10 Things Movie Theaters Won't Tell You

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1. "We're obsolete? No way!"

Hard to believe, but movie theaters have been holding their own, despite intense competition from cable, the Internet and other media. After a 2005 slump, box office revenue increased over the past few years, and it's likely 2009 will have set a new record. But that growth is due largely to inflation; the number of tickets bought has stayed close to 1.4 billion since 2005, while the average ticket price has climbed from $6.41 to $7.46.

Looking for new ways to make money, theaters are exploring options like more in-house advertising and expanded concessions. But the biggest potential lies in digital technology and the flexibility it affords programming. For starters, events like live opera or college bowl games can draw 75 percent capacity on slow days, when theaters are usually "lucky to fill 10 percent of their seats," says Richard Herring, consultant for Davidson Theaters in Virginia. The trend is still young: Just a quarter of the more than 375 theaters using digital-projection company Cinedigm's technology, for example, are set up to show live events, but that number is growing quickly. Eventually, says Herring, as much as half a theater's revenue could come from this type of special programming.

2. "We get rich selling your eyes."

Theaters are drawing a bigger portion of their revenue these days from the on-screen advertising shown before the previews start. Revenue from these ads has been increasing by roughly 10 to 15 percent a year for the past several years, says Patrick Corcoran, spokesperson for the National Association of Theater Owners, and it's not going away anytime soon. That's because industry insiders rely on surveys like the one conducted in 2003 by marketing firm Arbitron that found two-thirds of audience members didn't mind them.

Some moviegoers do mind, of course -- more than 3,400 of them cared enough to sign a recent online petition demanding Regal Cinemas stop showing ads before movies. "I'm wondering why ticket prices are going up, and we're being forced to watch these ads at the same time," says Jason Thompson, who started the petition after growing frustrated with sitting through a string of ads before showtime. "The preshow presentation has been a part of theater exhibition for many years," says Dick Westerling, senior VP of marketing and advertising at Regal. What's more, thanks to digital technology, the preshow has become "more upscale and attractive."

3. "If you're getting tired of blockbusters, you may be in luck."

Special-events programming isn't the only change digital technology may be ushering into your local cineplex. It also makes film distribution cheaper and easier, thus potentially opening up more opportunities for independent filmmakers to get their work screened. "It's like a big iPod," explains Cinedigm CEO Bud Mayo. Movies are shipped on hard drives or downloaded from a satellite, without the cost or inconvenience of transporting heavy film canisters, and the theater can cue them up with the click of a mouse. That means theater owners can set up their schedules by "trial and error," says Lauren Goffio, manager of the Pavilion Park Slope theater in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The trend toward digital could also mean a move away from blockbusters. Hollywood has been offering mass-market products while most industries are directing specialized products to smaller groups, says Rashi Glazer, professor of marketing at the University of California, Berkeley: "The one-size-fits-all approach is the past, it's not the future." And digital lowers "the barrier of entry," since distribution is no longer an expense to be reckoned with, says Corcoran.

4. "We really prefer you didn't come on opening night."

Contrary to the way Hollywood considers opening-weekend box office numbers the ultimate test of a movie's success, theaters themselves are far less worried about packing the house for new releases. That's because they pay a percentage of ticket sales as a fee to studios, and the cut is typically bigger earlier in a film's run.

How does it work? Studios negotiate separate agreements with each theater chain for each film, so the conditions vary. But generally speaking, theaters pay somewhere between 35 and 70 percent of box office receipts to the studio as a film-rental fee, says consultant Herring. In most cases, the studio takes the biggest cut in the first week, and the percentage drops from there. "If you have a movie like Titanic that lasts for months and months, that's what we all dream about," says Bruce Taffet, the owner of The Pearl Theatre at Avenue North in Philadelphia. He says that by the third or fourth week of a given film's run, the exhibitor begins paying lower film-rental fees to the studio. Unfortunately for theater operators, "most movies don't last that long," Taffet says.

5. "We're all about the bells and whistles."

Noticed lately that the moviegoing experience has become a lot more, well, experiential? It's a result of theaters including more "premium experience" screenings in their lineup, including the use of IMAX and updated 3-D technology. And the trend seems to be accelerating. Regal Cinemas, for one, had 168 digital 3-D screens out of a total 6,782 screens nationwide by the end of 2008 and plans to up that number to 1,500 in the next few years. Meanwhile, about 175 Regal theaters have installed IMAX in the past six years, with more than half of those within the past year.

The lure is profit, naturally: After initial upgrades and outlays -- such as special screens and IMAX's imaging process -- theaters can charge $2 to $3 more for these tickets. And customers like it, says IMAX CEO Rich Gelfond. He cites 2009's Star Trek, for which IMAX made up 2 percent of total screens but 12 percent of box office over a two-week period. Similarly, 3-D screenings have won up to half the total audience for films like Pixar's Up. But Glazer chalks up the excitement to novelty, since "the films themselves don't particularly have anything to commend them compared to others."

6. "Our concessions are so profitable, it's ridiculous..."

Recessions com and go, but it seems concessions are here to stay. The average amount each customer spends at the candy stand keeps heading steadily upward, from $2.51 in 2004 to $3.09 in 2008. In fact, for major theater chains, concessions typically account for about a quarter of total revenue. So how is it that theaters get away with charging as much as $10.50 for a large popcorn and soda? First and foremost, movie concessions are a monopoly, since most theaters don't allow patrons to bring in outside food or beverages. (It's "not a requirement" to buy popcorn when you go to the movies, says Corcoran, of the National Association of Theater Owners. "People who want concessions can order them or not.")

But there's also an important emotional component, says Richard McKenzie, professor of economics at the University of California-Irvine and the author of "Why Popcorn Costs So Much at the Movies." When you buy Junior Mints or another favorite treat, you're buying a piece of the moviegoing experience, along with "the opportunity to laugh with a crowd and everything else people go to the movies for," McKenzie says.

7. "...so we might put in a bar."

Some theater owners are trying alternative concessions, offering menus that include more than the usual candy and popcorn fare, and even serving alcohol at some locations. For example, Regal Cinemas partners with Cinebarre at five venues serving beer, wine, mixed drinks, appetizers, burgers and pizza. And while there are only about 400 theaters across the country that serve liquor, the numbers have been slowly but steadily increasing. Terrell Braly, CEO of Cinebarre, says his company will expand to 20 theaters by 2011.

But that doesn't mean your local multiplex will be adding a bar anytime soon. There are inherent problems with serving drinks at the movies -- for one thing, it precludes teenage audiences, a key demographic for many theaters. There was even resistance from studios until the late '90s, says Corcoran, including refusal to allow first-run films to be shown in theaters serving alcohol, for fear patrons wouldn't pay attention. Braly says Cinebarre has proved it can deliver the same quality of viewing experience as a traditional chain and says leaving out teenagers isn't a flaw in the business plan, it's a boon to adult patrons by removing "the middle-school mafia."

8. "Actually, your neighbor's cell doesn't bother us that much."

We've all been there: sitting in the theater, our attention consumed by the drama unfolding on screen, only to have the spell broken by a ringing cell phone or the distracting glow of a text message. And with the cultural shift toward personal technology well under way, such disturbances are becoming a regular part of the theater experience, says Toon van Beeck, senior analyst at market-research firm IBISWorld. "People are so glued to their cell phones that it's become a big problem for theaters," he says.

A major check on theaters attempting to police these and other sorts of audience disturbances is the fear of customer backlash, says van Beeck. Movie houses don't want to lose younger audiences -- who are primarily responsible for disruptions -- by cracking down too hard. "But they've got to at least show the baby boomers that they're trying," says van Beeck. Kerasotes Theatres, a Midwest chain with 94 theaters, has taken steps toward offering an escape from rowdy crowds with its "enchanted evening" policy. At select locations on Friday and Saturday nights, no one under the age of 17 is permitted without an adult into movies that start after 9 p.m. The policy, says a spokesperson for Kerasotes, is intended to get people to attend the movies as a family. "When Mom and Dad are around, everyone tends to be on their best behavior."

9. "Going to the movies could be hazardous to your hearing."

Movies sure can get loud, but could they actually be harmful to your ears? Individual theaters' decibel levels vary, but special effects-laden action flicks, for example, can hit the same dangerous territory as a loud rock concert, thus potentially contributing to hearing loss, according to the Center for Hearing and Communication. In fact, any sustained noise over 85 decibels (roughly the level of city traffic) can damage your hearing, says Amy Boyle, director of public education for the center.

"We've received complaints" about noise level in movie theaters, but those who have taken it up with theater staff "have been met with resistance," says Boyle. If you're concerned about volume, you can buy a sound level meter at retailers like RadioShack to measure the decibels around you. Meanwhile, if you experience any ringing in your ears after seeing a movie, then that means it was too loud. "Remember, even the sounds that we like can be damaging to our hearing," she says.

10. "It may soon be safe to go to the movies in February."

Moviegoing has traditionally been a seasonal activity. According to Herring, theaters bring in 40 percent of their yearly revenue in just three months: May, June and July. The winter holidays are another big period for box office revenue, while spring and fall have been dumping grounds for low-budget movies and potential flops. But things are slowly changing as studios seek to spread their quality releases more evenly throughout the year. With the old calendar in flux, some smaller films are debuting with less competition and doing far better than expected.

Last year's surprise late-January hit Mall Cop, for instance, would probably not have been as successful had it been released in the summer against bigger films, Herring says. Indeed, we've started seeing more major releases off season in the past few years, says Alan Stock, CEO of the Cinemark theater chain. For example, September 2009 brought the release of family film Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. And if the trend continues, moviegoers might eventually see some high-caliber films come out in the dead zone of the major-release calendar: the postholiday doldrums of January and February.
 
on their defense... could you image the consession lines if popcorn and drinks were at a low price??
lmao

but yeah people need to start getting those moviegoer point cards.
 
8. "Actually, your neighbor's cell doesn't bother us that much."

We've all been there: sitting in the theater, our attention consumed by the drama unfolding on screen, only to have the spell broken by a ringing cell phone or the distracting glow of a text message. And with the cultural shift toward personal technology well under way, such disturbances are becoming a regular part of the theater experience, says Toon van Beeck, senior analyst at market-research firm IBISWorld. "People are so glued to their cell phones that it's become a big problem for theaters," he says.

A major check on theaters attempting to police these and other sorts of audience disturbances is the fear of customer backlash, says van Beeck. Movie houses don't want to lose younger audiences -- who are primarily responsible for disruptions -- by cracking down too hard. "But they've got to at least show the baby boomers that they're trying," says van Beeck. Kerasotes Theatres, a Midwest chain with 94 theaters, has taken steps toward offering an escape from rowdy crowds with its "enchanted evening" policy. At select locations on Friday and Saturday nights, no one under the age of 17 is permitted without an adult into movies that start after 9 p.m. The policy, says a spokesperson for Kerasotes, is intended to get people to attend the movies as a family. "When Mom and Dad are around, everyone tends to be on their best behavior."

In my opinion they should definitely get more aggresive with people constantly talking though a film, whether it's on the phone or just with whoever they came tot he theatre with. That and texting of course.

I didn't pay good money to listen to some annoying ass teens talking or texting during most of the movie. Sorry to single them out but in my experience, it's teens that cause these problems almost 100% of the time.

9. "Going to the movies could be hazardous to your hearing."

Movies sure can get loud, but could they actually be harmful to your ears? Individual theaters' decibel levels vary, but special effects-laden action flicks, for example, can hit the same dangerous territory as a loud rock concert, thus potentially contributing to hearing loss, according to the Center for Hearing and Communication. In fact, any sustained noise over 85 decibels (roughly the level of city traffic) can damage your hearing, says Amy Boyle, director of public education for the center.

"We've received complaints" about noise level in movie theaters, but those who have taken it up with theater staff "have been met with resistance," says Boyle. If you're concerned about volume, you can buy a sound level meter at retailers like RadioShack to measure the decibels around you. Meanwhile, if you experience any ringing in your ears after seeing a movie, then that means it was too loud. "Remember, even the sounds that we like can be damaging to our hearing," she says.

I've been to a whole lot of Metal and Rock concerts and never used ear plugs. Personally, I think it's lame to use ear plugs at a metal or rock show. I understand people not wanting to blow out their ears but to me it goes against Rock and Metal.

As for theatres being too loud, they're really not. Even the Imax with the superior sound isn't that bad. I have a feeling the people that are complaining are sensitive(as usual and I'm not talking about sensitive hearing).
 
I wish they'd just start wiring all theatres with cell-dampening tech. There's a couple here in Vancouver that have it, and it is glorious.
 
I wish they'd just start wiring all theatres with cell-dampening tech. There's a couple here in Vancouver that have it, and it is glorious.

That sounds awesome. I take it, it blocks the wireless connection so they can't call or text?
 
That is perhaps the most genius thing I have ever heard.

People who text during a film should be shot. I can't believe they don't have the common decency to shut it off. Or for God sakes, put it on vibrate. I don't see how that's so hard.
 
people who can't text/use their phone for an average of what, 2 hours? are ridiculous. i can see the checking the time to see how much left of the movie there is, but honestly, it drives me insane. the cell-dampening tech is genius
 
I'm surprised there isnt a "That hotdog has been here since 1998" answer. :o
 
Some moronic privacy advocates have claimed that people have the right to use their cell phones during movies and thus cell phone blocking tech should be illegal, which is part of why we don't see more or it in the US. However, some theaters have been discussing making use of it, which I think would be friggin' brilliant. Before the previews start they could keep it turned off so that people can call up their friends to let them know where they're sitting, but after that they should have a notice stating something along these lines:

"To preserve your movie-going experience, this is a cell-phone free theater. All cell phone reception will now be deactivated until after the show. If you need to use your cell phone, please exit the auditorium until after you've finished your call. Now sit back, and enjoy these upcoming attractions."

Maybe for all those whiny teeniboppers they could offer special screenings where cell phone use is allowed. Imagine that these screenings would only have temporary popularity though and would eventually be phased out, because I'd hope that the teenagers would eventually realize how annoying all their cell phone use is when they have to sit in an auditorium with a hundred of their peers and they're all shouting into their phones throughout the movie to try and be heard over the roaring crowd of cell phone addicts.
 
That sounds awesome. I take it, it blocks the wireless connection so they can't call or text?
i think in some parts of europe its against the law. but its a fantaastic idea.
 
The only thing with cell phones is if someone calls you and it's an emergency, they can't get through. There will always be a counterargument.
 
People talking during a movie is liable to make me go homicidal , they should figure out a way to block morons who think they are at home .
 
I wish they'd just start wiring all theatres with cell-dampening tech. There's a couple here in Vancouver that have it, and it is glorious.
It's illegal in many places. Radio bands are leased and in order to block cell phones one has to transmit, thereby effectively becoming a pirate broadcaster. :doh:

The solution: Spend big during the construction phase and line the walls with materials that impede cell phone reception. :yay:
 
The only thing with cell phones is if someone calls you and it's an emergency, they can't get through. There will always be a counterargument.
noone had a problem in the 80's and 90's :oldrazz:

if my house is on fire its a bad thing. but i bet that a neighbor will call the firefighters. if my girl or mother wil have a heart attack in the middle of the street i bet that someone will help them.
 
noone had a problem in the 80's and 90's :oldrazz:

if my house is on fire its a bad thing. but i bet that a neighbor will call the firefighters. if my girl or mother wil have a heart attack in the middle of the street i bet that someone will help them.

Exactly!

Our society has become so attached to technology it's kind of pathetic in my eyes. I'm almost 29 and during my younger years I was on top of all the tech and electronics that were being released...and usually got the stuff I wanted when it first came out.

Now days, I've fallen behind big time and don't even have any of the more recent cell phones released. Still have some old school version, the kind where I pay for my minutes...my gf was the one that got it for me too. I just stopped giving a **** about a lot of technology, so I don't understand how people(more like Kids)have to be texting and talking all the damn time.

Personally, with the teens it's a 100% fad in my eyes. It's the "cool" thing and adds to their popularity. Especially ********ting about childish drama(which was one of those factors growing up that made you more cool, more gossip= popular :whatever:).

It just irritates me to no end. I love film/cinema sooo much and enjoy the theatrical experience that I can't stand it when people are that self centered and don't give a **** that everyone else paid good money to see a film...not to hear them talk. That and the fact that most of these teens got in because of their parents giving them money. I just can't imagine kids being that stupid and irresponsible using their own money from a job to talk the whole time when they could have done that for free elsewhere.

Two nights ago my gf and I went to see Avatar a second time and brought along a friend. This one couple sitting in the seats right in front of us kept talking to each other throughout the whole damn film. Eventually I slammed my foot into the back of the *****es seat really hard. They shut the hell up and shortly after ran down the aisle to some seats away from us. :woot:
 
Exactly!

Our society has become so attached to technology it's kind of pathetic in my eyes. I'm almost 29 and during my younger years I was on top of all the tech and electronics that were being released...and usually got the stuff I wanted when it first came out.

Now days, I've fallen behind big time and don't even have any of the more recent cell phones released. Still have some old school version, the kind where I pay for my minutes...my gf was the one that got it for me too. I just stopped giving a **** about a lot of technology, so I don't understand how people(more like Kids)have to be texting and talking all the damn time.

Personally, with the teens it's a 100% fad in my eyes. It's the "cool" thing and adds to their popularity. Especially ********ting about childish drama(which was one of those factors growing up that made you more cool, more gossip= popular :whatever:).

It just irritates me to no end. I love film/cinema sooo much and enjoy the theatrical experience that I can't stand it when people are that self centered and don't give a **** that everyone else paid good money to see a film...not to hear them talk. That and the fact that most of these teens got in because of their parents giving them money. I just can't imagine kids being that stupid and irresponsible using their own money from a job to talk the whole time when they could have done that for free elsewhere.

Two nights ago my gf and I went to see Avatar a second time and brought along a friend. This one couple sitting in the seats right in front of us kept talking to each other throughout the whole damn film. Eventually I slammed my foot into the back of the *****es seat really hard. They shut the hell up and shortly after ran down the aisle to some seats away from us. :woot:

you know for not even being 30 you sound like a cranky old man
 
i agree that people text far too much, but to say that partaking in newer and faster technology is a fad is idiotic.

hopefully as they get older their behavior will become more considerate of other but the reliance and love for technology i think will become a defining feature of our culture and our generation
 
He has every right to be cranky. I'm 17 and you could call me a cranky old man as well.

When I saw Holmes a second time there were these people talking next to me. Always commenting on the film, reacting to it, I mean christ, when Adler said "They found my weak spot." And their was this long pause, and I loved how they didn't say "You." Well the *******s next to me said, "You."

It made me want to bang my head against a wall. I can't believe I didn't say anything. I'm ashamed of myself.
 
Nice article. But I still prefer seeing 2 movies in the theater a year (4 at most)
 
Teenagers are stupid. If someone is texting and making calls during a movie, and 100 other kids are, then they'll just leave loving the movie that they didn't watch because they had a great social time with their friends. They don't want to think at all during a movie...it's why watchmen was "stupid" and Wolverine "had a great story", despite the fact that the two films have the same story on the surface (super team from the past breaks up, members start getting killed, turns out it's one of the members). One required you to think, the other did not. Teenagers, for the mot part, don't invest any actual thought into their entertainment. They aren't actually paying attention, and beyond the surface details can't explain much about a film they just saw.
 
people don't seem to bug me when they talk. not as long as it too loud. irember going to see indepencd day with will smith. this kid behiend me keep talking whats coming up next? this one guy turned around told him to shut up. irember this one women brought this kid wouldn't stop crying. i think if i had kid that cry i would take them out side and tell them to stop. i can't stand pepople with their cells phones on. this oneguy was looking at his phone like every second of the moive.
 
i don't even have a phone my self. i don't see how you can be disturbed by texting unless they leave their ringer on. do the screens blind you?
 
When you have stadium seating the only problem is when you find a good seat in the top, there are always people below you a few rows down texting and you can see the screen clear as day.
 
screw that they should build one of those Matrix EMP things that way phones dont even have power period during movies...


the whole ringtone thing isnt an issue much nowadays.. it mostly peoples bright ass phones while they text or surf the web while watching a movie.
 

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