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Tips for Running a Movie Theater for Fun and Profit

MPAA spoofThe last time my family went to the theater, the ads that ran from the film’s scheduled showtime until the moment the feature presentation began spanned over twenty minutes. Many of the ads were movie trailers, but not all of them. Ads for new cars, smartphones, TV shows, and soft drinks are routine pre-show entertainment while you’re settling into your seat, mentally preparing yourself for temporary phone deprivation, swapping notes with your companions, and consuming your snack too early. Even when it’s ostensibly showtime, the commercial parade isn’t over yet, because a lot of manufacturers want a moment of your time, in exchange for keeping your theater in business.

According to a Hollywood Reporter article this week, the National Assocation of Theater Owners have decided that movie studios are taking advantage of your presence, and it’s all their fault that your time is being wasted. Obviously the owners can’t simply run fewer spots, because then here comes the poorhouse. To that end, NATO members are demanding an amended guideline limiting trailers to a maximum of two minutes, slashed from the current 2½-minute boundary.

We can infer from various statements in that THR article that owners believe this will reduce the length of the pre-show, instead of giving them latitude to run even more ads that eat up the same allotted minutes. They believe that it would be harder for shorter trailers to give away the entire movie, apparently forgetting that most romantic comedies can be boiled down to their primal essence in twelve seconds flat. They seem to think the current limit is a recent abuse of creative power, somehow unaware that trailers in the ’40s and other nostalgic decades could occasionally run well past the three-minute mark, sometimes spooling entire scenes instead of mere quick-cut snippets.

As an avid fan of trailers, I resent the notion that anyone thinks they should be truncated or curtailed through heavy-handed bureaucratic resrictions. Yes, some of them are awful and overlong and prone to discouraging you from throwing away your cash on misbegotten misfires. Regardless, the disagreements over this proposal (not yet in effect, knock on wood) obscures the root issue beneath it all: theater owners want more money, and they want to stop irritating their customers and thereby losing money.

If it will help NATO leave the major studios alone, perhaps we should propose other areas in which exhibitors can implement new revenue streams and add to their bottom line in other ways. My own suggestions:

* Toy department in the lobby. Our local art-film theater sells art films on DVDs. Why not set up an aisle or two where spoiled-rotten kids can stock up on movie merchandise immediately after seeing and loving the movie. That way, Mom and Dad don’t have a few minutes to distract them, and lose the excuse of being too busy to stop at Toys R Us. The toys are right there! And since you’re probably already running the kind of theater that charges triple for soft drinks what a four-star steakhouse would charge, everyone will be unsurprised and tolerant when your toy prices are marked up to 125% of MSRP.

* Live ad crawls. At key moments of quiet characterization — kids call them “the boring parts” — have an usher stride across the front of the theater waving a large cardboard ad banner that obscures the bottom half of the screen. It’s just like network TV, except bigger and therefore better by definition.

* Autograph signings. Comic book shops in large cities sometimes have writers and artists stop by for one-day meet-and-greets with customers. How cool would it be if you could exit a Saturday evening showing of Paranormal Activity vs. Jason and meet the stars in the lobby? Or give them acting advice, whichever you prefer?

* Post-release “special editions”. If a movie turns out terrible and ticket sales plummet after opening weekend, offer patrons reduced admission to a home-improved weeknights-only version in which your funniest employees dub and insert their own dialogue, MST3K-style. (Strategy tip: during the hiring process, you’ll need to start vetting applicants for their improv skills.)

* Phone courtesy pool. Anyone who’s carrying a phone is charged a $10.00 quality-of-life deposit. If the entire audience makes it through the whole movie without accessing their phones once, everyone gets their sawbuck back. If even one person yields to temptation, it’s all yours to keep. For extra gladiatorial mob-rule fun, make sure everyone knows which viewer blew it.

* Metered parking. Because free parking is a privilege, not a God-given right. A quarter for every two hours should do. There’s no need to be too overtly greedy.

* Offer trailers-only screenings. For two bucks a head, diehard movie fans can visit the theater, watch thirty minutes’ worth of the latest hot trailers on the eye-popping big screen with optimal surround-sound, and then leave. No superfluous movie, no heightened impatience, just half an hour of previews that are way more mind-blowing when writ large than when compressed and wedged into a modest home monitor or a rinky-dink phone. Anyone who wants a super-sized, volume-11 version of the newest Marvel trailer will appreciate having the opportunity to catch it without having to lay down ten bucks for Scary Movie 35 or another unbearable Nicolas Cage debt-recovery pity project.

* Find a bad scientist to aid your cause. Somewhere out there are crackpots with college degrees who think streaming videos cause cancer and Netflix is a front for an Asian child-slavery ring. Find them and spread their questionably researched messages to an undiscerning public, then sit back and wait for your former clientele to abandon today’s entertainment alternatives and come crawling back to you. (Strategy tip: you may need to bribe the Snopes.com guys and ask them to play along for the next 5-10 years.)

* Tip jars at the exits. Worth a shot. If coffee houses and sandwich shops could institute them without backlash, why not cinemas? Just rip the Will Rogers Institute labels off the empty canisters already sitting in your dusty storage closets, relabel them, set ’em up, and wait for those nickels and dimes to accumulate.

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About Randall A. Golden
Hoosier since birth, geek since age 6, father at 22, Christian at 30; launched Midlife Crisis Crossover at 39. Full-time service rep; part-time internet contributor; former message board admin; inhabits Twitter as @RandallGolden. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of any other corporation, being, or party line.

5 Responses to Tips for Running a Movie Theater for Fun and Profit

  1. I totally agree with your marketing plan. Why don’t you follow up on those ideas? The merchandising $$ would be huge. My only concern about trailers (and this is from years ago) is that some of them were inappropriate for children– even if they said they were G or whatever, it’s their opinion. My G is different from their G! Hubs loves going to movies; I don’t. I hate sitting where other people have been cos of germs and other stuff, and I pretty much hate sitting in general!

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    • The more I wrote about it, the more I liked the $2 trailers-only marathon idea, but I might be alone on that one. I blame home entertainment for bringing us better sound and pictures than they used to.

      I’ve noticed the same thing with trailers getting coarser nowadays, too. Remember when some of those words weren’t even allowed on TV or radio? And now they’re used in titles! Hurray for progress?

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  2. indytony says:

    I’ve seen 3 movies at theaters this year (quadrupling my total for the past two decades) and I must admit I find the ads incredibly annoying. And some of the trailers!

    When I saw “Silver Linings Playbook” to review how they depicted my mental illness, they showed this clip of a film where a woman cut her tongue in half lengthwise. I thought I was having a psychotic hallucination.

    Who screens these things?

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    • I’m guessing the studios’ trailer focus groups are all young party-hearty males ages 18-22. I know which trailer you mean, and it definitely helped me avoid the movie. Whatever the MPAA’s definition of “General Audiences” is now, it sure isn’t what it used to be.

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