Getting With The Program

Just imagine, if you will, a night out at the movies like this:

BOCA RATON, Fla. - It was Saturday night at the Palace 20, a huge megaplex here designed in an ornate, Mediterranean style and suggesting the ambience of a Las Vegas hotel. Moviegoers by the hundreds were keeping the valet parkers busy, pulling into the porte-cochere beneath the enormous chandelier-style lamps. Entering the capacious lobby, some of them dropped off their small children in a supervised playroom and proceeded to a vast concession stand for a quick meal of pizza or popcorn shrimp before the show.

Others, who had arrived early for their screening of, say, "Wedding Crashers" or "The Dukes of Hazzard" - their reserved-seat tickets, ordered online and printed out at home, in hand - entered through a separate door. They paid $18 - twice the regular ticket price (though it included free popcorn and valet service) - and took an escalator upstairs to the bar and restaurant, where the monkfish was excellent and no one under 21 was allowed.

Those who didn't want a whole dinner, or arrived too late for a sit-down meal, lined up at the special concession stand, where the menu included shrimp cocktail and sushi and half bottles of white zinfandel and pinot noir. As it got close to curtain time, they took their food and drink into one of the adjoining six theater balconies, all with plush wide seats and small tables with sunken cup holders. During the film, the most irritating sound was the clink of ice in real glasses.

(Emphasis mine.)

As has been widely reported, Hollywood has its 2(x)ist boxers all in a wad over the steady decline in attendance at movie theaters, and is wringing its well tanned, manicured hands over what to do about the problem. Now, on the one hand, an argument could be made that the cause of this alarming trend is the fact that 90% of the mainstream-release, big-studio-produced movies are soul-deadening wastes of celluloid that serve no other purpose than to rob you of two precious hours of your life, which could be better spent, perhaps, cleaning the grout in your shower or getting a tonsillectomy. But I digress. The real reason, I'd suspect, is the decline in the movie-going experience itself. Much like air travel, going to the movies has become little more than a grinding, pricey endurance test, despite advances in sound technology and perks like stadium seating. Lousy projection; revolting, outrageously overpriced food; indifferent employees; people walking into the movie twenty minutes late and fumbling for a seat as they continue to yammer away on the phone (and then proceeding to talk throughout the film); the list goes on and on, and its easy to see why home theater has taken off. But some smaller theater chains, like Muvico Theaters and Rave Motion Pictures are fighting back, and this is something that's needed to happen for a long while.

"It's the folks who create a compelling value proposition for consumers who will be the survivors in our business," said Paul Glantz, whose company, Emagine Entertainment, runs three megaplex theaters in Michigan, all featuring full bars and allowing customers to take their drinks to their seats.

"In my book, the Muvicos and Raves of the world represent the future of moviegoing in this country," said Mr. Glantz, who added unabashedly that the liquor license saved his business. "They're giving people a real reason to leave their home and be entertained."

Loews, Cinemark, AMC, take note. If you want to get people in those seats, its time to rethink how you operate your business. Online reserved seating, better food and drinks, cellphone blocking technology in the auditoriums, and on-site playrooms to dump the kids (I'll never forget going to see "Hannibal", justifiably rated "R", and watching as people came in dragging along babies and toddlers, most of whom were crying - and not without reason - halfway before the movie was over) would be a good place to start. I can say without hesitation that these improvements still would not entice me to see, at any price, "The Dukes of Hazzard", but, overall, it sure as hell would make going to the movies enjoyable again.

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