I want to know what AMC Theaters’ second-place idea for generating more revenue was. The “winner” was “Sightline,” which will charge movie-goers different prices depending on how crappy their view is. Was the runner-up releasing bees in all theaters where most of the audience didn’t pay a “bee-free fee?”
If you’re like me — and you are like me because you’re reading the film section of an alternative news outlet — you’re worried that theaters have gotten the wrong message. Panic is no friend to business, unless you sell panic rooms. Some have compared AMC’s wrongheaded, tiered-seating strategy to the airline industry’s reaction to sagging sales. That’s apples to oranges or, more accurately, “I can watch this at home soon” to “I don’t want to drive 56 hours round trip to see grandma.”
Let’s all agree that AMC’s strategy, which will reportedly be rolled out in all of its theaters by year’s end, is dumb-dumb stupid. What can or should theaters reasonably do to stay open and alive? This is the sustainability issue, and dammit, I want the theatrical experience to be ably sustained.
Make (Most) Movie Theaters Places to See Movies
Hear me out. I know that Alamo Drafthouse wasn’t spared from the pandemic, even here in Omaha. However, having been to lots of theaters recently, my highly unscientific insight is that they are still pretty poppin’. At other theaters, I have seen movies by myself, not going stag but as in I was the only patron. I’ve always had company at Alamo, and not just the wait staff.
I think they gild the lily a bit much on the “We’ll-murder-you-in-the-face-if-you-talk” schtick. But it has worked. They have a reputation, and audiences are never more behaved (in the metro at least) than at Alamo. That’s a fairly easy thing for other places to adopt. I don’t just mean a pre-trailer commercial that says “put your phone away” featuring animated characters. I mean enforcing a quiet environment and encouraging a focus on watching movies undisturbed, letting the public know the policy through advertising and social media.
Part of this has to be a systemic rebranding of the theatrical experience. Because, y’all, it does often suck. I would venture to say that I venture to theaters more than most, and the decline was palpable pre-pandemic and has fallen off a cliff since. AMC making you pay more to avoid neck pain isn’t as practical or impactful as working to change the narrative about what it should be like to see movies.
Take the “Ick” Out of Gimmick
Almost all local movie houses have pivoted to have a bar or restaurant as part of the experience. Some multiplexes are reportedly becoming more like “family entertainment centers” with laser tag, axe throwing, or escape rooms. Eww. Also, I am fully in support of this. I will steer clear of those places, because as the previous section suggests, I go to movie theaters to see movies like a lunatic apparently. However, a lot of folks are interested in having “experiences” that offer more than just pricey popcorn and a few hours when kids can have cinematic supervision.
I am also wildly in favor of all the weird shenanigans with haptic feedback seats, crazy-large screens, and smell-o-vision, if they bring it back. Trying to enhance the immediacy and provide something unique to leave your 4K TV viewing experience at home is admirable. I have yet to find one that clicks for me, other than IMAX, but I appreciate the effort. It is wildly pricey to install, and probably will be “worth it” for only a few movies a year. “The Fabelmans” box office would not have surged with shaking seats and five-dimensional sound.
What about a simpler proposal I’ve seen floating around. If TV is now like movies, treat ’em like it. Sterlin Harjo, one of the geniuses behind “Reservation Dogs,” has suggested that theaters show TV programs. It would take some deal-making for sure, but imagine being able to have a chance to watch pop-culture phenom shows with a full audience. Have a post-show bar experience ready to go. It sounds easy because it is.
Look, I spend a wildly disproportionate amount of time thinking about how to make sure theaters can stay open. I know, for sure, the way to do that is not to do virtually anything AMC is doing. Just, as a rule, do the opposite of whatever they’re suggesting. Theater owners can’t drop prices. They absolutely can’t ensure movies people want to see are being made. The only option is to think about how the experience provide is packaged, curated, and uniquely developed.
They also know they can count on me at least once a week, maybe more. I’m doing my part!
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