January 7, 2010

Man Rant -- This Week's Exercise -- Movie Theaters

With the advent of big screen HD TVs, with 7.1 (fixed) channel speaker subwoofer-enabled surround sound, Blu-Ray DVDs, and streaming hi-definition video, one probably can't blame the large theater chains from attempting to squeeze out every penny of revenue, at the expense of the average movie-going consumer. They're acutely aware that, save for the collective experience involving the groans, cheers, and gasps of a packed house and the size and volume of the presentation (although it should be noted that these are factors that can slide negatively as well as positively), Johnny Q. Public can more or less replicate the entire cinematic experience from the comfort of their own Barcalounger. This technological great leap forward also translates into zero home-based issues with price-gouging, inadequate parking, rude fellow movie-goers, and the non-stop inundation of advertising. When convenience catches up with the previously exclusive sensory experience, that should rightly ring capitalist alarm bells.

It's the pre-movie commercials that irk me the most. I generally don't have a problem with advertising. It IS part of everyday life. Advertising pays for content so I don't have to. That's why the Superbowl isn't on pay-per-view, and it's how the networks, newspapers, magazines, websites, and other content providers continue (or don't continue) to keep the lights on. But the ubiquity of marketing doesn't mean there are not differing degrees of personal interaction. For most people, it comes down to active or passive compliance with advertising. The biggest factor for whether one shows passivity or not may also involve their value of personal time. It may be a by-product of billing time by the hour in law firms for twenty years, but my personal time has intrinsic value to me. I actively resist when the alternative to choice is to be either proselytized to or marketed to. In other words, I don't care what you're selling, be it butter, guns or God, I'd rather check it out on my own based on my pre-determined necessity or desire. If I want or need a car, I'll look around on-line, I'll go to a dealership or three, and let you or your functional equivalents try to sell me a car. But if I don't have to watch a car commercial, because I don't want or need a car, then I will choose whatever means possible to fast-forward through the advert with my DVR, close the pop-up, ignore the billboard, page through the magazine, or most likely on-line, make the advertisement a free-floating part of the background... peripheral, if economically necessary, eye pollution (in lieu of installing an ad-blocker). In any case, I have some semblance of CONTROL over my environment -- perhaps it's illusory, perhaps not -- where I can simply walk (or click) away from an ad. In the theater, that's just not the case. I'm stuck watching fifteen minutes of ads for the National Guard, Coca-Cola, Sprint, and all sorts of non-movie-related hucksterism (I don't have a problem with trailers, per se, as long as there aren't fifteen in a row. I see coming attractions as germane to the reason why I came to the movies in the first place, to see something that interests me). With theater commercials, I'm literally a captive audience, unless I want to show up late, potentially losing a seat or the chance to sit next to someone I want to see the movie with. It's a gambit, where I as the consumer, get to play chicken with a movie's starting time.

This in and of itself isn't the dealbreaker, it's the fact that I'm PAYING FOR THE PRIVILEGE OF BEING SHOWN COMMERCIALS. The theaters are taking the dead air between sitting my ass in a seat and waiting for a movie to start as lucrative revenue generators. If I'm at a free or dirt-cheap concert, and Coca-Cola runs a spot or plasters the place with ads in exchange for making the concert free or dirt-cheap, then fine. But there is NO reciprocity in terms of lowering the price of the movie ticket to offset the revenue generated by the in-seat ads. According to sources such as this Slate article, "some advertisers are paying more than $50,000 per screen annually, especially to theaters willing to pump up the volume to near ear-shattering level so that seated customers will pay attention. Since there are virtually no costs involved in showing ads, the proceeds go directly to the theater chains' bottom lines." I find it hard to believe that theater owners can legitimately make the argument that commercials are being shown to keep DOWN ticket prices. We went to a matinee showing of Avatar, with no 3D (fuck 3D movies by the way, a rant for another time), and the tickets were $8.50 apiece. A matinee showing with 3D would have cost $10.50 each, $14.00 per during evening "prime time" showtimes. This is in the D.C. suburbs, not in the middle of Manhattan, by the way. How far can the price point rise where you can legitimately claim that your expenses cannot be met by actual ticket sales, and commercial advertising is necessary to avoid sinking into the red? I hardly feel jaded and cynical to think that captive-audience commercials reflect a profit center, rather than a "cost of doing business." The lack of choice in whether to participate in the commercialist enterprise is the odious part. How about I pay full price for no commercials, and people who want them or don't care one way or the other pay a dollar less and see it on a different screen, hmmm? Because my other alternative is to skip the theater altogether. That works too, and as noted earlier, is becoming less and less of a qualitative difference viewing-wise. And I also get to skip, bypass, fast-forward, or main-menu my way past any fucking commercials.

And then there's the movie theater food. There's a racket. According to the Slate article linked to earlier:
[Theater owners] are in the fast-food business, selling popcorn, soda, and other snacks. This is an extremely profitable operation in which the theaters do not split the proceeds with the studios (as they do with ticket sales). Popcorn, for example, because of the immense amount of popped bulk produced from a relatively small amount of kernels—the ratio is as high as 60:1—yields more than 90 cents of profit on every dollar of popcorn sold. It also serves to make customers thirsty for sodas, another high-margin product (supplied to most theater chains by Coca-Cola, which makes lucrative deals with theater owners in return for their exclusive "pouring" of its products). One theater chain executive went so far as to describe the cup holder mounted on each seat, which allows customers to park their soda while returning to the concession stand for more popcorn, as "the most important technological innovation since sound." He also credited the extra salt added into the buttery topping on popcorn as the "secret" to extending the popcorn-soda-popcorn cycle throughout the movie. For this type of business, theater owners don't benefit from movies with gripping or complex plots, since that would keep potential popcorn customers in their seats. "We are really in the business of people moving," Thomas W. Stephenson Jr., who then headed Hollywood Theaters, told me. "The more people we move past the popcorn, the more money we make."

Greedy bastards. A large popcorn at the Regal theater we went to went for $8.00. That's equivalent to buying at a Safeway or Giant three, probably four, boxes of microwave popcorn, with four to six bags in each box. I could fill a trashbag with that much popcorn. But I'm okay with paying that much for a salty bucket's worth at the movie theaters. And it's deadly -- here are the dietary specs for 1 large popcorn -- 1640 calories, 1134 calories from fat. There are 126 grams of fat in a Regal Cinema large popcorn, which is 194% of the daily recommended value of fat, and a whopping 73 grams are saturated fat, a coronary-inducing 365% of the daily recommended limits. "Would you like extra butter and salt on that?"

Don't like popcorn, how about an $8 egg roll? $7 nachos? How about the Regal's "Kid's Meal" for $6.75, which includes popcorn, candy, and for $1.50 more, a big cup of Freezie/Slushie. Just like mom used to make. Obesity doesn't come cheap, apparently. And how about that customer service? Rarely, and I mean rarely, have I met a group of individuals who either hated me or hated what they do more than the slugs and misanthropes running the ticket and concession counters at the theater chains. I'd rather deal ten times out of ten with the barely English-speaking Guatemalan refugees running things at your average McDonald's over the surly, zit-faced, indignant, high school-remembering-as-the-best-years-of life, wage-slaves at the movies slinging Twizzlers with attitude.

Clearly, the business plan for big chain theaters appears to be entirely reliant on unskilled labor and disposable income, not unlike most drug dealers. And I'm not so sure I can afford the fix anymore. There is probably a bright side though, as now I'm a lot more interested in investigating independent theaters in the Washington D.C. metro area. Maybe I wait an extra month for a popular movie, maybe not. But after the commercially obnoxious saturation bombing I'm seeing from AMC, Loews, Regal and other chains, it might be the best and only valid alternative, even if it costs an extra buck or two...


  1. A few years back, I would have eagerly co-signed your complaints about pre-show advertising. I can remember saying nearly all those same things as that trend rose.

    However, I have to admit that it annoys me a lot less now, because the theaters I visit seem to have changed their approach to address my biggest complaints. Namely, although they still run some ads, they now start running those ads several minutes *before* the advertised showtime, wrapping up in time for the lights to dim and the trailers to begin rolling at showtime.

    Thus, while I'm still something of a captive audience for the ads when I show up early to get my pick of seats, at least the ads don't factor into when the movie starts. If it's a movie that's been out for a few weeks (like most movies I see), then I can successfully miss them all by walking in just before showtime.

    I've also never been terribly bothered by theater prices, but only because I never buy theater food. The last time I remember buying food at the movies was when I'd missed supper and desperately needed something to eat. Otherwise, I generally take something of a schadenfreude attitude towards the folks who pay the theater's prices.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Loren. Your point is well-taken. But my base response is that just because I can find (sometimes inconvenient) ways around bad corporate behavior, and other people tolerate and get used to it doesn't justify it. A lot of us just roll over and accept gouging and pervasive marketing we would have screamed bloody murder about twenty or thirty years ago. I'm actually old enough to remember when movie theaters showed cartoons and shorts before main features, not ten minutes of commercials.