The Exhibitors' Last Gasp

October 02, 2017
A thought by James Berardinelli

This ReelThought was originally published on July 1, 2017 as a Patreon members’ exclusive.

When I was younger, I loved amusement parks. Okay, so I wasn’t wild about the loop-de-loop rides or the ones that spun in circles but the wooden roller coaster…give me a fast track and a couple of long, steep drops and I’d stand in line for hours. Back then, I also loved movie theaters but because of the content not the amenities. In the 1970s and 1980s, theaters were utilitarian: seats in the dark with screens and speakers. It was the job of the movie, not the venue, to transport the viewer to another reality.

I could rattle off the names of the theaters I frequented in my pre-teen and high school years but they wouldn’t mean much to anyone who didn’t live in the area. Only one is still in operation all these years later. They were mostly duplexes and triplexes. There was one grand five-plex with spacious auditoriums (one seated over 1000 people) that suffered from being a “the bad part of town”. There was a glorious 2000-seat plaza that was bisected in 1983. The biggest multiplex in that era was a shiny new AMC 8-plex that opened in 1983 (that’s the one still around today).

What were theaters like circa 1980? The memory that sticks out is the tacky floors. Sticky from spilled soda, the poorly cleaned concrete floors grabbed greedily at sneakers, boots, and shoes. Flip-flops were most vulnerable; it was possible to lose one in a moment of carelessness. The seats were often threadbare with springs barely concealed by too little padding. Leg room was laughably bad. People with long legs were s.o.l. In packed auditoriums, you prayed no one tall would sit in front of you or you’d lose half the screen. And, if you sat close to the front, you couldn’t rest your head against the seat back because it only came up to your shoulder blades.

Still, when the house lights went down, the magic took over. All the theater brands had their own jingles. For whatever reason, I remember the GCC one the most clearly. Pre-show crap (Buy soda! Buy candy! Buy gift certificates!) lasted about 30 seconds. That was followed by maybe two previews (three if you were lucky), each lasting maybe 90 seconds. The movie typically started no more than five minutes after the posted time. There were no pre-show advertisements or “musical entertainment.” People knew enough not to talk (most of the time). PDAs were reserved for the back row so as not to disturb other patrons. Generally speaking, audiences were well-behaved.

As the years passed, things changed. Smaller multiplexes went out of vogue, giving way to megaplexes – complexes the size of small malls with stadium seating and overpriced snack bars whose menu items vied with each other for which one was more likely to promote obesity. Megaplexes were the children of the 1990s and most were constructed between 1992 and 2005. They started out as wonderful places to spend time and quickly replaced malls and arcades as meeting places for teenagers. If you ventured out to any 20-plex on a Friday or Saturday evening in 1994, it would be mobbed by the under-17 crowd, all having been dropped off by parents. They would often purchase tickets to a PG-13 title and sneak into something rated R.

Theaters wanted new revenue streams so they sold the pre-showing period to canned “entertainment programs” that were about 10% content and 90% advertisements. The biggest problem with those, whether they were just audio, audio+slides, or video, was that they impeded conversation. You could no longer chat with a date or friend while waiting for the movie to start. You were a prisoner to the inane “bonus content” being provided by the theater.

Theaters didn’t start to realize that they might be endangered until the early 1990s. The VCR revolution of the 1980s, although initially scaring them, proved to be a boost to business. In the early days, video was seen as a chance to re-experience a movie you had seen and loved in theaters. Then it offered a chance to see something you might have missed. By 1990, theaters saw home video as complementary not competitive. After all, movie theaters were big with bold sound. TVs were (for the most part) small, topping out at 30” for a Sony XBR that weighed about 100 pounds. The quality of VHS was abysmal. Then the home video revolution arrived.

Seemingly overnight, VHS was replaced by DVD (we’ll ignore laserdiscs which were popular only with home video enthusiasts – at one point, I owned 400 of them). Plasma TVs allowed screen sizes to double and quadrupole. Audio setups rivaled those of the best theaters. When I moved into my first house in 2000, I had a home theater setup that featured a 65” rear projection HDTV, laserdisc and DVD players, a five-speaker setup, and lots of bells & whistles. Watching a movie in that room offered a superior experience to watching it in a theater. And I wasn’t the only one realizing that.

Suddenly, the multiplexes became worried. Very worried. They feared they wouldn’t be able to compete. So they started rushing out “innovations” like 3D and Fake IMAX to give people reasons not to stay home. Meanwhile, studios began shrinking the window between the theatrical release date and the home video debut. What had been a year in the mid-1980s had dropped to six months in 2000 and is now in the three-month range for many titles. (Chicken-and-egg question: Did the theater-to-video window shrink because of the rise of the must-see-first-weekend phenomenon, or did that phenomenon result from the window shrinking?)

There have been rumblings of day-and-date theatrical/home video releases for years. Currently, Magnolia is the only distributor to routinely explore this field, and that’s because Mark Cuban owns both Magnolia and Landmark Theaters. Going forward, it’s inevitable that this approach is going to start bleeding through the industry. An increasing number of indie and mid-range films are going to be released with either a collapsed (maybe 2 week) window or no window at all. Bigger films may see the window shrink to six weeks.

The problem for theaters is that their economic interests are no longer perfectly aligned with those of the studios. It used to be that was good for one was good for the other. That’s no longer necessarily the case. Distributors are interested in maximizing profits and, at least in the United States, that increasingly means diversification. If you go to a megaplex on a Friday night when a blockbuster is opening, the halls and snack bars are alive. There are a lot of people there. Go instead on a Tuesday afternoon, Wednesday evening, or even Saturday morning. The place is dead. Or go when there’s nothing “hot” playing. Megaplex revenue is becoming increasingly unstable. Theaters have to find a way to attract customers or they will die.

In the 1970s and 1980s, exhibitors realized that the “old” model of a single, large auditorium was no longer profitable. For decades, the model had always been bigger is better. In 1975, it wasn’t difficult to find single theaters that seated 1000, 2000, or even 3000 people. The term “multiplex” was unknown (although there were some duplexes and triplexes). Today, the average megaplex has between 16 and 24 auditoriums. Most seat about 200-300 people. There are a few smaller ones with ~100 seats and a few larger ones with 400-500 seats. Fake IMAX theaters typically seat about 500-800 – those are usually the largest houses.

It's rare that a 500-seat theater sells out. Very rare. In fact, outside peak hours for highly anticipated titles, it’s rare that a 200-seat theater sells out. The average 24-plex has between 6500 and 7000 seats spread across all its houses. On a Friday night when a hot movie is playing, perhaps half those seats will be full. Attendance has become a major problem and, no matter what a theater does, it’s not possible to increase those numbers. It has become a war of attrition. The struggle now is retention – how to hold the numbers where they are and keep them from declining. What will encourage movie-goers not to abandon the theater experience in favor of the ever-more-enticing “watch at home” option?

There’s no one answer but a popular option is the so-called “deluxe” experience. What if, instead of regular seats, theaters offer double-width leather recliners with footrests and a ton of arm and leg room? What if all seating is reserved, eliminating waiting in lines or the possibility of being stuck in the front row? What if refreshments can be delivered to seats? What if food menus are expanded to make theaters more like restaurants? AMC has been the most aggressive in implementing these changes, although other chains are following suit. According to someone I spoke to, AMC intends to convert nearly all of their auditoriums by 2020. Recliner/reserved seat theaters require more than double the footprint per chair, cutting down seating by anywhere between 50% and 65%. A conventional 300-seat house could become a reserved 100-seat house. However, because megaplexes are currently operating at less than 50% capacity, drastically cutting the number of seats isn’t going to hurt business.

I started this piece by referencing amusement parks, and that’s another approach currently being used. Although there are only a handful of “4D” theaters across the country, large format theaters with so-called “butt-kick” recliners are becoming popular. These add a physical dimension to the movie: chairs that shake and buck at certain times. Since 3D can be replicated at home (actually, the home version of 3D is vastly superior to the theatrical kind), theaters have to offer an experience that can’t be duplicated in a living room. Seats that shake and swerve, smells that permeate the air, light sprays of water – all these things are being tested.

We are moving inexorably to a point where movie theaters will resemble amusement parks. Eventually, all conventional seats will have been replaced by bigger, plusher recliners. Some theaters will operate like dinner shows. Others will be full-blown rides, perhaps even with restraints. And movies (at least blockbusters) will change to feed into the experience. We’ve seen this already. People like blaming the brain-drain of big-budget movies on the international market but this is being done as much to mesh with the desire of domestic theaters to present an “experience.” It’s not that people don’t want movies that tell stories; it’s that theaters are increasingly becoming devoted to showing spectacles. It’s the only way they can survive.

10 years from now, I think a great many multiplexes will have failed, unable to compete because they can’t afford the necessary renovations. Those that remain will be geared toward interactive entertainment. Larger venues may be able to devote a few token screens to “traditional” movies but that’s not the wave of the future. For people like me, who enjoy the simple experience of sitting in a theater allowing the magic of cinema to open a gateway to another world, these changes seem more destructive than constructive. But I’m in a minority and will have to adjust. There are too few of us for theaters to be able to consider our tender feelings moving forward, just as they dismissed us when they started pre-showing advertising. It’s a matter of economics, not art. And that means, for better or worse, real movies are headed for home viewing while blockbusters will be the next great indoor thrill-ride. Fasten your seatbelts [literally] – it’s going to be a bumpy [ride].