Friday, November 11, 2016

Riske Business: What's Going on With Movie Theaters?

by Adam Riske
I used to love going the movies. I’m not sure that I do now.

For years, movie theater chains have been trying to figure out how to please their customer base. With an addition here and an addition there, theaters have become almost unrecognizable compared to just ten years ago. It’s my opinion that they’ve gotten much worse, and not for reasons like rising ticket prices or chatty moviegoers. It’s gotten to the point where it takes actual effort to seek out and find a “missionary” (i.e. normal) presentation of a movie. And that sucks.

Last week I went to my neighborhood theater to see Ouija: Origin of Evil. I hadn’t been to that theater in two months and I had heard they went through some refurbishments. I was curious, so I walked over for a movie. The theater has been one of those dine-in places for years, and while I was not a fan of it initially, I’ve grown used to it over time. As I headed into the auditorium, I noticed a sign near the door that said that to purchase food I should now go to the concession stand. No big deal, so I did. They had a dinner menu in addition to concessions, so I ordered a burger. Keep in mind I came about 20 minutes before my movie started. They gave me my drink when I paid, but for my burger I got a pager that would go off when my food was ready. They instructed me that when my pager went off I should go to the lobby and someone would walk over and bring me my food. I thought that was weird, but ok. My pager then goes off five minutes after the actual movie starts (not the previews) and I had to miss part of my movie as a result. Plus, the pager lit up like a Lite Brite and started audibly buzzing while in the darkened theater. I felt terrible. That’s so distracting for anyone around me.
My point with this story is that in the interests of innovation I think theaters are tone deaf to moviegoers' convenience. The food service is an annoyance, especially when you have to pay a bill during the third act of a film. But it’s not just that. There’s reserved seating (which people can’t seem to figure out despite there being reserved seating at things like airplanes, concerts, sporting events etc. for decades), 3D, IMAX, D-Box and so on and so forth. About the only addition I like are the recliners. It’s just getting to be too much. I’m exhausted when I even think about going to a movie these days. I still do, but I’ve noticed not as often anymore.

One more story, and this is more a personal gripe than anything. Have you noticed that every AMC Theaters location is beginning to look the exact same way? There used to be some variance, but now it’s become this mass homogenization. Everything’s red and the theaters are in these weird cube looking things that only seat a few dozen people instead of hundreds like before when it was stadium seating. It’s not the end of the world, but it doesn’t feel like a movie theater anymore. It’s more like being in a gumball machine. This all seemed to start when AMC introduced those talking AMC Amazing dots during their pre-show. I’m now realizing that was when they stormed the beach. Now they’ve won the war. We’re full dot.
I’m aware this column is coming across as Make Movie Theaters Great Again, but it’s a festering feeling I’ve had that I felt like writing about. I miss that movie theaters individually used to have personality, from their décor to their curation. Now every movie theater plays the same ten movies and they all are beginning to look the same. As a frequent moviegoer, that’s a bummer. It’s like if all of a sudden radio stations decided only to play today’s pop hits. And don’t get me started on so-called indie theaters. Most of the time they play mainstream films in half of their auditoriums and keep true indies for about a week, virtually giving them no shot to break out via word of mouth. Shit just is real corporate and that bums me out. What’s the point of having a movie theater if you’ve “improved” it to the point where people who love movies don’t want to go there anymore? I’m sure I’m not alone in this feeling.

Am I crazy or has going to the movies gotten a lot worse?


  1. Can't really comment on most of this, partially due to my job, and partially because my movie-watching experience tends to be at the theater where I work which doesn't have any of the odd food-service stuff.

    As far as the last part goes though about indie theaters showing more mainstream stuff, (and this is complete speculation based on reading the news and not anything I've heard through my work) I wonder if it has anything to do with "clearances" and the anti-trust investigations. Many of the major studios now have backed away from clearances, so many theaters that may have been indie simply because they couldn't get many of the mainstream movies are now having more of that product available to them. It's interesting stuff to look up if you have an interest in theater business practices.

  2. my problem with going out to the movies is not about the movies themselves. while mainstream takes more place, there's plenty of good movies to find around town. at least my town (montreal, canada)

    the only problem i have is the other moviegoers. they talk, they eat (the f***in smells), they check their phones, or actually talk on their phones. and not forget those annoying people who react way too much to what's happening on the screen.

    that last one is double-edge. sometimes, when a full theatre react together to something, it's very fun. it's really disturbing when it's only one or two guys. i still have PTSD when i watch deadpool because there was 2 guys reacting way too much to the jokes, to the point of shouting.

    i still go, sometimes. but not that often

  3. You are not crazy. You are not wrong. These are real problems for movie fans.

  4. I have every "type" of theater around me within one hour driving distance (no AMCs) and I say that because it's an anomaly of where I live in the South/Southeast. It certainly helps with still having a love in going out to the "show" as my grandparents call it.

    Most theaters are still "missionary" theaters, with some variances between them all. In the town I live in, Carmike is missionary, but it's the worst theater on earth. Literally films don't start until 35 minutes (I've timed it several times over the years) after the start time, because of commercials and starting the previews 10 minutes after the start time. I've complained, others have also, to no avail. So why not just come in later? Because 75% of the audience doesn't know this fact, and come on time, like one's supposed to, so if you come on late, it's packed and YOU look like the asshole. I rarely go here, but, it's the closest to me.

    There's a locally owned and run mom and pop. 2 cinema that usually only shows kids movies and family films but sometimes gets action flicks that ill go to. And I see all the superhero flicks here too. In the wake of 3D renovations that was a do or literally die move, they have the best, most huge non IMAX screens around. It's a great missionary style theater.

    Then driving over a state border to NC I have all the fancy art houses, and Regals. For a multiplex, Regal is the best my money can buy. It's still missionary, great comfort, nice screens, they got The Hateful Eight Roadshow version in 70mm. The art house theaters all offer something different. From movies to docs and food, with the buzzers exactly like you described. It works smoothly for the most part. It also has an upstairs lounge that you can take your food if you get there mega early (I do) and watch TCM or horror movies or something is always playing on a huge projector home theater. It's really a nice experience. Asheville, NC is a great Mecca for film in the South, where there isn't much.

    Then, driving north if I want to go an hour the other direction I'll be in Virginia at a brand new Marquee. This is the assigned seating, recliner in every theater type-but no food. The screens are nice. The recliners suck. They aren't comfortable, like at all, they squeak when you barely move, and forget about when someone, you, pushes the button on the seat to make it auto recline or decline back's a maddening, loud AF noise. The assigned seating hasn't been a problem yet, no horror stories like Patrick's.

    There are a few others around me but they are just regulars, and a second run $3 theater, but I don't have many exciting details. I usually pick them based on where I want to eat.

  5. Here in Victoria, BC moviegoing has actually gotten better. We have a big multiplex that is really nice, and I've only once had a problem with people talking/texting excessively. We've got a mid-sized theatre downtown that shows lesser-known movies, but nothing too out-there. For really hard-to-find films we have a theatre at the university that has a lot of personality - I just saw 2001 there for the first time on the big screen!

  6. Couldn't agree with this more. Speaking of the red dots, can we also address how the pre-show encourages us to talk to a staff member if we see any "suspicious looking monsters" or "shady looking secret spies"? They're pretty much telling us to be on the lookout for shooters in the most thinly veiled metaphor. Anyways, this always gives me a chuckle. Beware of homicidal dots!

  7. Feeling much the same. All the extra stuff isn't hard to avoid where I live (I'm sure it's different in Chicago), but it's the movie selection. I think my tastes are just changing. I'm just more interested in the weird and different. I'm fascinated by stuff on the indie VOD scene (particularity horror), but mostly uninterested in most every theatrical preview I see. I still see all superhero stuff because I'm a slave to it, but even that's starting to wane. Indie stuff and just old movies are most of what I watch now, and the movie theaters rarely give me that. I'm no where near the regular I used to be and that makes me sad. I guess I'm more #MakeHollywoodGreatAgain

  8. Good topic.

    Getting older means lower tolerance levels for bullshit, so that will play a part.
    But, multiplexes agressively do not give a crap about your experience. Try getting into the mood of Spike Jones' Her while one of the Transformers/Marvel sequels is blarring through the wall of the adjacent screen (thanks Tottenham Road Odeon). Still waiting for a response to my feedback on that episode.
    Or how about having a chatty couple talk through the ENTIRE Captain Phillips as if they own the cinema, and then giving you shit when you suggest that the foyer would be a better place for them to have a chat.

    The multiplex is dead for me.
    Independent cinemas cost a bunch and take ages to get to and from, but I still go occassionally.
    I do make it my business to go to the cinema when the show is an event that I can't recreate, like seeing Tron Legacy at the IMAX in 3D. Whether the movie is good or not is besides the point; seeing it on such a massive screen, with such a good sound system, and in 3D made it the best movie going experience I've had in the last 6 odd years. I'd sturggle to think of other memorable ones.

    In the meanwhile, I have a 50" screen in my living room. I can start and stop the film whenever I want. I can have popcorn or burgers, or even a healthy alternative, and I can have it at a reasonable cost. I can have a rowdy bunch of buddies over for a sociable experience, or, if I feel like just being with the film, I can watch it on my own without fear of someone live tweeting the movie to their friends.
    It's tough for a cinema to compete with that, and I wonder at times whether the cinema is on its way out like the drive-in, or (snif-snif) video shops.

    Maybe we're just chasing a dragon that doesn't deliver the same buzz that it did in the past?

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  10. I couldn't agree more. They are trying to make going out to the movies a "premium experience" but doing all the wrong things to achieve it.

    The recliners are nice and all but people (senior citizens mostly) keep falling asleep in showings I've been to or they are adjusting their recliners back and forth during the movie which is annoying as there is an audible mechanical hum every time they do so.

    With the assigned seating, half of the time somebody is in my seat and gives me an attitude when I ask them to vacate it. People are stumbling around in confusion and using the lights on their phones to find a seat during the first 10 minutes of a movie.

    Also, I don't like picking out my seat until I'm in the actual auditorium because they come in all shapes and sizes (even within the same multiplex). I don't know where I want to sit until I can see how far away the screen is, how big the screen is, and how high up a specific stadium row is relative to the height of the screen.

    These new renovations have resulted in far fewer seats. I saw Doctor Strange in the newly updated IMAX screen at the Regal theater in Lincolnshire and there are only 3 stadium rows now plus the 2 rows way at the bottom where nobody wants to sit! This is highly problematic as just last year I attended showings of Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens that were completely sold out at a time when that auditorium had 3 times as many seats. So what's going to happen when Rogue One opens? I'll need to be online the very second tickets go on sale just so I can get to see it opening night in a decent seat? That sucks! Ain't nobody got time for that!

    Lastly, I might sound crazy saying this but... I'm going to miss standing in line outside that IMAX screen. I've met some really nice people and had some great conversations while waiting to be seated. Now that tradition is gone and nobody talks to each other before the movie because there's no reason to show up early.

    The most memorable movie-going experience I had this year was seeing The Hateful Eight at the Music Box back in January. No annoying commercials, no stupid talking dots, no fancy robotic seats, just a great movie presented by a professional projectionist in an auditorium full of hundreds of excited movie goers. Now THAT was a "premium experience" I will forever cherish. My experience at the multiplex these days is about as memorable as trip to Target.

  11. That all sounds very annoying. I guess I can't really relate because in my small city which has an area population around 100,000 we only have one multi-plex theater and it never really plays anything unique. At least you have choices in your area and places like the Music Box and others that you guys talk about that hold special screenings and events. We're lucky if we get an event at ours, the only good one really was a screening of Back to the Future 2 last October on BTTF Day.

  12. To your point about "indie" theaters: This has been one of my biggest frustrations. I live in a college town, and we have a great local theater that really does some cool events, shows some classic films, hosts writers and does skype sessions with filmmakers etc. However, they only tend to show indie movies that fit within the "indie" genre. You won't find any cool genre movies here, just quirky twee comedies, some foreign dramas, or off-beat documentaries. It's better than it could be, but I feel like the films they show, especially late in the year, are just mainstream stuff that also showed at my local multiplex. Just checked their schedule and they'll be showing Fantastic Beasts later in the month.

    Anyway, I wish I could see a wider variety of indie movies, not just the ones that fit the tastes of upper middle class white academics.

  13. Assigned seating? No problem. I think the last time I went to a cinema without assigned seating may be 20 years ago. In Germany there a virtually no theaters without assigned seating. And at the counter you can see on monitors how the theater is designed and where the screen is located. So to me that´s perfectly fine.

    Serving food? I hate that. It´s disturbing, it smells. Get a drink and some popcorn or ice cream. Luckily that´s all you get in the theaters I frequently visit. If I want to have dinner, I go to a restaurant.

    Fancy seats? Never saw something like recliners in any moviehouse here. I´m happy with the simple seats I´m used to. the wake of the 3D-refurbishments a few years ago, everything went digital and the professional projectionists are gone. And that´s a real problem. On nearly every second movie I have to go outside to ask at the counter for a higher volume. Those damn commercials are blaring at the most earsplitting volume, but the movie starts with a volume lower than what I have on the TV at home. Just last week I sent a mail to the theater I visit the most and complained about the ongoing volume problem. In return I got two free tickets and the assurance, that from now on they will check the volume in each of the seven rooms right when the movie starts. We´ll see...
    The most annoying point is still the general audience, lacking any respect for the movie or for the other people around them.
    So yes, I still go to the movies nearly every week, but a lot of the fun I once had is gone due to bad presentation or bad audience.

  14. I'm getting turned off to going to theaters as well because of the assigned seating thing.
    There's a 15 screen theater near me that the venues are not all set up the same. The difference between the third row in one theater is very different in others. I'm supposed to have the layouts of 15 theaters memorized? About the only thing I can say positive is that they put the Fathom Events in the same theater every time.
    Meanwhile, you want seats that were taken before you bought yours...and then they don't show up? Do you get into trouble if you move?
    And before you say that sounds crazy....
    I went to see "The Mads" (Trace and Frank from MST3K) this weekend at Alamo Drafthouse. I printed my tickets at home when I bought them a month before. They decided to change theaters for the show between then and the performance. When the server came to my seat to talk about ordering he looked at my ticket and went, "You're in the wrong theater". I asked how could that be since there's only one live show with these gentlemen at that time? He made me get up and go to the ticket counter and have my ticket re-printed... I've written to Alamo and let them know how obnoxious that was and how it will influence whether or not I come back.