31 May 2007

Regal Theaters wants YOU...to do their job for them

Movie theaters face a crisis. More people turn toward the home cinema experience, via the combined wonders of DVD, Blu-ray, widescreen and megascreen TVs, thundering digital sound systems, and Netflix-style home delivery of movies. I can see this happening on the personal level, because within the last five years I have reduced my theater-going experience by half, seeing many more new releases on DVD. I still prefer seeing movies on the big screen, but the prime reason I’ve reduced my cinema-going is that I have become more selective about which movies I will chose to pay six bucks (my local matinee price) to see. Epics and blockbusters, films I feel may lose some of their impact on the more intimate and smaller home theater systems, tend to get my patronage now.

Facing the downturn, some theater chains have turned proactive in luring back patrons. A few have hatched bizarre schemes that reveal much about why the theaters are losing their audience. Just peruse this article from Yahoo! Tech:
One movie theater is empowering preferred customers with tools that would summon security guards in the case of any disturbance or movie malfunctions. According to USA Today, Regal Entertainment Group is equipping loyal moviegoers with the new Regal Guest Response System in 114 theaters nationwide. The small remote control has four buttons to report disturbances, sound, piracy, and picture malfunctions anonymously. Pressing the button would alert a manager faster, and people don't have to worry about being confronted later by an angry customer. Sounds like a great idea to me, one that I hope they eventually implement in every seat.
The device sounds cute, but clearly this is a scam pulled by Regal under the guise of “customer service.” Regal says it will equip loyal moviegoers with the device; what does “loyal” constitute? Whaddya bet it means “customer willing to pay more”? And what guarantees that the device will really work? This device also allows Regal to slack off on the job it should be doing by having ushers patrol the movie theaters. With one move, Regal cuts down on employee responsibility (might be able to cut some jobs, too) and finds a new way to charge customers extra. In no way is this “empowering” the customer.

There's another sneaky element of the device that should draw your attention: the piracy button. This is the only button that Regal actually wants you to press. Chances are that someone surreptitiously recording the film won't actually disturb your movie-going experience. This button serves Regal, not the patron.

Finally, one in every seat? I hope the author of the article was making a joke when she suggested this. Can you imagine the chaos if everyone in the theater could summon the management with the press of a button? And you thought cell phone abusers and overactive kids were annoying!

My own experience in movie theaters hasn't declined much over the past few years because of other patrons. I’ve noticed fewer cell phone problems since “turn off your cell phone” title cards now run before the movie. (It’s gratifying to see folks throughout the theater reach down and shut off their cells when the announcement runs.) The “talkative teens” I often hear complaints about? Never had a problem with that; hardly even notice it. (Teens are once again the easiest scapegoats. I can hear the crumudgeonly screaming now: “Damn kids with your Hula Hoops and Rock n’ Roll!”) Screaming kids and babies? That has occurred occasionally, but only once did it get bad enough that I had to tell the mother to get control of her kids, who were running all over the theater. (This happened in Denver, by the way, not Los Angeles.) A few years ago I almost saw the people in front of me get into a fight because one man kept using a cell phone, and when the woman next to him politely asked him to take a call outside the theater, he told her to “shut up,” causing the woman’s boyfriend to get justifiably unhappy. But these are rare instances, and usually my experience in theaters isn't much hampered by other patrons.

But you know what has caused my theater experience to decline? The theaters themselves! This is why theater chains are really losing business: poor management that comes across as completely anti-patron. Untrained nonunion projectionists, insufficient staff not doing their jobs, allowing equipment break, constantly shoving advertisements at us before the movie starts, jacking up prices with no end in sight . . . and now Regal has found a way to charge patrons extra so they don't have to do their own job, and hopefully turn their customers into stoolies as well.

Thanks Regal. No thanks. Turn your cell phone off.