Unless I am with hardcore film geeks, it seems like every time a group of friends or relatives talks about movies, they vent about why they don't go out to see movies in theaters as much anymore. It's too expensive, they can rent perfectly good movies at home, babysitters cost way too much, it's not worth dealing with a loud and annoying audience, and by the time they sit through 30 minutes of high-volume commercials and banal previews, they are ready to leave before the movie even begins. Even my sister complains about the pre-movie ads, and she has no problem with watching commercials on TV.
Many big theater chains are fighting the trend to home entertainment. They are against shorter windows between theatrical release and DVD, they snarl the minute they hear the term "day and date," they claim that the problem is that the movies just aren't as good as they used to be. I think that theater owners need to think about innovative ways to get audiences back into theaters, instead of arguing themselves into obsolescence. Fortunately, many theaters are doing just that, so you can still find some places to enjoy a night out at the movies.
Going to the movies is supposed to be fun. Theaters need to make the theatergoing experience special and fun and as hassle-free as possible. There's nothing like seeing the manager or owner of a movie theater right there in the audience with you because he or she can't resist joining in the enjoyable time you're having. I've come up with a list of seven ways in which theaters, both chains of all sizes and indies, can potentially draw people out of their living room home theaters and back into big theaters again. I've included a few examples from my part of the country, but feel free to tell us about other theaters that are innovating to keep audiences returning. And if you have more ideas for theaters yourself, I'd enjoy hearing about them.
1. Treat audience members like human beings.
This is the cardinal rule for getting moviegoers into your theater. Many chain theaters treat audiences like cattle. You stand in a long line (if it's a blockbuster) in a lobby full of TV monitors blaring ads, herded into a theater, subjected to a moronic "pre-show" that is so loud you can't chat with your friends, forced to sit through more ads before you finally, finally get to the movie, and herded out again afterwards. I suspect that the pre-movie show is here to stay, but at least turn down the volume so we can converse with our dates or movie buddies beforehand.
2. Give value for money.
The biggest complaint I hear about going to the movies is that it is so expensive. "Why should we spend $30 at the multiplex when we can rent the movie in a few months for $3?" is a common cry. But people are happy to drop $30 or more at concerts, plays, sports events, and other entertainment venues. Special events are a great way to give value for money -- bringing in an actor from a movie, offering themed snacks, holding goofy contests. Instead of a "pre-show," why not show a short cartoon beforehand? In other words, you have to give audiences things they can't get at home on DVD, and I don't mean overpriced soft drinks.
One of the best examples I know is Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas. If I decide to see Transformers, I want to see it preceded by an outdoor show with a giant Robosaurus. The Arbor Theater, which is Regal's arthouse in Austin, occasionally holds an interesting promotional event before a movie, and I wish they'd attempt more of that sort of thing.
3. Make it easy for people to see movies at your theater.
Offer perks (they don't have to be free) to entice people away from their DVD players: valet parking, a place for cyclists to park their bikes safely, reserved seats so people can pay a little more and don't have to get there so early, VIP seating in comfy chairs ... maybe even babysitting services or a version of the "cry room" that you see sometimes in churches, so parents can see movies. A new trend in theaters is the "babies welcome" screening during the day, where it's okay to bring lively kids and other potential audience members are warned in advance.
4. Provide a welcoming, communal space before and after movies.
People want to see movies with their friends and afterwards, they often want to sit down and talk about what they saw. Or perhaps they want to meet beforehand for a quick drink or snack. If your theater space includes a bar, coffeeshop, or some attractive gathering place where people can have a treat and hang out, they'll spend more money. And they'll pick "that theater where we can get a beer after" over the standard dreary multiplex. It's best if the area is quiet enough for people to enjoy themselves -- those lobby monitors that run nothing but ads that I mentioned earlier do not provide an inducement to stick around.
Fortunately, both indies and chains have been working hard on this one. The coffee bar at the Stagecoach Theater in Fredericksburg, Texas is so popular, teenagers stop there to get beverages on the way to school. The theater is making money all day long on that coffee bar, and people also linger there after seeing a movie. The Magnolia in Dallas (a Landmark theater) has a cozy bar tucked away in one corner. And Landmark is planning more amenities to create what Mark Cuban calls a "date night for grownups concept" -- a theater that feels as comfy as your living room, where you're "entertained before and after seeing a movie."
5. Provide a quality movie-watching experience.
It's not just the film itself, it's the way it's shown and the place where we're watching it. Some theaters skimp by using projector bulbs that are lower than the recommended wattage. And I don't have to tell you about the theaters with the seats that feel like torture devices, or the lobby that smells funny, or the sticky floors. Even on a subconscious level, people are dissatisfied when the image onscreen is murkier than it should be, when the sound is uneven from the speakers, when the popcorn is a bit stale. Again, why would someone leave their fabulous home-theater system for a movie theater that can't provide good picture and sound quality? It's not worth trying to cut corners with dim projector bulbs and inexperienced projectionists when your theater gets a reputation as a place to avoid.
6. Control rowdy audience members.
The days of the movie-theater ushers are long gone, sadly. But theaters need an effective way for patrons to enjoy a movie in peace. It's not just the little old ladies in the corner who are recounting every plot point at high decibels, or the crying baby whose parent is trying hopelessly to sooth it in the aisle. I get annoyed and distracted by brightly lit screens from people's PDAs and phones when they start texting or playing around during the movie. It's not uncommon for people take phone calls. The noise really does tempt you to stay home and watch movies there. Theaters need to find ways to encourage a quieter, more attentive audience ... and taking away or disabling all cell phones in a theater won't draw crowds, either.
Examples: Regal is slowly introducing a new device to rat out noisy theatergoers, although cynics speculate the device is really being employed for its anti-piracy reporting. And I hate to mention Alamo Drafthouse again, but they have a system where you can discreetly flag waitstaff about obnoxious theatergoers (it looks like you're placing a food order) and they'll handle the problem.
7. Reward customer loyalty.
I have to thank Chris Thilk over at Movie Marketing Madness for this one. He has a fabulous idea for multiplexes to use to reward repeat ticketbuyers, in which you can opt-out of the pre-movie ads, or get a discount if you've sat through those ads a certain number of times. Some indie theaters sell blocks of 10 tickets at a discount, but apparently theaters can't do that for first-run movies. Maybe offer concessions discounts? VIP seating? You want your audiences to come back again and again, so find incentives to show your appreciation.