Multiplex Tales

January 18, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

As the economy worsens, it's legitimate to ask how this is impacting the motion picture industry, if at all. It's a time-honored tradition that, in bad times, people often turn to entertainment as a means of escape. At about ten dollars per ticket, movies are still cheap when compared to theater, concerts, and sports. But will there come a time when even $10 is deemed as being too much, especially considering some of what film distributors are peddling?

It's a curious thing that while my website traffic is up, my revenue is down. Way down. My daily visitor count hasn't been this high since last spring, but I have never seen these kinds of low revenues. It's a combination of low click-through rates and low payments for impressions. The same seems to be true across-the-board, but those websites devoted to movies are among those being hit the hardest. It's interesting to look a little deeper into the statistics, though. The growth in my site is not from people reading new reviews, it's from people reading ReelThoughts and reviews of films newly minted on DVD. The titles of theatrical releases are, in general, not exciting those who visit this site. Over the past few years, the ReelViews demographic has shifted dramatically, skewing older. On January 1, 2005, approximately 40% of those visiting this site were 18 years old or younger. The number hadn't changed much as of January 1, 2008. But this year, it's down to 20%.

So what does that mean? The area of the population dominating multiplex viewing is no longer visiting text-centric movie review sites. Take away the teenagers, and this site is gaining in popularity. Include them, and it's nearly stagnant, with their decreasing numbers offsetting increases across other age groups. Web-based advertisers recognize this. They see the demographic profile and spend accordingly. As a result, I'm not getting the same lucrative ads I got a year ago because the average age of my visitors has gone up. Yes, it's about the economy, but it's about more than that.

I spoke to a multiplex manager this week and he acknowledged that every year the number of adults attending his theater drops. He said that, except for "event movie" weekends, the Friday night/Saturday night crowd may be as much as 80% under age 20. Friday night, he walked into a theater showing My Bloody Valentine 3D and, by his estimate, 1/3 of the audience was under 17. He doesn't have the manpower to prevent such massive sneak-ins. In fact, the studios don't want to discourage this kind of practice since it's getting kids to multiplexes. As long as they're there, they will pay to see something even if it isn't the movie they're actually seeing.

For children and young adults to continue seeing a movie per week, they need to be able to make the money and it's an open question whether that will continue to happen. Some get that much (or more) as an allowance, but what happens if one or both parents are laid off? Baby-sitting and lawn mowing jobs are another possible source of income, but those can dry up quickly in a bad economy. And what about fast food jobs? Although the number of burgers being bought isn't decreasing noticeably, the pool of available workers has increased and, given the choice, most restaurants would prefer hiring older. The closure of stores like Circuit City is causing a further glut in the low-skill employment market, which is where many teens get their spending money.

To this point, the impact to multiplexes has been negligible, but I wonder if that will still be the case as we get into the early spring, especially if the economy continues to founder. January's unemployment number is going to be a disaster. (The firm where I work cut 10% of its work force this past week.) A strong, sexy roster of movies might mitigate a revenue downturn, but 2009 is looking like one of the weakest years (at least in terms of generating widespread excitement) since the '80s.

One would think multiplexes would be doing everything possible to widen their potential customer base in case the bottom of the teen marketplace begins to crumble. But that does not appear to be the case. In fact, based on two recent experiences I had, there is every reason to believe that quality control at multiplexes has reached an all-time low. Poor projection and general incompetence are not good ways to lure customers through the doors. Many adults turned away from movie theaters because of lesser annoyances. Magnifying the problems is not going to get them to return. Teens often don't care about these things. Adults frequently do.

Recently, I attended a midnight screening of a high-profile movie. It was something for which I had missed the press screening but was eager to see. 3/4 of the way through the movie, the fire alarm went off. It took about five minutes before anyone entered the theater to clear us out. The movie continued playing. There was no sense of urgency. Once we were all outside the building, the employees locked the doors and went about their business inside. They did not leave. No fire engines came. In fact, the alarm had stopped going off before the building was evacuated. We were given "re-admission" tickets but most of us waited outside, mistakenly believing that when the all-clear was given, we would be allowed back in to see the rest of the movie. Eventually, after 15 minutes, someone came out to tell us to go home.

The way in which this situation was handled was unacceptable. Clearly, the false alarm was identified early (otherwise the place would have been crawling with firemen) but the employees, apparently eager to get home, decided this was a good way to shorten their evening. There was no manager on-site or, if there was, he/she never made an appearance during the "evacuation." Also, consider that those who attend midnight showings are usually there because they are die-hards. A theater with a commitment to its customers would have waited until everything was decreed to be safe, then re-admitted those who wanted to see the rest of the movie. It's not as if there was a 3 a.m. show that the staff had to prepare for. I don't blame the theater for the alarm, but everything they did after it sounded was bungled. The evacuation should have been quick and orderly. (I shudder to think what would have happened if there had been an actual emergency.) The situation should have been clearly explained to the patrons. And, once it was determined that there was no danger, the remainder of the movie should have been shown. Is that too much to ask? Apparently, in this day and age, it is.

On another occasion, the movie started in the wrong aspect ratio. It should have been flat (1.85:1) but was shown in scope (2.35:1), distorting the image (you know - short, fat people). I informed the manager of the problem and she indicated it would be fixed. Five minutes later, the projector was turned off and the house lights went up. Following a 7-minute break, the film returned… with exactly the same problem and two new ones: it was out of focus and off-center. For the next five minutes, someone constantly fiddled with the focus. Then the movie went off again. When it returned, the focus was fixed but the aspect ratio was not. I returned to the manager and informed her that there was still a problem. She proceeded to argue that the issue had been fixed. I ended up having to watch the entire movie in the wrong aspect ratio because I had a review due.

If movie theaters begin to suffer, it won't just be the economy. That may be a contributing factor, but poor movie selection and unacceptable quality control will be just as important. Maybe a mass wave of multiplex failures will be just what's necessary to function as a wake-up call. Theaters belong to the service industry. It's time they started delivering true "service." Those who pay for the experience of seeing a movie deserve to enjoy it, not endure it.