It's the Theaters, Stupid

By Adam Blair

Movie executives have been bemoaning the continuing year-over-year drop in theater attendance in 2005, with all the usual suspects lined up against the wall: competition from other media; an ever-more-fragmented moviegoing audience; a lack of “event” movies (except for Star Wars VI, or III, or 3.14159), etc. Almost as a case in point, the June 15th New York Times noted that the recent Universal release Cinderella Man, the movie where Russell Crowe is encouraged to hit people, has had a disappointing return despite Oscar-winning director Ron Howard, Oscar-winning stars Crowe and Renée Zellweger, positive reviews, and Crowe’s threats to throw a telephone at anyone who declines to see the movie. (I admit I haven’t seen the movie — sorry Russell — DUCK!)

Universal executives quoted in the article, by Times film business reporter Sharon Waxman, wondered if this serious drama was not enough of a summer movie (read: lots of things smashing into other things) to be released in the late spring, and that they are considering a re-release in October, when presumably the kids will be back in school and the parents will be wondering what to do with a stray couple of hours on a Saturday night.

Don’t be fooled. They will be home watching a DVD — possibly the DVD of Cinderella Man.

An astute letter to the editor in the same New York Times a couple of months ago explained why theater attendance is lagging: going to the movies sucks. The movies themselves are probably no worse (and in some ways far better) than they ever were. I just saw the romantic comedy Hitch and was pleasantly surprised that the genre still had some juice in it, that Will Smith’s comic timing is right on the money and that Kevin James is possibly the funniest fat guy working today (his dancing demonstration was worth the price of admission, which was admittedly low — the $3 bottle of water I bought at the theater cost more than the ticket). I would have loved to have seen the movie in a theater full of people so we could have laughed together, but it wasn’t a bad way to spend a hot afternoon in any case.

It’s not the movies. It’s the theaters. I’m wondering if there’s a bunch of people sitting in a room figuring out ways to piss off moviegoers (paying customers!). If so, they are probably the same group that “planned” our “strategy” in Iraq.

Everyone will have their own pet peeves. Mine are, in no particular order:

Stupid moviegoers: Movie executives wonder why “adult” dramas don’t do well. How about the very reasonable fear that some pair of rocket scientists sitting behind you will have brought their squalling infant or impressionable toddler to an R-rated movie? Really, if you can’t afford a babysitter, rent a video (that’s cheaper than two adult tickets and your kid can scream his/her head off). And let’s not even get into people who talk on cell phones in the theater. Actual brain surgeons waiting for life-and-death news about a transplant are excused; the rest of you can TURN OFF THE PHONE.

Repetition compulsion: Isn’t it amazing that the three multiplexes within easy driving distance of my house are all showing EXACTLY the same films? Oh sure, one may have a slightly unconventional film (a documentary or an “art” flick) in one of its smaller theaters, but the consistency is remarkable. Whatever happened to counter-programming? You know, back in the old days when there were three TV networks, one would show a “chick flick” up against a big football game. One would put a serious movie-of-the-week up against a block of situation comedies. Why couldn’t a movie theater show, I don’t know, a foreign film? A student film? A classic black-and-white Hollywood picture? That might lure me off of my sofa. They don’t even counter-program with showtimes! Isn’t it possible that some people would want to see a movie starting at 5:30 in the afternoon on a weekday? Or at 6:45 p.m. on a weekend night? Try finding one.

Showtime lies: The paper says the movie starts at 7:35. Moviefone and agree that it starts at 7:35. When does it actually start? Somewhere between 7:50 and 7:55. Before that it’s music accompanying slides (many of which are commercials), commercials themselves, and previews (which are also commercials, albeit ones an audience might actually be interested in). Audiences are stuck. Even if they know the theater’s policy and time their arrival accordingly, they run the risk of sitting stretch-necked in the third row (if the movie is popular) or at the very least tripping over other moviegoers in the dark. So we arrive on time and watch the commercials. Theater owners aren’t being stupid when they lie like this. They are not in the business of providing entertainment to the audience; they’re selling that very audience (us! Paying customers!) to their advertisers. Gosh, I love being used! Don’t you? Might as well watch TV.

Might as well watch TV: This isn’t about the incessant remakes of old TV shows (you know I’m dying to see the Bewitched movie, but that’s my mania). Even as TVs have mushroomed in size, theaters have been sliced and diced into tiny boxes so many times that the screen might as well be a TV screen. If the movie is an adult drama without the need for a wide screen and Dolby sound, what sane adult wouldn’t wait for the DVD release?

Déjà vu all over again: This is not really about the theaters themselves as it is about the hype machine that surrounds big movies. Seasoned moviegoers know that if they’ve seen the preview or the innumerable commercials promoting a film, they have already seen the three best jokes (if it’s a comedy) or the three scariest moments (if it’s a thriller or a sci-fi). So why bother seeing the movie?

This relates to crummy moviegoing experiences to the extent that the Hollywood studio executives, who are also not stupid, are in a hype war with themselves and their rivals. They know that if they don’t get warm asses into the seats on the opening weekend there won’t be another chance to do it, so they oversell the flick until the audience can practically whistle the theme song going in.

Again, these not-stupid executives must realize how crummy the moviegoing experience has become, but rather than demand changes from the theater owners they have simply adapted — at the American moviegoer’s expense. For some films, the theatrical run is essentially a loss leader. It raises awareness of the product but is not the real cash producer that foreign rights and, you guessed it, DVD sales, are. This also explains why DVD releases seem to occur only a few weeks after the film is out in theaters, which is itself another reason moviegoers are less willing to actually go out to movies. It also explains why studios are much more concerned about video piracy than they are about crappy multiplexes. As Deep Throat W. Mark Felt did not say (screenwriter William Goldman put the words in actor Hal Holbrook’s mouth), they are simply “following the money.”

I won’t even go into the overpriced food, the surly or slack-jawed help and the uninspiring architecture that are part and parcel of most 21st-century moviegoing. And I will say one thing: those stadium seats are really comfortable. The danger there, of course, is that if the movie is dull and/or quiet, you will fall asleep.

What to do? People are already voting with their feet, which are propped up on the ottoman. Theater owners and studio executives can continue to be like the airlines, and meet shrinking, angry audiences with further customer service cutbacks, alienating even more of their customer base. Or they can remember that they’re in a service business and stop acting like a bunch of corporate sheep. It’s their call. Meanwhile, I have Netflix.


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