Pursuing The Scarcer Moviegoers

Published on

The New York Times

SANTA MONICA, CA — With evidence increasing that the American moviegoing habit is in decline, theater owners are undertaking a concerted campaign to bring it back.

The National Association of Theater Owners, the primary trade group for exhibitors, is pushing to improve the theatrical experience by addressing complaints about on-screen advertisements, cellphones in theaters and other disruptions, while planning a public relations campaign to promote going out to the movies.

Some exhibitors are hiring more ushers to ride herd on inconsiderate patrons and are thinking about banning children after a certain hour, to cut down on crying babies in the theater, said John Fithian, president of the trade group.

”We have to attack rude behavior — fighting, bickering, talking too loud,” Mr. Fithian said.

Some of the proposed solutions may not be so popular. The trade group plans to petition the Federal Communications Commission to permit the blocking of cellphones inside theaters, Mr. Fithian said. That would require changing an existing regulation, he added. But some theaters are already testing a no-cellphones policy, asking patrons to check their phones at the theater door.

A spokesman for a cellphone lobby said the group would object to any regulatory change. ”We’re opposed to the use of any blocking technology, because it interferes with people’s ability to use a wireless device in an emergency situation,” said Joseph Farren, a spokesman for CTIA-the Wireless Association, based in Washington.

Moviegoers’ biggest complaint, however, is ticket prices. A recent online study found that price was the reason most often cited by those polled for staying away, far more than movie quality or rude behavior. The price of movie tickets has risen steadily over time, about 5 percent in the last two years. An adult ticket now typically costs $10 in major cities like New York and Los Angeles, though the average ticket price nationally is $6.34.

“It’s gotten too expensive to go the theater,” said Lauren Schneider, 49, who was strolling along the Santa Monica pedestrian mall on a brisk evening recently with her husband, Sascha. ”You need a baby sitter. Tickets are $10, the popcorn is another $10. Before you’re done it’s a $50 night out.”

When they think a movie is a must-see — like ”King Kong” or ”Good Night, and Good Luck” — they will go, said the couple. Otherwise, ”if it’s borderline, I’ll wait to rent it on DVD,” Mrs. Schneider said.

Mr. Fithian insisted that going to the movies is not too expensive, compared to other out-of-the-home leisure activities. ”If consumers seriously analyzed their options, they’d realize that the cinema is the best value for a buck,” he said.

The theater owners group plans to hire a public relations firm to promote that message, though Mr. Fithian acknowledged that his argument has so far fallen on deaf ears.

Among a dozen moviegoers interviewed at the Santa Monica AMC theater, almost all cited ticket prices as a major factor in deciding whether to attend a movie. Several said ads were a nuisance. Most cited the caliber of the movies as the biggest issue.

”There’s a lack of quality stories,” said Lisa Martin, 40, from Bakersfield, Calif., who was on her way to see ”Syriana.” ”We feel like if we’re going to spend this amount of money, we want to see something good.”

None said ringing cellphones was a major problem, and some suggested that being denied access to their phones would discourage them from going to the theater. ”I don’t want an 18-year-old in charge of my cellphone,” Mrs. Martin’s husband, Clay, said, referring to the possibility that cellphones would be left at the door. ”I have a $700 phone.”

Asked about the proposals, Douglas Heller, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, said that blocking phones might be a cure worse than the illness. ”It doesn’t sound like it’s a plan that’s been really thought out,” he said. ”There’s a legitimate reaction against cellphone use in theaters, by moviegoers and theater owners. But I don’t think the public is going to react very well to being handled in this way.”

Even without new policies, theater owners say they are aggressively trying to respond to customer complaints and to maintain the comfort of seeing a movie in a big dark public space. Indeed, theater chains have invested in recent years in numerous amenities designed to upgrade the theatrical experience, with stadium seating, upscale restaurants in the lobby or state-of-the-art sound systems.

”We are trying to do a better job of policing our auditoriums, and making sure that if somebody is acting up in the theater, that they get one chance to shut off their cellphone or quit talking, and after that, they’re asked to leave,” said Aubrey Stone, president of the Georgia Theater Company, which owns theaters with 267 screens in Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia. ”We don’t want to ask people to leave, but they’re ruining the experience for other patrons.”

The measures are the first concerted response by movie exhibitors, the sector of the movie industry hit hardest this year. There has been a decline in the box office of more than 5 percent, and an even larger decline in movie attendance. The downturn has led some Hollywood studios to consider reducing, or even eliminating, the length of time between a theatrical release and that of the DVD, on the presumption that more people want to see movies in their homes.

Exhibitors vigorously oppose closing this gap, and their trade group has insisted that the current slump is merely a momentary dip in a cyclical business. The group contends that ticket sales are up over a 35-year period, though the industry’s own figures show a decline in ticket sales for three years in a row, after a banner year in 2002.

Mr. Fithian and other executives said they had responded to the box-office slump by examining consumer research and listening more closely to patrons. They say that the three main complaints are movie advertisements, cellphones and other disturbances and the high price of going to the movies.

Theater owners will not eliminate on-screen advertisements, because doing so would drive ticket prices higher, Mr. Fithian said. But they are looking at ways to make the ads more entertaining and to mix them with information about the movies.

Screenvision, one of two companies that package on-screen advertising for exhibitors, has recently invested $50 million in a digital projection system to improve the viewing quality of the advertising. The other company, National CineMedia, is introducing 20-minute packages, which include, along with the ads, behind-the-scenes segments from movie sets like ”King Kong.”

”The biggest complaint we get from audiences is, ‘We’ve seen it before on TV,’ ” said Kurt Hall, the chairman of National CineMedia. ”We are taking that head on and going to try to achieve our goal by the end of the year, which is to have everything be original.”

But Matthew Kearney, the chief executive of Screenvision, disputed the notion that advertising was a reason audiences might be staying home more. Ads ”are not a deterrent” to going to the movies, he said. ”Our current studies show that given the choice between ads or a blank screen, only 8 percent prefer a blank screen.”

Still, he said, ”we have to continue to try and improve what we’re doing.” He added, ”If we don’t, someone else will attract the audience to stay at home and watch TV, or play video games, or go to a restaurant.”

Mr. Fithian said that consumers are complaining about the length and quality of ads. And he said advertising takes up too much time in the theater. How long is too long? ”I don’t know how long it should be,” he said, ”but it should be less than it is now.”

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