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.