I find it kind of interesting -- no, funny, actually -- that while tons of movie fans were down in Austin for SXSW, enjoying the greatest cinema experience available, at the Alamo Drafthouse (Ritz and South Lamar), exhibitors from all over the country were piling into Las Vegas for ShoWest, the annual convention and trade show, where discussion and conversation often turns to the question, "how can we make moviegoing a better experience and, more importantly, a more lucrative business?"
Maybe some of the suits should have made the trip to SXSW instead, had a beer and a burger (ahem, a Royale with Cheese), and started lobbying their districts, if need be, to begin following the business model of the Alamo. I know that in my state of New York, it's not technically legal to serve alcohol in a cinema, but surely it is part of some antiquated law that needs to be adjusted (like how technically you're not allowed to dance at many bars in NYC).
I don't want to spend too much time celebrating the Alamo, because everyone should already be aware of how it's considered the number one theater chain in the nation. Maybe just to be critical, I should point out its few flaws. Like how they need to be better about pointing out that the wait staff is in fact wait staff and should be tipped accordingly when you pay the bill. I only mention this because I am guilty of not realizing I should tip my waitresses until my third visit over the weekend (in my defense: it's dark, I'm distracted by a great film, I'm a bit of an idiot). As for its other "flaws", well, I can't actually think of any at the moment.
But, on the other side of the spectrum, there are two things that I really took note of while at the Alamo South Lamar that I think need to be addressed as being really, really in the chain's favor. The first is that it's relatively cheap. I figured going in that, okay, here is the most acclaimed cinema in perhaps the world, it gets a lot of business, and so it could very easily exploit all of its perks. Yet the beers are normally priced, as are the food items, none of which is more than $10 as far as I remember, and the popcorn is extremely low-cost considering how very, very, very generous the portions are for both small and large bowls. And all of it is actually more delicious than I expected, too.
The second thing is that the Alamo's operating procedures eliminate a lot of the other problems of going to most cinemas. Mainly, the fact that a waiter/waitress is constantly standing in the doorway looking out for any new orders being placed (they're written on a piece of paper and then placed in front of oneself like a flag) makes it likely easier for both security and the monitoring of disturbances, such as talking. Of course, because of both the atmosphere and the restaurant procedures, there's in fact a good deal of talking and distraction going on. I don't know if it would be the best place to watch certain films that require more attention or silence, but anyway the whole experience of the Alamo is worth overhearing a few audible exchanges here and there.
So meanwhile, what were they learning over in Vegas? Not much, it seems. ShoWest ran from March 10 to March 13, and out of those four days I can't seem to find much in the way of big announcements, whether for new programs or innovations or ideas. There only seemed to be obvious discussions, like about how the Hannah Montana movie has finally shown the industry that they need to get crackin' on those 3D screens (audiences are finally ready!). And how, boo hoo, prices in corn are going up because of Global Warming and the popularity of ethanol as an alternate fuel, and so it may be even more expensive to buy a bag of popcorn in the coming months to years (so adapt, adjust, take a smaller profit, figure it out). And, wow, drive-in theaters are still around (yep, they never actually completely disappeared, media). And, as usual, there's the very pointless awards and smoke-and-mirrors preview screenings that keep members of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) excited by and subservient to Hollywood and its blockbusters (the theatre industry's in trouble, but who cares, when, umm, Speed Racer and -- wtf?! -- a new Star Wars is coming out soon).
Maybe the industry leaders at ShoWest, including MPAA president Dan Glickman and NATO president John Fithian didn't want to make any big, drastic, actually newsworthy decisions this year, because their seemingly groundbreaking announcements in 2007 resulted in little more than false promises and ultimately ironic self-congratulatory awards (besides, who wants to concentrate on the NC-17 problem, when there's clearly a PG profanity problem?) Plus, Fithian had to embarrassingly admit that one of NATO's long-hoped-for plans, cell-phone signal blocking, turned out to be "technically illegal."
One thing that did catch my eye while looking for ShoWest news was the unveiling of Nielsen PreView, a new service that creates and provides market intelligence based on data collected from Nielsen's research divisions. Yeah, I don't quite understand it entirely, either, but apparently it's really important for the analysis of the movie business and the theatre business. And you and I can join the service for free. Sure, we won't get all the expert insight and intelligence we'd get if we pay the $1200-per-year fee, but we'll get to join a community that will be the new guide for the industry. Maybe enough of us could join and then point out the Alamo business model and push for it to be the new standard nationwide.
Such a future probably wouldn't end up perfect. Certainly when (or if) an Alamo franchise comes to my city, the prices will be adjusted so that I have to take out a loan for that same Royale with Cheese I paid $8 for down in Texas, and pay $8 for a Bootlegger Brown (or would it now be a Brooklyn Brown?) rather than $4. And that's if I can even get into the theater, since every show would sell out here really quickly.
But maybe that's what needs to happen. Maybe we need something that's going to sell out really quickly to get the industry to notice. After all, they're (reportedly) finally paying attention to digital 3D thanks to the sell out shows of the Hannah Montana movie. Maybe they'll finally pay attention to the Alamo if it causes a sensation in other places outside Texas.