This, of course, is poppycock. The way to succeed in business is to figure out what it’s cheap for you to produce, then convince the public that they can’t possibly live without it.
That simple truth was stuck in my head as I read Ain’t It Cool News reporter Billy “Billy the Kidd” Donnelly’s outraged response to one of the more disturbing stories that came out of this week’s CinemaCon: the admission by some major distributors that they’re considering allowing texting in their theaters. Apparently, the likes of Regal Entertainment Group believe that younger moviegoers feel so boxed in by the demands of common courtesy that the only way to retain their business may be to eliminate yet one more distinction between the public space and their living room. Text away, Johnny
“the man” ain’t gonna hassle ya!
Donnelly is aghast at the idea, and I certainly don’t blame him. But where I think he’s being naïve is in his warning that audiences will continue to abandon the theater experience in droves if exhibitors don’t do more to preserve its sanctity -- and his apparent belief that this threat carries any real weight with the chains.
Sure, most patrons would prefer not to be blinded by the glare of their neighbors’ smartphones, or be distracted by their incessant chatter, or to have to dodge their furious jizz-lobbing whenever Jessica Alba or Boba Fett appears on the screen. But you don’t see the AMCs of this world making a genuine effort to curb these customer turn-offs. They’re not interested in giving the people what they want, which is a pleasant theatergoing experience; they’re interested in providing a theatergoing experience that’s cheap for them to create and maintain.
A particular passage in Donnelly’s well-meaning diatribe makes me suspect that he’s too young to understand this fully (despite his self-characterization as one of the oldsters who are now afraid to attend any movie with significant youth appeal). Or maybe his memory is just short. Either way, here’s how he describes his own history of battling the texters:
The last few times I either had to get up to search for a theatre manager who's impossible to find to hopefully take care of the problem for me, at which point I've already missed a nice chunk of the flick, or loudly bellow "Turn your phone off!!" with the goal that my public embarassment [sic] might be enough to inform such party that they're being incredibly rude.
Nowhere does this acknowledge a simple historical fact: Once upon a time, theaters retained ushers whose job it was to remain in the house at all times, specifically to quell such distractions as soon as they presented themselves. Ask anyone who remembers that luxury, and they’ll tell you it was far preferable to what goes on in the cineplex zoos of today. Yet the practice was discontinued, for one simple reason: Getting rid of it saved the theaters money, no matter how much their constituency valued it.
hy it’s essentially ridiculous for an exhibitor to debate the “allowing” of texting, or any other objectionable behavior. When there’s nobody minding the store, who the fuck has to “allow” anything? These days, a five-year-old can walk into a showing of The Human Centipede unchaperoned and set off bottle rockets from the back row if he wants to. Nobody’s watching. And if you’re willing to miss part of the feature to go out and complain to the manager, it’s just your word against Little Lord Fauntleroy’s. No minimum-wage nametag zombie is going to wade too far and too seriously into that fray -- especially not here in Florida, where anybody over the age of three could be packing serious heat.
A few weeks ago, I got into an argument on Facebook with an idealistic young fellow whose view of the world is apparently limited to the most basic notions of supply and demand. To hear him tell it, anything that happens in the marketplace happens because the consumer makes it so, and anybody who can’t find a paying outlet for his work simply doesn’t have a skill the public values. When I proposed that our society would be greatly enhanced by the return of moviehouse ushers -- and human beings to pump our gas, answer phones, bag groceries or perform innumerable other lost arts -- he countered that those jobs must have disappeared because nobody thought they were worth preserving. Who cares if the ranks of the unemployed are full of folks who could easily master the phrase “No talking during the picture, please”? The customer has spoken!
That’s all well and good under an idealized form of capitalism, where businesses compete independently for the consumer dollar. But we live in an economy that’s driven by institutionalized collusion, not competition. The demise of the usher didn’t come about because one exhibitor eliminated the position and experienced no significant blowback, forcing everyone else in the market to follow suit. What happened is that the industry discontinued the practice en masse, giving the moviegoer nowhere else to turn.
The only alternative is to stay home. That’s where Donnelly et al err in thinking that dwindling theater attendance is going to motivate the owners to restore order. They’d have to hire more people to do that. It’s cheaper to simply secure a cinematic product that will entice the customer into showing up no matter how awful the experience is.
Hence the emphasis on 3D: You may feel safe and undisturbed in your living room, but you can’t see the Men in Black blast aliens in full, 360-degree splendor from your couch (yet!). Hence the prevalence of hush-hush cameos and other easily spoiled narrative reveals that “force” film buffs to see a movie the minute it opens. (I’d really rather wait and see The Cabin in the Woods in the privacy of my own home, yet every time I interact with someone who has seen it, I get the impression I’m engaged in a dangerous campaign of self-deception as foolish and futile as trying to avoid the results of the last Super Bowl.)
At the risk of belaboring a depressing point, theater owners want to get you in the door -- they don’t give a shit what happens to you after that. I saw The Dark Knight on its opening day at one of the best IMAX theaters in the country, and I noticed that, for the first 20 minutes or so, the audio seemed noticeably poor. Weeks later, I read that the exhibitor in question had muffled the sound intentionally. Why? To discourage piracy. It didn’t matter to them that their actual paying customers might not be able to discern what the hell was going on -- those dollars had already been accounted for. What mattered was making sure the next guy had to pony up full price, too.
If there’s any way for Joe Cinehpile to combat that sort of business model, I sure don’t know what it is. Even if this country miraculously renewed its allegiance to the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, it wouldn’t raise the subterranean level of service the theater chains have arrived at by consensus; mutually agreed-upon crappiness is only price fixing in the broadest sense. And of course, sixteen million angry blogs by 16 million Billy Donnellys mean less to the industry than one paid admission they might preserve by announcing their theaters are now Angry Birds-friendly. The movie lovers of this country could write angry emails to exhibitors all day and come out of it with nothing more than writer’s cramp. Maybe we should just send a text.