Friday, July 9, 2010

Multiplex blues





A lot of bloggers have written about how this has been a bad summer for movies. My aim today is to explore a phenomenon that's related to that notion only superficially.

Yesterday my wife and I drove down from our house in Los Angeles to a multiplex in Torrance -- the AMC Theatres Del Amo 18 -- to see Despicable Me. I know it doesn't come out until tomorrow, but I clicked on a link in an email sent to me by Entertainment Weekly, and was selected on a first-come, first-served basis to attend a free advanced screening last night at 6:30. Feeling a little thrill of "victory," I got excited to go, even though I had my doubts about the movie. We rearranged our day yesterday, my wife even taking a conference call in the car on the 30-minute drive there, in order to be there in plenty of time. But when we walked up a full hour before showtime, the guy at the front basically told us that the line was hopelessly long, and we shouldn't even bother. This is a topic for a full rant at some other time, but a "free" movie feels a lot less free if you need to camp out all day to get in.

The good news was, we were there at a theater with 17 other screens, and there was surely something else we'd want to see, right?

Nope.

Here's what was playing:

Get Him to the Greek
Grown Ups
Knight & Day
Knight & Day
The A-Team
The Karate Kid
The Karate Kid
The Last Airbender
The Last Airbender - 3D
Twilight: Eclipse
Twilight: Eclipse
Twilight: Eclipse
Twilight: Eclipse
Twilight: Eclipse - The IMAX Experience
Toy Story 3
Toy Story 3 - 3D
Toy Story 3 - 3D

That doesn't quite add up to 18, so I don't know what happened.

We had already seen Get Him to the Greek, Toy Story 3 and The Last Airbender (my wife hadn't seen Airbender, but I wasn't going to sit through it a second time). We had no interest in the movie playing on a full five of the 18 screens, Twilight: Eclipse. Grown Ups was definitely out. I would have grudgingly seen Knight & Day, The A-Team or The Karate Kid, and my wife might have acquiesced. But none of them had a starting time closer than an hour and ten minutes away, even with two of those movies playing on two screens.

I was determined to see a movie, so I suggested we stop at another multiplex on the way home, to see if we might luck out on the times. This was advertised as a 16-screen theater, AMC Theatres Galleria at South Bay 16. But here's what was playing:

The Last Airbender
The Last Airbender - 3D
Twilight: Eclipse
Twilight: Eclipse
Twilight: Eclipse
Twilight: Eclipse
Toy Story 3
Toy Story 3 - 3D
Splice

Only one different title from the previous theater, and it was one I'd already seen.

In case you're counting, that's only eight different movies playing at a theater with 18 screens, and only four different movies playing at a theater with 16 screens.

I understand that these results are skewed slightly by the Twilight phenomenon, and by the summer season, but it still points to a very disappointing trend: Today's multiplexes are offering less than half of the movies they could be offering. And gone are the days when, if you missed one movie, you could be sure there was something else at the multiplex you'd be willing to subject yourself to.

I'm not saying all the movies listed are bad -- that's definitely not the case when one of the movies you're talking about is Toy Story 3. But I used to appreciate a time when there were still movies you could see, beyond those you diligently prioritized seeing (like Toy Story 3), if you were in a jam. I love random exposure to movies I hadn't planned to see, and I thought I might get an occasion like that last night. I was even willing to see something I didn't particularly want to see, but the start times weren't staggered in a convenient way for me to even have that option, either. So you take the combination of bad movies, bad start times, and too few options to choose from, and my wife and I had to slink back home last night, having seen nothing.

Oh don't get me wrong, I understand it's a business. I understand it only makes sense to play movies that are still ringing up ticket sales. If you're going to make more money on five Twilights than you are on three Twilights and two other movies, I guess you have to play the five Twilights. And speaking of all the Twilights, there was something weird going on at the second theater, I see as I look at the movie times online today. Twilight is playing 13 times today, which means four times each on three screens, then one other time on one other screen. Yet I can't see which other title is standing down to allow a fourth Twilight screening in the 7 to 9 p.m. primetime slot. This suggests that there's one empty theater whose only purpose all day is to screen one primetime showing of Twilight.

And I guess this sheds a little more light on the whole business thing I'm talking about. That second theater advertises itself as a 16-screen theater. But by my calculations, even with that one theater showing only one Twilight, only nine screens are currently being used. This means they're better off, financially, simply showing less than their full capacity, than to play movies that aren't selling any tickets in order to utilize their full complement of screens. By this model, one has to assume that in this particular slice of the geographical landscape, Splice happens to still be selling enough tickets, more than a month after it opened, to be worth playing for another week. I'm inclined to cheer them for showing continued faith in a pretty cool movie, but I know it's only business. If Splice isn't selling tickets, it's gone.

I'm not really blaming anyone for all this. Audiences see what they want to see, and theaters screen what audiences want to see. It just causes me to arrive at a rather obvious conclusion: The average multiplex out there sucks, and is no longer going to cater to a film fan like me, if it ever did.

Fortunately, I live in Los Angeles, where we have a couple truly great theaters that adhere to my definition of what a multiplex should be. Of course there are the three branches of the famous Arclight concept, in Hollywood, Pasadena and Sherman Oaks. But none of those is within 15 minutes of me. I do, however, have the Landmark on Pico, about four miles from where I live, which is currently showing the following:

Cyrus
I Am Love
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
Knight & Day
Love Ranch
Restrepo
The Secret in Their Eyes
Twilight: Eclipse
Toy Story 3
Toy Story 3 - 3D
Winter's Bone

The Landmark has found that perfect balance between needing to make money (Twilight, Toy Story 3) and showcasing films you won't see anywhere else (Love Ranch, Restrepo). When they shifted from all-indie to a few hits, a few years back, I initially bemoaned the change. Now -- and especially after last night -- I think that if the Landmark can just be the shining example of what I wish most multiplexes could be, that's fine with me. At least they're only playing Twilight on a mere single screen.

I guess the real lesson of this whole experience is: Don't get roped into the false promises of vastly overbooked free screenings.

7 comments:

The Mad Hatter said...

Wow.

See I had a theory for how people could get better moviegoing experiences this summer, but this story blows it all to hell.

My thought was to look further down the line at The Multiplex. Walk in resigned to what crap might be playing in theatres 1-6 and focus instead on what smaller gems might be playing at theatre 10, 11, and 12.

While I appreciate theatre managers' desire to sidestep the dreaded "Sold Out Screening" by running things on two or three screens - your story shows me just how far from the plot they have found themselves.

There's no reason for them to be playing four titles on nine screens...or eight titles on seventeen screens!

You're damned right to say that you're lucky to live in L.A. where you have options - I imagine in many smaller markets, what you described is the norm.

If I were you, I'd become a dedicated patron of The Landmark, and personally thank the manager for providing people with better options!

Vancetastic said...

Hatter,

It's true, I'm very lucky. In fact, I take it for granted that if a movie has been released anywhere in the country, I'm likely to find it without having to drive for more than a half-hour. (And the half-hour drive is not representative of being an actual significant distance from where the movie is playing -- it more represents LA traffic.)

And because I DO frequent theaters like the Landmark so much more regularly than theaters like the Del Amo 18, I still have the capacity to be surprised by just how little variety they really do offer. Here's the worst part: I'm sure most of the people who go there don't notice, or if they do notice, they don't care.

Mike Lippert said...

It's funny, George Lucas onced said the multiplexes were going to be the future of movies because they would allow audiences the opportunity to see big movies in the same theaters as the smaller movies. That was apperently the dream of a man who put artistry before consummerism.

The thing is though, in, and maybe I'm dreaming too, a lot of cases, if those small movies were given a chance at the big theaters they would do better business. I know they'd never distract people from the Twilights or Harry Potters but, look at my situation, I would glady go see Winter's Bone or Fish Tank or whatever film like that in a theater but, in most cases, I would need to go downtown for that. So figure it out: I drive, I have to pay parking which, depending on the location could be anywhere from 7 to 15 bucks or take the subway for like 6 bucks, then pay full price for the movie, so by the time I've searched out a movie like Winter's bone I'm out 25 or 30 bucks so I might as well just wait for the DVD.

The Movie Snob said...

This is an excellent point that I never really took into consideration. Unfortunately in my neck of the woods theaters are all that way, save for a few that are a drive.

Vancetastic said...

Mike,

I think the economics you refer to are a constant struggle for film fanatics, which is what I touched on briefly when discussing the supposedly "free" screening of Despicable Me. When you factor in that we drove about 15 miles to get there, and my wife had to work two fewer hours (she's a freelancer and she'll never get those hours back), it wasn't anywhere close to free. The only true way to beat theater costs is to do the double feature, where you sneak into the second after paying for the first. But that's not always possible, and in some cases, you respect the theater purveyors too much to do it -- especially in the case of the downtown indie theaters you are describing. It's a dilemma. Then add in the fact that the window to DVD is shorter than ever, and the theatrical screening seems so much less important than it once was.

Movie Snob,

Yeah, that drive gets you every time. I guess that's another benefit of living in Los Angeles -- most of us are not automatically scared off by being in the car for a long time, because of the world-famous traffic. If you told someone in Rhode Island that it would take an hour to get there, they'd expect to drive from one end of the state to the other. In LA, it might take that long to get from the west side to Hollywood in rush hour traffic.

Aiden R. said...

Man, thank God for the Landmark! Sounds like an awesome theater and I think we can all empathize with yer blues at the moment. Serenity now, Hollywood. Just give us Inception already.

Miss Topanga said...

a bad summer for movies?

how about a bad year? ;)