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Friday, April 24, 2009


Cinema and its discontents, part 4

So, cinemas are overpriced ... but some of them do try to keep things affordable. I'll take my local cinema as an example.

It never charges above £6.50 (though that's still steep compared with a decade ago). To keep these prices manageable, it has to cut expenses where it can, and some of its methods are rather crafty. For instance, they try to increase impulse snacking and cut back on staffing at the same time by making customers buy tickets and food from the same counter. If you want a ticket, you can't just swing past the concession stand: you have to queue in front of it until, theoretically, your resistance to food has been worn away by having to stare at it for the last five minutes. It doesn't work on me, and I'm not mad about the queues, but I admire the ingenuity.

But because they've cut back in other areas too, the price still feels more than it's worth. Ushers, of course, are a thing of the past, but our local has cut back on cleaning expenses as well, and for £6.50 I'd like to walk on a floor that doesn't squish.

This is something of a vicious circle: by keeping itself cheap and cheerful, the cinema attracts a heavily teenage audience, and teenagers tend to be the biggest messers. Adults are more likely to stay away, so they need to keep going for teenagers, and the place just gets grottier and grottier; again, for comfort as well as price reasons, I have to really want to see a film before I feel like going in there ... and if I really want to see it, the prospect of hearing it compete with a lot of chatty kids doesn't much appeal. I'm glad they've all got friends and are having fun together, but again, if I could hear their conversations for one pound on the top deck of a bus, I'd rather not pay £6.50 to hear them in a cinema.

The cinema's options are limited. Either it could spiff itself up and charge more, or it could do what it does, which is stay grubby and lower the lights - which probably saves it still more money on electricity bills. I admire the spirit ... but I don't feel like it's a fun treat to stay there.

In result, it's not much of an occasion going there. I end up going to that cinema only for films that I sort of want to see, on days when there isn't much else do do, a perfect storm of mild willingness and disinterest that's very difficult for a marketing department to whip up. Whatever a director had in mind when he or she first decided to helm their project, I'm sure that's not it.

There are a couple of cinemas in my area (Seattle) that are going the other way: spiffing themselves up and charging more. The new Gold Class Cinema has big leather recliners, and a bar and restaurant. Before your movie, you can order food and drinks to be brought to your seat during the show. All this comes at a really steep price: the tickets themselves are $27, and the appetizers are something like $10 a plate. And, since the theater serves alcohol, no minors allowed.

I had mixed feelings about it. I like the experience, but I don't think it was worth the price. And the menu needed work. No popcorn, too difficult to eat in the dark. And did I mention the price?

If that is the price it takes to run a nice cinema any more, I don't think they have a viable business model. DVDs are so cheap to make and distribute, cinemas probably can't compete.
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