Tuesday, February 20, 2007

This is not going to be one of those pieces that tries to suggest how to improve the movie going experience. It’s basically a bitch piece, but I’m sure you can get some ideas out of it.

I went to see BREACH the other night (which I liked quite a bit) and found myself at the theater a little earlier than usual. I usually try to time my theater trips just right so that I can get a decent seat and, even more importantly, avoid what’s passing for the pre-show entertainment at most theaters these days, but the other night my timing was a bit off. It turned out to be a pretty crowded night at the movies, so I took my seat with some time to spare and was forced once again to enjoy the commercials. Now, the one thing I want to make very clear is that I get the “why” of the commercials. Movie theater chains are struggling like most every other industry these days. The studios demand higher percentages, overall expenses are up, the minimum wage has just been increased, projectors cost a lot to install and keep (especially the digital ones), so on and so forth. Putting ads for soft drinks, computers and TV shows help make paying the bills a heck of a lot easier. Granted, it’s not enough for them that a large popcorn is $6 ($6!), now you’ve got to put ads on the screen before the movie. And I know this is nothing new. About 20 years ago I remember first seeing ads on the screen via a slide projector, mainly for upcoming movies and local businesses. I recall once at the old HQ10 we once ran 30 second Sprite ads for a week before some shows as part of a test run and the results were overall negative. And let’s not forget Movietunes, the one-step-above-muzak service that gave us ads for more horrible songs than we could ever count and the insufferable voice of Kris Erik Stevens. Eventually audiences’ resistances to such things died down and for the last 5 years or so the ads have become much more of a part of the movie going experience, like it or not. I suppose I should say that these “pre-shows” are thankfully over and done with at the time the show is supposed to start and don’t mean fewer trailers, but that doesn’t make them any easier to endure.

So here’s my beef: The average price of a movie ticket is now about $10. Popcorn is $4 to $6 (free refills only on larges) and sodas and candies are just below that price range. Most of your bigger chains are now offering other concessions, like mini pizzas and cheese fries, and that’s fine if you want them. Personally speaking, I’m good with just a pack of Twizzlers (but not if it’s going to cost me more than $3) and bottled soda, but one that I’m bringing with me from outside, where it still cost me a more than reasonable $1.25. I know this sounds like I’m being cheap, but let’s face, it cost a lot to go to the movies these days and in a lot of ways just “seeing the movie” isn’t enough. I’m used to enjoying my movies with a snack and sody and I like it that way. But what I don’t want is to be insulted while I sit and wait for my movie to start (which is sometimes an insult in itself, but what are you gonna do?). There isn’t always someone to talk to before the movie to help get your mind off things so far too many times you’re just stuck there watching this crap. Honestly, I don’t care about NBC’s latest shows, the new Honda Civic, or some soft drink; I just wanted to be entertained. One of the reasons I go to the movies to see things I don’t see everyday, so why would I want to look at the same old ads and commercials?

There is a solution, of course, but it’s not one that’s going to make the theaters happy. As we all know (or at least should know), the world’s greatest movie theater is the Alamo Drafthouse down in Austin, TX. Pretty much everything they do they do right, from the projection to their attitude and outright love of movies (which I don’t ever feel from any other theater chain), not to mention the fact that they serve full meals and beer during the show. One thing they do that I absolutely love are the pre-show on-screen entertainments. These are primarily put together by the Alamo’s resident genius Lars Neilsen (along with other members of the staff – don’t feel slighted guys!) and they’re incredible. Wacky shorts (Jim Henson’s TIMEPIECE is an oft-shown favorite), classic trailers, weird videos, and other crazy, off-the-wall stuff that Lars can find usually makes its way onto the Alamo screen and the audiences love it. They love it because it ads to the fun of the movie going experience and gives you a reason to get to the theater before your show starts. Extra added bonus entertainment before the movie why, doesn’t that sound like fun? The big theater chains don’t have to go as all out as Lars does, but how about some cartoons (ones not affiliated with new TV shows), short documentaries, original shorts (Two words: Yacht Rock), or maybe some local-based stuff and some public service spots. Doesn’t that sound a lot more interesting? Doesn’t mean you can’t have sponsors (“This new Bill Plympton cartoon brought to you by Chap Stick!”), but make the pre-show something that people can only get at the movies (like Bugs Bunny cartoons and Vitaphone shorts used to be) and they’ll be happy to come. Hell, you can even advertise your pre-show as its own feature and then, after a couple of months, put them out on DVD for fans to enjoy. Crazy? Sure, all good ideas are in some way or another, but I think it can work. At the end of the day it’s all about putting asses on seats and no matter what they’re coming to see the movie going experience has to deliver. It’s time the chains do something unique in order to justify their existence.

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