Why your movie theater is going out of business

April 27th, 2012 | by | movies

Apr
27

Granted, there aren’t as many bankruptcies in the industry as there were in the going-bust heyday of ten years ago or so — there just aren’t as many theater chains left — but those that are still standing are, well…they’re surely wondering just how the hell they’re going to stay in business for the long run, even with huge crowds still packing in to see the latest blockbusters, of which, these days, a new one seems to open every weekend.

I’m going to tell you why they’re not:

Movie theater chains are going out of business because they’re no longer any good at what they’re supposed to be in business doing.

Oh, they’ve got ideas. But the fact that this social-media-at-the-movies nonsense has recently raised its head again clearly demonstrates that they’re not what we might categorically call “good” ideas.

Just in case you’re not up on the forementioned nonsense, a little while ago a minor debate was sparked by a poll which said, among other things, that some people felt Twitter and Facebook were “a new form of entertainment” and provided this nugget of pollster mind-reading:

“Millennials want their public moviegoing experience to replicate their own private media experiences… Having dedicated social-media-friendly seats, or even entire theaters, can make the moviegoing experience more relevant and enjoyable for them.”

So immediately theater chains began publicly entertaining the notion that this is something they might actually do.

Aside of calling it nonsense just that once, I’m not going to comment on the balance between actual value and relative overall time-wasting-ness of Twitter and Facebook, whether you should even listen to a “pollster” who uses the term “millennial”, and if a population constantly hunched over their electronic devices is good in the long term for anyone except chiropractors.

The scary thing for people like me who, apparently in contrast to movie theater chain executives, actually like movies is that this is all too reminiscent of when they started doing things like showing pay-per-view professional wrestling events or big-screen UFC matches.

And the important thing about “people like me” is that I am the dream movie theater customer. I am exactly the person they should be appealing to. Or at least I was. Admittedly I’m more of a worshipper at the altar of film than most people, but there was a time when almost every movie even half-worth seeing I would see in the theater, at a minimum of two full-price admissions a week. I still go to the movies, but not anywhere near much. There are at least a couple of reasons for that.

To be fair, I’m older now, I don’t have the same schedule I did then, and there are great viewing options for the big television in my home that are nicely complemented by a decrease in the need to see everything on opening weekend. But would I like to be seeing more movies in the theater right now?

You bet I would.

But.

By not seeming to particularly care about out-of-focus, misaligned lenses, under-serviced bulbs, and crackly sound systems, theaters are making a very clear statement about exactly how much they think what they’re selling you is worth. Theater chains are training moviegoers that a movie is something they can treat with as much respect as a pay-per-view wrestling event. Why should that bozo behind you shut up so you can enjoy the movie when he’s not behaving any differently than he did sitting in that same seat the night before, hooting while watching a couple of UFC thugs beat each other up? Because he’s been educated that that’s what that theater is for.

The Alamo Drafthouse has somewhat the right idea. They take their job of providing you the best possible moviegoing experience seriously. If you act up, they’ll call you on it, you’ll find yourself out of the theater, and if you’re particularly awful you’ll find your rambling, profanity-laden voicemail posted on the internet for all to judge you by. Not that I’m saying every venue needs bouncers and behavioral enforcers, but at least the Drafthouse can’t be accused of not respecting the entire experience of going to the movies.

Depressingly, however, other theater owners are going in precisely the opposite direction. And if they’re really some combination of stupid and desperate enough to embrace in-theater “social media” then their clock is ticking and it’s just a matter of time until it’s all over for them.

Because what they’ll be doing is actively courting a demographic that, by definition, values moviegoing no more than a 140-character tweet or Facebook status update, at the expense of their dedicated, theatrical-movie-experience-loving core audience. They’re already actively driving away the one that loves them to pursue the one that couldn’t care less. Those people with the cellphone screen shining distractingly in the dark? The theater wants their money more than they want yours. At least as long as it lasts.

And the worst part is that everyone already knows all of this.

Frankly, to these companies, being in the movie exhibition business is secondary: all companies are, first and foremost, in the “getting money” business. They don’t actually care if they make it showing movies; they own movie theater buildings, and they’ll try to make money however they can get people to pay to go into those buildings. And if that’s not a long-term solution, well, they don’t care about that either, because it’s 2012 and we’re all grown-up enough to acknowledge that all any of those corporate executives are trying to do is get the largest possible bonus they can this year, and maybe the next, and after that, well, who really cares.

But damn, I miss going to the movies like I used to.

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© 2017 Kent Tessman

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