Sunday, April 21, 2024

Op-Ed: Movie Theaters Are Clueless

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Movie theaters have learned nothing. I wish they had, but alas, they have, perhaps all too predictably, decided to march on as if there was no pandemic ravishing the world. Oh, they’ll admit there’s a pandemic whenever it comes to explaining why we are low on supplies–or the lack of hours. 

But when it comes to slow business, they are perplexed. Understand they have changed almost nothing about how they do business since the half-assed lockdown ended. Sure there are statewide mask mandates in certain states. But anyone who has been to a movie theater in the last few months knows that masks tend to come off in the dark. So once they are off, they stay off.

Ticket prices have not gone down, buffers in between seats have vanished, concessions are as expensive as always with fewer options because the supply chain has been interrupted. Employees are paid as little as possible and given so little work; we are what the state of California considers “underemployed.” In other words, my friends, things are not looking good.

A movie breaks 25 million dollars at the box office, and depending on who’s giving the report, that’s either a sign that the box office is returning to pre-pandemic health or it is an unmitigated flop. Whether AMC, Regal, and other theaters like it or not, things have changed. But they have done astonishingly little to adapt. Instead, it is the same old story; movie theaters have buried their heads in the sand and hope that time will eventually go backward instead of forward.

Shang-Chi comes out this weekend. Marvel has opted to roll out the film for theatrical release only, but the cast and crew will be doing virtual press. Theaters are happy; of course, they are. Candyman chose theatrical only, and CEOs of movie theaters couldn’t wait to pop the champagne.

Theaters are a business, and in America, business is built on breathtaking inhumane cruelty and petty inconveniences to guests. In America, businesses, and by extension theaters, cannot envision basic human decency unless there’s a profit margin to be exploited. If you disagree, try and get your parking validated. Or ask to use the bathroom without buying a movie ticket.

Don’t even get me started on how little they care about projection or the quality of the image for which they are grossly overcharging you the price of a ticket. Again, because a projection’s job is to stand by until they are needed, the theater can scarcely conceive of having anyone around who might know what they are doing.

I can hardly blame them since the average movie-goer is ignorant of how badly projected most of their movies are. This is such a self-evident truth that it is baffling that the rallying cry for the movie theater experience is still so potent. Movie theaters haven’t been about movies for quite a long time. As for “the experience,” that is, despite what they might claim, the least of their worries.

Movie theaters are used car lots, attempting to sell you the cheapest possible “experience” with the largest “premium” price tag legally allowed. All of this is darkly comical because if they wanted to make money hand over fist, the obvious solution would be to stop acting like it’s 1995, 2004, or even 2015. But, whether they like it or not, it’s 2021; the world has changed, and with it, our attitudes towards how we consume movies.

Now, if you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering what exactly the movie theaters could do? Easy, hire people who want to be there and pay them a fair and livable wage. But, first, understand that movie theaters have been the sole purpose and place for moving pictures to be shown ever since the beginning of movies. Yet, ever since the beginning, movie theaters have primarily been staffed by underpaid teenagers in part-time positions.

Though, I would argue another thing theaters would be well to understand, simply put, being open five days a week is archaic. If you are going to hire part-time help, maybe only be open part-time. By their own admission, they do not make money every single day, then why not just be available on the weekends and a weekday or two? 

One of the most obvious fixes is to hire union projectionists. Hire people qualified to make sure the film is projected correctly. If for no other reason, you could justify the exorbitant price tag. A price tag that takes money out of a working person’s wallet for overpriced candy and cheap soda. I’m sorry, it’s just plain boneheaded to be a movie theater and not have someone whose job it is to make sure the movie is playing and that the masking is set correctly.

But the most significant change they could make–and they’re going to hate this one– is do away with the megaplex. People have died. Those who have survived are facing homelessness and inescapable poverty. 

I’m not even remotely kidding. Bring back smaller theaters. Growing up in Independence, I had the AMC at the Noland Fashion Square, with six screens. I also had an AMC in the Blue Ridge Mall and one right across the street from the mall. Those were good experiences, although also plagued by overworked and underpaid employees.

There’s nothing in a megaplex that you couldn’t also get in a smaller theater. Nothing. I’m not saying do away with Dolby sound, I-Max, and other theatrical evolutions. But maybe don’t have fifteen regular houses and only two with better sound and picture quality.

Even better, keep your multiplexes, if it makes you feel any better, but bring back second-run houses, or as they called them in my day “dollar theatres.” Growing up, my mother cleaned houses and so we often saw movies in the dollar house. No, I’m not kidding; the price of a ticket at a dollar house was really one dollar. Dollar houses, which eventually became two dollars, were theaters for movies that had been out past their prime. 

In a world where economic stability is increasingly becoming as real as a Grimm’s Fairy Tale, the least movie theatres could do would be to meet us, the viewing public, halfway. A family of four going to the movies should not broach a hundred dollars. The fact that it does is almost criminal. But this being America, it means that it is a standard business practice. 

I’m just saying something’s gotta give. I’d rather it be something that wasn’t my life. 

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