Christopher Campbell's The Moviegoer - Cinema Chain Avoidance

March 17, 2009

Cinema Chain Avoidance

If I were somehow given the opportunity to host my own moviegoer-based reality show, I would have difficulty deciding what sort of show it would be. One idea is a Travel Channel show in which I'm the movie theater version of Anthony Bourdain, visiting cinemas (and former cinemas) around the world, with a concentration on celebrating moviegoing. However, the other idea is more negative, though it focuses on my desire to fix the many problems with today's theaters. On the flip side, as a movie theater version of Gordon Ramsay (or Tabatha Coffey), I would go to troubled cinemas and give them a makeover.

The latter idea would be too costly and not television-friendly enough to exist, yet if there's anything I've learned from writing a column about cinemas it's that readers prefer to discuss the cons of moviegoing rather than the pros. It's a shame, sure, but in a way I agree that it's hard to celebrate individual movie theaters when, as I wrote about last week, people tend to frequent the cinema chain with the least amount of problems, not the chain with the most amount of attractiveness. Rather than having cinema chain loyalty, many of us instead have cinema chain avoidance.

But as addressed last week, certain incentives may allow us to forget about otherwise problematic cinemas. There's a theater in my neighborhood, for instance, that has terrible sound and projection, but I don't mind seeing a film there on Tuesday and Thursday nights, when all shows are discounted, as long as my enjoyment of that film isn't too dependent on audio or visual perfection (comedies and documentaries are better seen there than are films appreciated for their cinematography). Other moviegoers may be regulars at a certain theater because of the selection or quality of concessions or the appeal of stadium seating, and these people will ignore a lack of cleanliness and/or acceptable customer service for such slight amenities.

The inverse is also true, however, and it takes only one truly disappointing experience to make someone avoid a certain theater or chain, whether only temporarily or forever. Maybe the projectionist accidentally showed children the opening scene from The Hills Have Eyes 2 when The Last Mimzy was supposed to show instead. Or, maybe it's an usher using bad language within earshot of our kids. Or, more innocently, but no less unforgivable, a chain decides to scale back on an incentive. Say that theater in my neighborhood stops having discount nights, or say AMC or Regal's incentive clubs become stingier with their rewards.

I thought about the idea of theaters revoking incentives recently when I attended a screening of Coraline at a Regal cinema, and during the movie a huge group of disruptive teens continually distracted my attention away from the magnificent 3-D images in front of me. I immediately wished that I had the Guest Response System in order to alert the theater's management about the kids. You may recall these paging devices, that Regal introduced a few years back, which were designed to summon the staff in the event of a problem with audience members or the presentation of the movie. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, Regal no longer offers this amenity to any customers anymore, let alone Crown Club members.

But I was always torn on whether or not I thought the Guest Response System was a good idea anyway. It seemed to be an excuse for managers and other movie theater staff to have even less of a presence on the floor and in theaters. As if they no longer needed to check up on auditoriums or make sure moviegoers were comfortable, they could just assume, wrongly, that everything was fine as long as they weren't being summoned via one of these pagers. However, the fact that I noticed the devices are gone (or seemingly gone) made me think more about Regal's customer service and managerial presence, or in this case lack of such, and how that should really be the number one draw or deterrent in terms of which cinemas we frequent or frequently avoid. And those cinemas that monopolize territories and have no direct competition shouldn't slack in customer service just because they're the only game in town. Bad customer service at a movie theater is one of the main reasons people choose to just watch movies at home.

So I guess that is the number one priority I'd have with theaters if I had my cinema-equivalent of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares (or Tabitha's Salon Makeover). I'd attempt to reform the staff way before suggesting better incentives or even updating the sound and projection systems. Because once you have employees and leaders who care about the customer's moviegoing experience, you will have their loyalty, and the incentives and amenities will follow to further strengthen their trust. Otherwise, such things seem to be merely tricks used to distract patrons from the problems, and that's not going to help anything.

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My Regal still does the Guest Response System. They certainly aren't fool proof but they do help in some cases. Customer service and customer(young teen) supervision/control always could use improvement. Damn these tweens and their disposable income.

Mitch on Mar 17, 2009


I'm genuinely curious about the effectiveness of the Guest Response System. It sounds like a great idea on paper, but I wonder how much of a logistical nightmare they must be, between wear and tear of the actual units and people constantly paging management when there's really not an issue. It seems that they'd see at least as much misuse from the people they're supposed to keep in line as from those using them properly.

Stiles on Mar 18, 2009


Because of the byzantine rules governing how ticket revenues are split between Hollywood and the theater chains, I think it's really under-appreciated by the public just how razor-thin the margins are at a cinema. Cinema jobs don't pay that great and they're not really very engaging. You have to deal with hostile customers and you sort of settle into this ambivalent feedback loop like you get at Wal-Mart or the DMV. A lot of the attitude that it's just a soul-crushing minimum wage job comes from the disenchantment of seeing how a business like a cinema is *really* run. For a lot of the kids, it's their first job and their entry into the Real World. They think it's going to be fun and excitement and watching movies all day, then they find it it's standing on your feet for 5 hours straight ripping tickets interrupted only by going to theater 6 to clean up the barf caused by Cloverfield (or whatever).

J News on Mar 18, 2009


#3 I totally agree with your comments. I worked in a multiplex for 5 years and it's nothing what folks imagine. It's not only ripping tickets all day but the cleaning up of used condoms from the back row, violent customers, kids being sick, blocked toilets. Once had a guy take a dump on the back row!!! Folks comment why don't staff deal with rowdy customers? On minimum wage is it worth it to get your head caved in with a hammer (which nearly happed to a college of mine), I don't think so. Just wait for the police. Work in a cinema and you will grow to hate films!

John J on Mar 19, 2009


John J, I am with you up to the point about hating films. I worked in cinemas on and off from the age of 17 to 27, and I've never stopped loving films. Then again, I've also never stopped loving the cinema business, either. I seriously hate that theaters pay minimum wage for all positions, and that's part of the problem of poor customer service at many chains. As with any job, though, a company needs to train its employees to know how they're appreciated (incentive programs, bonuses, etc.) and also always let them know WHY something is being/to be done rather than just making orders at them because they're young and/or marginalized.

Christopher Campbell on Mar 20, 2009

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