What To Do About Movie Theaters... The Latest

March 7, 2007

The on-going debate about how to improve the experience at movie theaters is still being discussed, as theater chains are slow to improve, if at all. A few important reconsiderations have arisen recently, and I thought I'd revisit this subject a bit more, since it's something we strongly support at FirstShowing.net. I'll actually be heading out to ShoWest next week, the theater and film industry's annual convention where all the theater owners and studios gather. I'm not there to make a speech yet (maybe that's next year), but I am arranging some meetings to further discuss plans and ideas that we have in mind in order to begin to improve the entire experience.

In the meantime, one of the aspects that has been brought up recently is what else can be done in movie theaters and at movie theaters to continue to improve. In addition, a new list of ideas of how to "bring the magic back" recently appeared on another site.

Getting That Movie Magic Back

A new article showed up at BillDamon.com recently, titled "How to get a little of that movie magic back", which he wrote after reading an interesting LA Times piece. He goes down a whole bunch of bullet points of how to improve, and gets it right with a few, wrong with some others, and also misses some important ones. I'll only just mention a few that stuck out.

3D - Are you kidding me? (I've been known to dislike 3D) This isn't going to help at all. It's a terrible gimmick mostly used for profits that fortunately even Pixar has realized just isn't there yet.
Volume - He actually mentions to turn it down during the trailers. I don't know where you see your movies, but most of the time the sound is way too quiet everywhere I go. I've been noticing an increasing number of poor projection and audio issues that could simply be fixed if they spent some extra time tweaking before the movie begins or repairing and maintaining the system.
Commercials vs Pre-Show - He mentions earlier that he likes the pre-show entertainment, but then goes on to say he hates that the movie starts "late" because of more commercials. Don't these two contradict themselves? If theaters want to try and make mountains of money from endless ads, then they need to figure out how to run it all beforehand, and even then I hate watching 20 minutes of commercials. I'd rather just watch 20 minutes of trailers, because then it'll excite people to continue to return to see more movies. That's a simple concept!
Actors / Actresses - I'm not sure why he chose to list "more" and "less" lists based on actors and actresses, but he did. Not that people can't have their opinion on who sucks and who is great, but that's not going to improve the movie theater experience. Sometimes a bad actor can be great, and sometimes a great actor can be terrible. I would rather be able to see a movie in a high quality theater with a great experience and determine that for myself.
The Overall Experience - The one area I think he really missed is the overall experience. It's looking at what the theater is for - it's a venue to see movies and experience them. He's really missing the idea that there's more you deserve for your ticket price and there's more that all the theaters are missing that should be part of the experience. Popcorn and reserved seats and 3D and commercials will always be there, but it's what is not there that is most important.

On Demand Film Quality Control

This is a very interesting subject, but I think it's become increasingly important with the overabundance of sheer crap that gets put out in theaters these days. Everyone would go more often if there were actual good movies to go see! Techdirt had an introduction to an article on Wired about the upgrade to digital systems that allow for more on-demand control. This means they can kick out films that aren't making money in less time and add more screens of films that are selling out in much less time (than it takes to order new 35mm prints).

This will probably be the hardest to overcome, because so much crap like Stomp the Yard, Epic Movie, and Norbit gets released and yet still makes lots of money. It would be easier if they didn't make any money and were gone by the week's end. The first step is getting people to the theater, because even if it's the Oscar winning The Departed, if you boot some crappy movie and put in extra screens of that, if you don't have the people coming to the theater those won't fill either. This is much more of a second step in the equation to improve the overall quality of films and then drive people to the theater more often because higher quality films are showing.

Gaming in Theaters

It's rare that I venture too far out of the movie realm, but I had to take note of the recent buzz about video gaming inside of movie theaters. Ever since I heard my theater manager friend say "we hooked up the Xbox 360 to the screen," I've realized that this is an ingenious idea. The movie theater is a great place to be as is, and most importantly, lots more than just seeing a movie can happen at them. The two recent articles to mention on this idea are from Techdirt and Engadget.

Again, this is almost an additional step that will help improve the experience overall, but won't solve the inherent problem at hand. I believe the most successful theaters in the end are going to be the ones that really make the experience a complete package, like the Arclight in Hollywood or the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin. From there they would provide in-theater gaming opportunities, better on-demand turn around and customer-based feedback on what to and what not to show, and more community-involved events and activities that made the theater more enjoyable and much more worth the (high) ticket price. There is still quite a distance to go, but at least some improvements are happening slowly.

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Nice post, nice site. I regularly complain about the Arclight in Hollywood, but its tough love since I'm there at least twice a week to see a movie. Regarding "pre-show" entertainment, I like the idea as well. I prefer the slideshows they do with trivia, but they don't mix these up enough or often, which is a shame because its an inexpensive approach, and more people would pay attention if there was very rarely a repeat question. I also mildly like the video ad packages, but only if they're run BEFORE showtime. These are a little annoying, but if you're not feeling chatty they do make the time fly, so I don't mind showing up for the movie a little earlier. HOWEVER, the infamous Grauman's Chinese Theatre has been doing this lately, but BLAST the volume during these ads, which makes conversation with your friends impossible. It seems the fundamental difference between seeing movies in a theatre vs. at home is that moviegoing is a group experience, shared with your friends and up to a half thousand strangers. I appreciate a non talkative crowd when the trailers begin, but pumping the volume for commercials so loud that you can't talk to your friends ruins the experience, and makes me not want to walk inside and find my seat until closer to showtime.

David Markland on Mar 7, 2007


Nice article Alex. Personally, I think for theater owners the on-demand service would be wonderful. Of course, much of this ability hinges on the implementation of digital cinema. I keep saying - BETTER MOVIES will help more than anything. A shitpile like Norbit simply does not deserve a nine dollar movie ticket. Of course, I seem to be alone in that assessment.

Ray on Mar 7, 2007


I am lucky enough to live in Wichita, KS where we have the chain of Warren Theaters. They're arguably some of the best theaters in the country. The screen in the grande theatre at one of the locations is 4 stories high. http://www.warrentheaters.com/

Zach on Mar 8, 2007


Hey Alex, nice post. I rushed my post up a bit but I think you get the gist of it. The few 3-D experiences I've had I've really enjoyed. They've been at "Omni" theatres and I think its a feature I'm looking to see more of. But then again, I also enjoy the Spiderman 3-D ride in Orlando, so maybe I'm just biased that way. In most of the theaters I go to around Boston, the volume is very loud during the previews. Defeaning at times. And while I like the preshow entertainment, I want the show to start on time. I view the preshow as what's playing before the movie start time. I didn't explain that very well so I can see why you thought it was a contradiction. Overall, I agree with what folks are saying. I think the quality of the movie and the theater experience are tied together. One reason I came up with that stream of conscience more and less list is that I think the studios have done a very mediocre job the last few years and much of their stuff is very forumulaic. They are stuck on names and marketing and the quality has suffered greatly. The last two months of releases have been dreadful with a few exceptions.

Bill Damon on Mar 10, 2007


Hey Bill, thanks for your responses. I actually loved the Spiderman 3-D ride in Orlando too! That thing is awesome, but it is an incredibly different experience than the movie theater and 3-D there. I ended up reading some other reports saying that the volume IS up in certain theaters for some odd reason, something about ketting crowds to sit down and shut up or something. Really wierd, but that's very theater dependent, since where I go it's always too quiet even during the movie. You're right about these last few months being dreadful, but it did really pick up with Zodiac and 300, did you see either? Great movie is you haven't... But there's so much at play in this film industry it's hard to pinpoint one area as the cause of everything... Anyway, thanks again for replying back!

Alex Billington on Mar 12, 2007


I have not seen a single film in years that has not had way too high a volume---Slumdog Millionaire's volume was absolutely painful, it was so loud. All trailers are too loud as well. Why is this necessary? It can't be good on the ears for the audience to be exposed to that level of volume. I have never understood why it is necessary, and it is a real distraction to enjoyment.

marilyn shaver on Mar 11, 2009

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