On the opening day of War of the Worlds, the action kicks off before the movie does. After waiting an eternity (okay, 20 minutes) for tickets and food at the Loews downtown multiplex on Michigan Avenue, the man in front of me watches the concession kid burn the popcorn. Smoke billows out of the popper -- and out of this guy's ears. He rushes upstairs to the other concession stand and learns that the popper there is broken. He storms off empty-handed, but not before shouting, "You guys are the stupidest people in the city!"
This "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!" rant (see the 1976 classic Network) is emblematic of today's moviegoing experience. Hollywood has taken a drubbing for too many movies based on recycled TV shows and other derivative dross. But if you want to know why attendance has been down 9% this year and what caused that record 19-week slump this spring and summer, it's the theaters. Poll after poll indicates Americans are seeing more movies, yet going to the movies less. A whopping 73% of respondents told the Associated Press and AOL that they prefer watching at home.
When AMC Entertainment and Loews Cineplex Entertainment announced in June that they were merging, the move had a whiff of desperation. There are too many empty theater seats, the giants seemed to be saying, and consolidation is the only way to squeeze out profits. Instead, the newly formed chain -- AMC Entertainment, the second largest in the country, with 5,900 screens -- ought to seize the moment and fix this broken industry.
I went to five AMC and Loews locations, and it was easy to see why box office is down. You may recommend Steven Spielberg's chilling science-fiction movie, but you wouldn't recommend the theater. Not when you can wait a mere four months and catch the DVD in your home theater.
Each theater managed to disappoint beyond what I expected to be annoyed by (overpriced tickets and food, excessive ads and trailers). At AMC River East 21, it was the puny screen that didn't do the latest Star Wars epic justice. And a crying baby. At Loews Webster Place 11, it was the guys talking throughout Batman Begins as though they were at home. At Loews Pipers Alley 4, it was a floor so sticky I could barely rise at the end of Rize. At AMC City North 14, where I saw Bewitched, the big lobby arcade teemed like a mall. And, to top it off, a crying baby during the show.
Theater owners like to throw up their hands and blame the shortcomings of the patrons and films, but they're not acknowledging their role in spoiling a once-magical experience. To make movie night special again, they can start by having someone introduce the film live, the way old-style movie houses do, and having ushers walk the aisles, a reminder that decorum is expected, and, if necessary, enforced.
Amtrak operates a quiet car, free of cell phones and loud chatter. JetBlue asks customers to clean up after themselves. Likewise, theaters can create a renewed sense of respect so the place isn't as filthy or rowdy as a truck stop. And the decor -- which leans toward mall arcade with a touch of labyrinth -- could use a rethinking by a top-notch designer with a sense of glamour and grandeur. Of the five I visited, the only theater that attempts to do this is River East, where movie-inspired murals greet you at the top of the escalator lobby and famous movie lines are etched in the lobby floor.
Some theaters are getting with the program by offering a wider assortment of food (AMC's Starbucks menu is a start) and baby-friendly screenings on weekday mornings. But why stop there? They could segment the audience for popular releases at night: a screening where children are welcome and one for adults only. They could borrow an idea from sports arenas: premium seating with a dedicated waiter. I'd gladly pay for the service.
Bottom line, the new AMC needs to get creative. Theater owners need to remember that the drama belongs on the screen, not in the lobby.