Let's Make Theater Hopping Legal

Arriving early for a 7:00 p.m. screening at a local multiplex on Friday, I decided to kill some time by sampling some of the other movies that were playing. Feeling like a criminal, I snuck into Surrogates (a small ship crashing, a very young-looking Bruce Willis), The Final Destination (white racist hung by his own petard), and Gamer (John Leguizamo giving Gerard Butler a pep talk). I stayed no more than two or three minutes at each, about the length of a theatrical trailer, and didn't sit down in any of the auditoriums, which were all pretty deserted anyway. Later, near the end of my selection for the evening's entertainment (Zombieland, a lighthearted comedy-horror blast), I saw a familiar multiplex sight: a half-dozen teens sneaking into the movie. And I started thinking, Why not make theater hopping legal?

My idea: You still must buy one ticket to a movie of your choice, and that's the only movie you're guaranteed to see. But the legal language ("the license granted is for a single viewing at the designated time only") is removed, so if that movie sucks, you're free to wander into another auditorium and check out what's playing there. Or bounce in and out of theaters as you please. And if you want to see two (or three) complete movies for the price of one, you're free to do so.

Would this benefit moviegoers? Sure. This will legalize something a good number of people are already doing. Just like downloading music or movies, pirates will still exist, but a majority of folks are law-abiding citizens who prefer to live within the law. People who've paid $9.50 to see a real turkey may not feel quite so ripped-off if they get to see another movie (or part of one) for free.



Theater HoppingAs a result, they might feel more charitable toward Hollywood, and be more inclined to buy tickets for more movies they might not otherwise check out. After all, if they don't like it, they can see something else as part of the price of admission.

In my case, I'm now more likely to buy a ticket (or rent a DVD) for the movies I snuck into for a few minutes, two of which are on their last legs in theaters, and none of which are being advertised heavily -- or at all -- anymore. I'd almost forgotten about them, even the recent Surrogates, in the flood of newer releases, but now my interest has been revived.

Now you could say: why don't you just buy tickets for all the movies you want to see, you cheap bastard? In fact, I do buy tickets and create my own double or triple features, which I've written about before, but, adding in the cost of concessions (you have to eat occasionally), there's no way I could afford to do that every week, and even doing so every month requires careful planning. I'm thinking about sampling other movies more than necessarily cheapening the cost of watching movies back to back, but either way, I think this would be good for consumers and for exhibitors.

If moviegoers stay in the multiplex longer, chances are good that they'll buy more items from concession stands, and that's where exhibitors make the real profit. If there are concerns that profits are going down, exhibitors could charge more for an afternoon or evening pass, similar to film festivals. A sticking point: I don't know how the accounting would work so that the distributors would all get paid. Maybe a percentage system could be worked out. If there's further concern, the legal theater hopping could be limited to the slower, mid-week days and nights, when theater admissions are much more scarce than the weekend.

Granted, there could be more disruptions in the movies themselves, as groups of people bounce in and out. In an age when rude patrons light up their cell phones and send text messages during movies, however, the problem clearly lies with the individual(s). Respectful moviegoers will be considerate when moving in and out of auditoriums; rude ones will not. Making theater hopping legal won't change their behavior at all.

What it might do is increase interest in a wider variety of movies and keep prospective moviegoers in general from feeling that a night out at the movies is simply too expensive. I'm tired of feeling cheated at the multiplex when I've paid full price, plus another $10-20 for concessions. I want value for my hard-earned money, and I think that making theater hopping legal would help everybody.

Of course, more good movies would help, too.