As a movie reviewer I probably spend more time in theaters than the average person. As a movie reviewer who—writing being a far from lucrative occupation—spent years working in theaters as well, I can guarantee that statement. In those capacities over the years, I’ve learned an awful lot about movie houses, how they work, what they do right, and what they do wrong. And I’ve also gotten a pretty good sense of what audiences do and don’t understand about how theaters work.
Essentially, there are two types of theaters—independents and corporate. In Asheville we have two independent theaters (the Fine Arts and The Carolina) and three corporate theaters (Beaucatcher, Biltmore Grande, Carmike). If you want to throw second-run theaters into the mix, we have Asheville Pizza and Brewing (independently owned) and the Cinebarre (owned by the same corporation—Regal Entertainment Group—that owns the Beaucatcher and the Biltmore Grande). From a viewer standpoint the distinction may seem unimportant, but it isn’t when you factor everything in.
First of all, the two theaters we look to for less mainstream, so-called “art house” fare are the independents. Corporate theaters only latch onto the highest profile, sure-fire art titles like The King’s Speech or Black Swan in an attempt to reap the benefits of the audience the independents cater to 52 weeks out of the year. You didn’t see Mother, Micmacs, I Am Love, Barney’s Version, The Illusionist, A Single Man, A Serious Man, Get Low, or anything like those films opening at a corporate theater. The only exceptions—apart from the gravy train titles—occur when there’s simply a lack of available product for their screens. (This is particularly true with the Beaucatcher and the Carmike, since their proximity to each other forbids them offering the same titles,)
Second, the independents are both more involved with and responsive to the community. For example, the Fine Arts plays host to the Asheville Filmmakers Group and the Jewish Film Festival. They were also a prime venue for the now-deceased Asheville Film Festival, and have frequently showcased screenings of works by local filmmakers. Similarly, The Carolina sponsors the Asheville Film Society (and, yes, I am the artistic director of that and as such am not a disinterested party), played host to the locally-grown Ricochet Film Festival, and offers frequent free events. But more, both theaters respond to requests and pay attention to understanding the local market in ways that corporate theaters aren’t equipped or allowed to do. The local manager of a corporate theater has little or no input when it comes to booking a film. The independents have an actual local presence and that matters.
That’s essentially what I have to say to moviegoers. Theaters are another matter altogether—not that I expect more than a couple of people in a position to take any of this to heart to read it.
Where to begin with this? OK, let’s start with the over-regimentation of theaters. In far too many instances, theaters are enamored of a model that they insist on sticking to—even if it’s outlived its usefulness (assuming it ever existed). Dressing your employees in demeaning costumes is, frankly, not cool. If you do insist on this, then at the very least don’t buy the cheapest, crummiest product you can find to dress those employees in.
Also, understand that employees are neither robots, nor are they parrots—and, in my experience, theater patrons want neither one. At one point not long ago, the patron at one theater was likely to hear the same ingrained phrase three times—box office, concession stand, theater entrance—before they actually made it to their movie. Really? No one wants this. It’s inane. Customers aren’t idiots and this treats them like they are. Your best bet lies in employees who are outgoing, helpful, friendly—and who don’t look like they’d rather be any place else on earth than in your theater. The best employee is a knowledgeable employee. Actively encourage your employees to see the movies that are showing in your theater. Don’t make it hard for them to do this—and by this I mean don’t forbid them to sit through the quality check screenings and don’t tell them they can’t see movies on opening weekend. You and I both know that you don’t sell every seat the house.
On the whole, moviegoers like the personal touch—not the pre-programmed one. If you have regular patrons, get the employees to recognize them and greet them as individuals and not as Joe Ticket-buyer. This isn’t hard to do and a pleasant face that remarks on being glad to see someone again (just be sure they actually have and aren’t saying it to just everybody) costs you nothing and makes the cutomer feel like you care.
Then let’s look at what are called “theater checks.” For the uninitiated, this is the business of having an employee walk down the aisle as ostentatiously as possible and pretend to check the exit door and maybe the thermostat. In theory, this is supposed to occur every 30 minutes. Well, guess what? It’s intrusive and distracting. Most everything the employee needs to know can be learned from the back of the theater. But here’s the catch—at least with coroporate theaters—if the employee isn’t highly visible, he or she is not going to draw the attention of that most-beloved of corporate money-wasters, the “mystery shopper,” and that gets the theater a black mark on their score sheet. So this down-the-aisle performance has little or nothing to do with theater patrons.
Here’s the catch to the whole idea: “Mystery shoppers” are unreliable at best. I’ve even seen reports that contained outright lies, such as describing non-existent employees. On one memorable occasion, I saw one that was apparently filed by persons who hadn’t actually been to the theater in question. The tickets stapled to the report had not been issued by that theater—something that escaped the notice of home office. The corporate mindset, however, is that the “mystery shoppers” are taken at their word. Come on, guys, for one thing these “shoppers” work like middle-management. In other words, they are determined to find fault in order to “prove” they’re doing their jobs—and justify their continued existence.
Let’s also consider movie scheduling. Now, I realize that it’s impractical for multiplexes to schedule movies without staggering them. If you have multiple screens, you cannot have everything start at the same time without creating chaos and a bottleneck that makes no one happy. There’s also the basic consideration of (usually) four shows a day (movies over 100 minutes) and five shows a day (movies under 100 minutes). Those considerations are reasonable enough.
Other considerations are less reasonable. One corporate group has opted to approach the films strictly as product and the audience as being comprised of uninformed viewers who go to this generic thing called “the movies.” The ideal here is to have a movie starting every five minutes, which is why it’s called the “five minute plan.” (I guess it’s like the old Soviet “five year plans” only shorter.) The notion is the audience will simply buy a ticket to whatever is starting next. Seriously? The viewer who came to see The King’s Speech is going to go see Gnomeo & Juliet because it starts next?
Here’s the thing, though, even allowing for the reasonable considerations, theaters would be well-advised to set their times and stick to them for the run of the engagement. OK, if your theater opening time changes, that’s understandably going to need dealing with. Similarly, if a film ends up being split with another title, time changes are inescapable. But otherwise, the business of massaging the times is counter-productive—especially, if you move them backwards. Why? For the simple fact that people might look at last week’s paper—a particular consideration on Fridays, when the viewer might well have gotten the times last night, If that movie that started yesterday at 1 p.m. suddenly starts today at 12:45, you risk a disappointed—possibly angry—customer. If you have to move it, move it ahead and then you’ve only inconvenienced the customer. Better still, though, leave the times of the older titles alone whenever possible and adjust the new titles to suit them.