Christopher Campbell's The Moviegoer - Our Economic Crisis

October 11, 2008

The Exhibitionist - Our Economic Crisis

Christopher Campbell has worked in the trenches of the movie theater industry for many years, employed by three different companies, in both art houses and multiplexes, as everything from a concessionist to a manager of concession operations. And yet after experiencing so many horror stories, he still favors popcorn to all other foods and prefers spending money on movie tickets to all other payable leisure activities. But most of all he is still passionate about the exhibition industry, commenting on ways to improve it, discussing all the trends and innovations involved with it and overall celebrating the wonderful pastime of going to the movies. We welcome him today to FS.net where he'll be contributing.

Moviegoing has always been thought of as a recession-proof activity, just as the movie business has always been called a recession-proof industry. This despite the realities of attendance drops during the first years of the Great Depression and the financial struggles of some studios throughout the hard economic times of the 1930s. After all, much of the industry came out of the era just fine, if not better than they had been before. So, now that we're experiencing the worst recession in more than half a century, it's no surprise that both Hollywood and America's theater owners are doing anything but worrying.

But should we, the moviegoers, be concerned?

Well, in terms of content, maybe, especially if the studios look at the success ($29 million opening weekend) of Beverly Hills Chihuahua as being the effect of the economic crisis. If the people are going to flock to the multiplex for a dumb talking dog movie, which is perhaps, in all seriousness, a good mind-numbing remedy for those anxious or distressed about their financial situation, then Hollywood could be interested in stocking theaters with similarly dumbed down escapist entertainment.

Meanwhile, in terms of the quality of the theatrical experience, we're definitely in for some troubling times. During the Depression, ticket sales were lowered, at least in the beginning, and they never were too pricey to begin with, nor thereafter for the rest of the era. One of the reasons that moviegoing has always been considered a recession-proof pastime is because it was for a long time a very cheap form of entertainment. But it's not like that anymore. These days, going to the movies, as we all know, empties the wallet. Even when we're in a prosperous economy.

So, the movie theaters will definitely see a decrease in business as more and more people feel the effects of the recession and choose more often to stay home with a Netflix DVD and some microwave popcorn. But despite the threat of dwindling attendance, it's highly unlikely that theater owners will be lowering their prices again. For one thing, the studios, which won't be so desperate, probably won't let them. Maybe cinemas will start having discounted tickets one or two weeknights, but some films, particularly those distributed by Sony or Warner Brothers, might not be included in the special offers.

Instead, we'll probably see a lot of cost cutting, staff cutting and maybe even some raised prices at the concession stand, all of these things being already common practice for theater owners trying to stay out of the red during more stable economic times. One thing I've been worried about is the rumored possibility that National Amusements, a company I used to work for, may start using ushers as projectionists.

It's been bad enough ever since major theater chains got rid of the professional union projectionists in favor of using theater managers to operate the projectors. Managers like myself, who idiotically put together a sneak preview print of The Italian Job with all the reels out of order and then screened the confusing thing to a sold out auditorium on a Saturday night. And like my co-worker who accidentally ran a movie like Saw to a theater full of kids expecting The Incredibles, much to the disgust and dissatisfaction of parents. Or, more often and more expected, managers everywhere who fail to notice focus and framing and sound problems until a frustrated moviegoer goes out to the lobby and complains.

Hopefully, the fact that National Amusements is selling off some of its stake in Viacom means it won't have to save as much money elsewhere, and anyway the idea of usher projectionists probably isn't necessarily a new idea inspired by the recession nor may it be the worst thing in the world now that cinemas have easier-to-use digital projectors (as far as I know - I left the business before digital came about and have no experience with them). Optimistically speaking, it's possible that those of us who continue to go to the movies won't actually notice anything different except for fewer fellow audience members. And if that also means less talkers and cell phone users, that would certainly be an improved moviegoing experience.

Money photo courtesy of thinkpanama on Flickr.

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1 Comment


Great column Chris...I've had a few problems with films at my cinema so if they're firing projectionists that would definitely explain it. I agree that film is used as an outlet to people during this hard economic time to take themselves to a fantasy world where they don't have to think about losing there house. Even if they see a film about someone losing their house it reminds them that there's romance in it and helps them relate their problems. I'm waiting for the documentary on this economic crisis so someone can explain it to me better (where's Moore when you need him).

Peloquin on Oct 11, 2008

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