between theatrical release and DVD release has begun to fall under less than 1.5 or 2 months. The industry makes its money on DVDs and international film rights, not domestic ticket sales.

    • Mark Cuban, who owns Landmark Theaters, HDNet, and the Dallas Mavericks, has written about this quite a bit at Blog Maverick, most notably this post.

    • leonard glaser

      We are planning to purchase a dvd player and avoid going to movie theatres as much as possible. Being part of a movie audience makes the movie experience better than home viewing and makes for a reason to get dressed up a bit and see some people. This is more noticeable at Landmark theatres. Unless we are certain to enjoy the experience, we will just get the dvd.

    • Andy McGovern

      Cuban’s theaters are dives. They have a good market strategy with the small budget films, but their per screen average is terrible. His arguments rarely hod true when you can see the numbers. The problem is not the “multiplex” (in most cases) rather it is the quality of the product on screen. People go to the movie for the movie, and with the multiplex you have more choice. Certain companies, such as Century Theaters, do play a wider variety of films but not all circuits have figured out there is a good market for all kinds of fims. People wil go to movies again in large numbers, but the studios need to get better scripts and better actors back in lead roles. As for the comment above regarding the window for release on screen to DVD, it averaged 4 months and 20 days last year, not 1-2 months. Still very short, but with the high number of prints being released movies do not have the long runs they used to; the window will come down to take advantage of the hype CREATED in the theatrical release.

    • Demzer

      My issue is image quality. It’s better in major cities where the cinemas can afford to upgrade projectors (and get shipped better prints, I suspect), but when I was living in Ohio I stopped going to the local multiplexes because the image was so inferior to what I could get from my DVD player and bigscreen TV. And since, more and more, films are shot and edited for DVD rather than cinema, I find myself getting “motion blur” sickeness from action sequences and wishing I could experience the true colors and contrast in the theater like I can at home. Digital projection is solving that to some degree. I just saw MI III in New Haven and was really impressed by the picture. Of course, another issue is audience ettiquete…the newer generations of viewers act like they’re still at home…when some obese lady’s bloated bare foot is propped up on the preceding row in your line of vision for the whole movie, you might as well have stayed in with Marlon Brando. The shared experience of art is VITAL in a culture…from music to drama to film. I hope theaters find a way to entice people out of their barcolounger isolation, or we’ll start believing the shrill talking heads on TV that the other guy is as bad as they say.

    • We are planning to purchase a dvd player and avoid going to movie theatres as much as possible. Being part of a movie audience makes the movie experience better than home viewing and makes for a reason to get dressed up a bit and see some people. This is more noticeable at Landmark theatres. Unless we are certain to enjoy the experience, we will just get the dvd.

    • ricky44

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      home styles furniture

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