What Theaters Can Do

December 19, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

Robert Iger is my hero. (Well, one of them.) The guy is unstoppable. Here's a man with some clout in the industry who believes that the release paradigm has to change - that the DVD release date needs to be rolled forward until it coincides (or nearly does so) with the theaterical release date. (His reasons have as much to do with stopping piracy than anything else, but that's another column.) Admittedly, things are going in this direction (King Kong, for example, is rumored to be headed for an April DVD date, which would be a four month gap). I'm a big proponent of convergence, and hope it happens - the sooner, the better. Today, however, I'd like to focus on one aspect.

Common wisdom dictates that convergence would be a disaster for theater owners. But, in reality, it shouldn't be. A well-run theater, dedicated first and foremost to serving its customers, would likely suffer a minimal drop-off in attendence (if any at all). But it's pretty hard to find theaters like that. In a perfect world, there's no doubt that watching a movie in an auditorium on a big screen is superior to watching it at home, no matter how good the home system is. But we are so far from a perfect world that such a fantasy-land doesn't even invade our deepest dreams.

What do movie theaters have to do to get to the point where they can compete with a same day-and-date DVD release? Simple. Become customer focused. Get rid of the before-movie ads. Limit previews to two or three (a compromise for those who want to see lots and those who don't want to see any). Start the movie on time (previews start 5-10 movies before the advertised starting time). Remove the sticky residue from the floors. Upgrade the seats to the most modern recliners. Calibrate sound and video properly. Don't turn down the projector bulbs. Make sure someone with experience is in the projection booth at the beginning of the film (to verify focus and framing), then have him/her check back every 10-15 minutes to make sure everything's still okay. Make ushers readily available in case a problem arises, and have spot checks of all the auditoriums so that trouble-makers can be removed. Quite a shopping list? Too expensive? (Consider the alternative...) Most multiplexes don't do any of these things, but I know of one 16-plex that does them ALL. And it's always packed. By adults. This place sometimes shows movies after they come out on DVD (Crash being the most recent example), and they still do good business with those titles. Why? Because going to a place like this is a good experience. It's a night out. Dinner and a movie. It's not an endurance trial, like going to the local Loews or AMC.

Plus, with theaters thirsting for additional revenue streams, they could sell DVDs of their current features in the lobby. Impulse buying would run rampant. People who loved the movie they just saw would buy a copy, even if it could be had for $10 cheaper on amazon.com. A successful theater that caters to its customers could make a killing this way.

Let me provide the following anecdote that emphasizes the need for theaters to "shape up." Last Friday, I received a DVD screener copy of The Family Stone from Fox. On the same day, I went to see the movie in a theater, following the dictate that most movies are better if seen on the big screen, and the theater's only 20 miles away. I watched the movie in a 24-plex with state-of-the-art stadium seating, then watched the DVD the next day. Much to my horror, the picture and sound were both better in my modest home theater set-up (65" screen) than in the multiplex (40' screen). How could this be? Poor quality control. Let me count the ways: the speakers were not properly calibrated, the projector lamp was turned down (images too dark), the film was out of frame for the first 10 minutes, and the focus was dubious throughout.

From now on, unless I'm going to the specific theater cited three paragraphs above, I'll chose my setup instead of that of a multiplex. If exhibitioners don't want everyone over the age of 35 to come to this realization (many already have), they had better start making changes that will enourage people to come back to their venues, not run in the other direction.