An Open Letter From The Quorum:
For the past few years, we at The Quorum have been studying audience sentiment toward going to the movies. In October 2021, The Quorum published a study, in partnership with Cultique and Fanthropology, that showed that a large segment of the population feels a disconnect between the value of the theater-going experience and the price of admission (along with ancillary costs, like getting a babysitter, concessions, parking, etc.).
As the founder of The Quorum, I was pleased that the study got lots of coverage. Personally, the rational part of my brain looked at the data, processed it, and made peace with the fact that my experience differed from our study sample. Even at Los Angeles prices, I always thought going to the movies was a tremendous value.
Part of that was because I was a faithful customer of the Arclight, pre-pandemic. And that was a theater chain that understood that going to the movies was an experience. There were no commercials. You knew there would only be three trailers, and there was an usher to introduce the film. The theaters were clean and well-maintained, and they had a bar that could make real drinks and a sit-down restaurant with high-quality food and service.
But with the Arclight theaters now gone, I have been forced to visit other theaters, and I am beginning to realize that the theater-going experience is pretty awful. It’s true. Theaters, at least around the Los Angeles area, the second biggest media market in the US, are a mess.
Last week, we wrote about how BARBIE has successfully brought more people back to the theater. More importantly, many who saw BARBIE said it was their first time in a theater since the pandemic. And they liked the experience. That’s great! At this moment, there is tremendous goodwill towards the silver screen.
But now it’s time for theaters to step up and pull it together, or this opportunity will be wasted.
What exactly are the problems? Before getting to that, it’s important to note that what I’m describing is not a description of a single theater. Rather it is a composite of multiple theaters. With that said, let’s get into it.
Knowing that I have a few hours in the theater ahead of me, I always start with a trip to the restroom. As someone used to the well-maintained bathrooms of the Arclight, I am continually shocked to see broken urinals covered by black garbage bags. It’s not only surprising to see the frequency in which these are down, but there has to be a better way to alert people that a urinal is broken than haphazardly throwing a garbage bag over it. What’s more, the urinals that do work often have a one-inch strip of dirty caulk holding them to the wall.
Moving over to the often-flooded sink area, invariably some portion of the soap dispensers are empty. Same for the paper towel machines. That’s because there are reams of towels spilling out from the overstuffed trash cans.
Ok, let’s get some food. We all know the problem with concessions. They cost too much, the ordering process is too slow, and the attendants behind the counter always seem like they’d rather be elsewhere. That’s old news. To their credit, most theaters have now added self-serve beverage machines allowing customers to choose from dozens of flavor options. Love that. But on all of my recent trips to the theater, at least one – and in many cases, more than one – of the machines is out of service. The working ones often have a limited selection because some flavor syrups have run out.
Time for the movie. I’m not going to talk about the enormous volume of trailers. On most occasions, it’s somewhere around eight or nine. I think it’s too many. Other people feel it’s okay. That’s a debate for another day. But it is time, once again, to beg circuits to stop airing post trailer spots. Most egregious is that awful Nicole Kidman promotional piece. In March we noted how that the infamous video had become white noise. Now it’s become ridiculous—and frustrating. Not only is it preaching to the choir, but the optics of her sitting in an empty theater imploring people to return to the cinema reeks of peak pandemic days. Never mind that after 25 minutes of trailers, we just want the movie to start.
The last time I saw a movie when the trailers ended, the house lights dimmed, and the movie started. That’s a rather unremarkable statement. Of course the lights will dim. Not so fast. On two recent occasions, the house lights stayed on as the movie started, and I had to run into the halls to find someone to fix the problem. That’s five minutes of the film that I didn’t get to see.
Finally, let me take a moment to talk about one of my favorite parts of the theater-going experience. That’s walking through the theater lobbies and looking at the posters and standees. This is vitally important marketing real estate. Some theaters have added digital displays. I especially like the floor-to-ceiling mosaic of ever-changing screens that look as though they’re borrowed from Times Square. There are also some truly inspired standees as well.
But, these hallways are also riddled with uninspired material. Most standees look like they were just unpacked from a box with prominent creases from where they were folded. Others look tenuously upright on flimsy easel backs. Still others are haphazardly placed in the aisles. I saw one that was blocking the water fountains. Last week I saw a standee for DRIVE AWAY DOLLS with its old September release date. That movie got moved to 2024 over a month ago.
There’s plenty of blame to go around on this one. Studios, you need to do a better job selling your films. Theaters, you need to stop being so lazy about how you display these things. And we all need to be on top of our game. If the material is outdated, if a movie has been pushed, get rid of it.
Let me be clear. Theaters have made significant improvements over the years. Let’s celebrate the rise of premium large formats. Seats are now bigger, and they recline. These are all things worth celebrating.
We also know that theaters have had a hard time these past few years. Investments in infrastructure are off the table for a number of circuits. But the things highlighted here don’t require capital investment. This is blocking and tackling. This is about hiring people who care. People who will clean the bathrooms, fill the soap dispensers, stock the paper towels and empty the trash. Employees who will turn the house lights down when the movie starts.
We understand that, as theater owners, you may not have the resources to fix a broken urinal or restock a soda machine. But when those things happen, I implore you to be more artful in how consumers are exposed to these problems. Theatergoers can tell when management doesn’t care about a theater. When people say that the theatergoing experience doesn’t provide value, this is partially what they’re talking about. It also begs the question, do exhibition executives experience these issues personally? Are they even aware?
Going to the movies should be magical. Time for exhibition to step up.