When I learned that the Fairfax 5 Theatres, in Fairfax, California, was to be installed with a solar photovoltaic system, I immediately thought of that old joke (unfortunately directed towards a certain nationality) about the idiotic invention of a solar-powered flashlight. Movie projectors running on solar-powered electricity? Absurd. Especially since most people go to the movies at night! But, of course, my initial thoughts were just as stupid as the flashlight idea, even if I was merely trying to think of a corresponding joke and all the time actually knew, obviously, that solar energy isn't only useful during the hours that the sun is out.

The second thing I thought of, though, all joking aside, was the possibility of a lowered electricity bill. One of the costliest parts of running a movie theater is all the electricity used for lighting, projection, air conditioning, etc. It's these costs that primarily keep concession prices up, as they're a major part of a cinema's constant overhead. Certainly Cinema West, the company that owns Fairfax 5 Theatres, is thinking about the environmental benefits of solar energy, and their new system is indeed reportedly expected to offset nearly 1,000 tons of greenhouse gases. But surely the cost cutting was a big incentive, too. Over the 30-year life of the system, Cinema West is looking to save more than $627,000.

But don't get your hopes up that the savings will trickle down to you, the moviegoer. When has any theatre's cost cutting or savings led to lowered prices for the consumer? I don't mean to accuse Cinema West of future profit hoarding, and it's very possible that the savings will at least keep concession prices slightly more stable. However, less than a million bucks spread out over three decades isn't much of a jackpot, and even if the savings did trickle down to the moviegoers, the evidence of such savings would be too small to notice, anyway.

Still, it's a possible step in the right direction. And it's an idea that has me thinking of other things movie theater chains can do to cut costs in order to benefit the moviegoing experience. While tons of chains are looking at ways of improving moviegoing by adding luxuries and amenities and thereby adding to the price of both the movie ticket and the concessions, why aren't there other cinemas looking for ways to be as much of a bargain as possible while committing to the barest of comfort and convenience?

It may seem like I'm joking, and maybe I am a little, but think about other ways theatre owners have cut costs in areas like employment and customer service. By paying ticket sellers, concessionists and ushers minimum wage, theatre owners are keeping overhead lower, but they're also allowing for the poorest quality service possible. Yet we've pretty much gotten used to it, expecting and tolerating it as simply a part of life. The same goes for projectionists, who are, for the most part, now merely multitasking movie theater managers rather than well-trained, unionized experts with comparatively high salaries and even higher overtime fees. But the increase in scratched prints and other projection snafus probably don't bother you too much, right?

Oh, wait, paying the help less hasn't really seemed to contribute to a low-cost night at the movies, has it? So what could possibly help? And what else would you, as a moviegoer, settle for if it indeed meant a savings for you? What would be tolerable if it allowed you to return to regular trips to the local multiplex? I ask mainly because we're always complaining about what problems are not tolerable with the moviegoing experience, and I'm curious to hear what is most acceptably uncomfortable or inconvenient.

Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Fewer ushers, as in fewer people to clean up the auditoriums between shows. Would you be more inclined to throw your garbage away? And if some of your fellow moviegoers were not more inclined, would you accept an increase in surrounding filth if you saved a buck or two off admission? Think of the last time you sat in an unclean auditorium (it's definitely happened) and were frustrated but didn't leave or even complain afterward. Then think about the suggestion again.
  2. Generic concession brands. How about a 32oz. President's Choice cola and an anonymously manufactured hot dog rather than a Coke and a Nathan's? Too bad the cinemas probably save more from the brand advertising and bulk deals that come from big companies than they would from going generic.
  3. Non-cushioned seats and uncarpeted floors. A lot of money goes into vacuuming, shampooing and reupholstering the cushions and carpets, so imagine paying less to walk on cement and sit in hard chairs. Years of sitting in the most uncomfortable, butt-numbing seats during four-hour film studies classes makes me think this is definitely the worst suggestion of all. But maybe other moviegoers with softer bottoms would be more okay with this idea. And if you don't have a soft bottom yet, think of how the lower-price concessions will help you to grow one!

Don't like any of these proposed sacrifices? Comment with your own choice for which comfort you would most easily give up in order to make for a cheaper movie. A recent commenter on another non-Exhibitionist post of mine on the topic of overpaid movie stars brought up the idea that if actors and actresses weren't so exorbitantly and unnecessarily paid huge salaries, maybe she wouldn't have to pay so much for concessions. In a way, she's right, though it's not an issue that the theatre owners have any say in. However, I have always imagined an idea for movie ticket prices to fluctuate relative to the cost of a movie's budget, so that star-less independent films would be cheaper to see than blockbusters. Again, though, that's up to the distributors rather than the exhibitors.

Back to the specific subject of solar-powered cinemas, will there be any actual benefits to the patrons of the Fairfax 5 Theatres? Well, aside from feeling good about supporting renewable energy systems and possibly contributing to the stemming of global warming, I can only hope that solar energy allows for less power surges and outages (or none?). As someone who has worked in a 12-screen multiplex projection booth through tons of power failures, including the major Northeast Blackout of 2003, I can tell you firsthand that such incidents are terribly annoying for both theatre workers and, especially, patrons, the latter typically being stuck in a pitch-black auditorium until someone comes to rescue them with a flashlight (not solar-powered, of course).