Just last week the head of AMC theaters announced his support of introducing "text-friendly" theaters in an effort to bring the millennial demographic to the movies. It was with comical speed that he rescinded his support after cinephiles collectively said "what the hell is wrong with you, you idiot?!?" Not only would allowing texting upset more people than it would please, but the idea that phone restrictions are what dissuades audiences from going to the movies is tone deaf at best, and at worst, stupid.* Yet we must consider the driving force behind this short-lived idea: younger audiences don't go to the movies the way previous generations did. Any why would they? Home viewing systems rival the theatrical experience well enough for many, and the food at home is much cheaper. One can sit in their comfortable chair, raid the fridge, and watch a stolen, pausable movie. It costs nothing. To many, it's a superior experience, or at least one that's good enough to mitigate the price of a ticket and justify theft.
So how do we get butts back in seats? Well, there's no easy answer, but I have a few ideas. Mostly, the notion is to make the trip to the theater "worth it" to those who don't find value in a night at the movies. Here are a few simple things that can be done to make the theatrical experience an event once again.
1. Make the ticket stub a coupon.
We're already seeing shades of this occurring, what with "Regal Crown Club" cards and the like, which offer points systems that ultimately lead to free tickets and food items, but let's take it one step further. Let's make each and every ticket worth just a little bit more. Let's make it so the ticket acts as a coupon toward the eventual digital download. Or maybe it allows access to online bonus material otherwise unavailable. In addition, we could make every ticket stub re-usable, allowing filmgoers to see the movie again at a severely discounted rate. I, for one, would jump at the chance to see a great film on the big screen a second time if it only cost me five bucks ... and I'd be likely to bring friends.
2. Treat every screening like an event.
Live music events get away with murder when it comes to pricing. Why? Because a concert is a special thing. Not only that, but people spend exorbitant amounts on concert schwag just to show the world they were there (more on this later). Let's give that same vibe back to the moviegoing public. I submit that we bring back ushers. Real, uniformed ushers, available to hold doors, answer questions, and help those who need assistance. How would we pay these fine gentlemen and ladies? With the money earned at the coat check (only $1!!). You know those curtains that exist in front of every screen and remain permanently open? Put them to use! Once it's time to switch from advertisement cards to trailers, shut the curtains and bring out somebody, anybody, to introduce the film. Then open the curtains and begin the main attraction of the evening. It's just an aesthetic touch, but in the few times I've seen it done, it makes the night feel that much more special, and it doesn't cost a dime. The bulk of my local theaters are operating on a skeleton crew at all times, exhibiting a “juuuuust enough” business model. If it weren't for the movies themselves, most of these places would not be desirable destinations.
3. Consider comfort.
Nothing too crazy, but keeping the seats well-maintained and the theaters well-cleaned goes a very, very long way. By simply taking a showman's pride in the quality of the theater, one can inspire patrons to regard it all the same.
5. Sell schwag.
It works for concerts, so why shouldn't it work for movies? When Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out, theaters were selling t-shirts, posters, and toys at the door, and people were buying them. It's easy money, especially for family friendly movies.
6. Be strict about the rules.
Granted, this sounds counterintuitive to the goal here, but in conjunction with the other rules, it makes sense. Talking loudly at the screen? You're out and you don't get a refund. Dumping trash on the floor? Go home! Texting? Out!** By enforcing these rules and guaranteeing a positive experience, people will not only be willing to make the trip to the theater, they'll be willing to pay a proper price for it. You'll also be helping to prevent cam piracy.
Not perfect ideas here, but I think it's important that if we are going to alter the business of film exhibition to cater to the public, it shouldn't be an expense to the experience, but rather an enhancement of the current paradigm.
*Seriously, if you text at the movies, you are the worst. There's no way you didn't get the memo - you just don't care. It's selfish and ignorant. There is no text message so important that it's worth irritating your fellow moviegoers, but not important enough to prevent you from stepping into the hallway to tend to it. And if a texting ban is really enough to keep a person away from the theater, they likely weren't the type of person who sees movies regularly anyway (whereas a lift of the ban would surely drive regular moviegoers to seek alternatives).
**If you absolutely MUST allow texting in your theater, why not reserve the very last row for such a thing and add a surcharge to the ticket?