Before getting into this week's topic, I'd like to give a shout out to my British compatriots, Mark Oakley and Matt Edwards, over at Den of Geek. In case this column isn't relevant enough to the exhibition industry of the UK (I apologize for not being familiar with old ads for Kia-Ora and Indian restaurants), you may want to check out their ideas on how to improve cinemas. However, few people will agree that banning the general public is a smart idea (personally I want more people going to the movies, not less).
Oh, one more important thing, which just came to my attention: SmartMoney has a great guide to saving on movie tickets. Included are the usual: free movies, second-runs, matinees, buying in bulk and clubs (such as my fave, the Regal Crown Club). But I learned one shocking thing about Cinemark Theatres: they charge extra for Friday and Saturday night shows. Another reason I'm glad I don't go at those busy times.
OK, now to this week's subject: charity fundraising at the cinema. You know, those organizations that collect money at theaters by way of ushers walking up the auditorium aisles jiggling a can. It was something I was very familiar with during my employment at various movie theaters around the Northeast. But ever since quitting the theater business three years ago, I've nearly forgotten all about the practice. This, despite the fact that I have enough free Jimmy Fund t-shirts that I could wear them consecutively and possibly avoid the laundromat for weeks. After so many years of being forced to beg for money at the movies, I'm actually surprised that I hadn't visited the subject here in the whole time I've been writing The Exhibitionist. In fact, I don't recall seeing any charity begging going on. Aside from forgetting about their existence, I assumed the cinemas in New York City (where I moved to after quitting the multiplex) don't participate in either the Jimmy Fund or the Will Rogers Institute. Or, if they were involved, they didn't show it in the same obnoxious way that most suburban cinemas do.
How obnoxious? Well, at the last place I worked, we unfortunately encouraged ushers to do whatever they could to get as much money as they could. Why? Because the theaters that collect the most get special bonuses, or some other sort of incentives (I forget what exactly). So, some of our staff became quite aggressive with the customers in asking for their coin. They'd make remarks behind the backs of people who didn't give, for instance, or otherwise attempt to make non-givers feel guilty in some way. It kind of reminded me of that part in One Crazy Summer when Bobcat Goldthwait jumps out from the bushes and imposes flyers onto innocent passersby.
At the time, I didn't think much against what we did. After all, it's for charity. And both the Jimmy Fund and the Will Rogers Institute were traditions that I grew up with. It was always just part of the summer moviegoing experience that for a few weeks each year, we were asked to donate anything we could to help the poor kids who we just saw in a commercial up on the screen. Then, as I mentioned, I'd forgotten about it all for a few years. But this week I read a post on The Consumerist, a blog dedicated to consumer advocacy, which likened movie theater fundraising to panhandling. Interestingly enough, the complaint received by the blog relates an experience at an NYC theater, one I frequent. So, I guess I've just taken the begging for granted and am oblivious to it.
Now, like the writer at The Consumerist (Chris Walters wrote this particular post), I am all for charity and helping people, but suddenly I realize how much of a nuisance it must be for moviegoers at a time when multiple costs and annoyances are easily convincing people to stay home. But in addition to the points brought up there, I have to add that I've had a few experiences from the inside that should have me discouraging donating in this way even more. I've heard first-hand that fellow employees either stole from the cans or joked about stealing from the cans (not that the jokers were guilty, but at least it showed most people acknowledged the ease of such immoral theft). Some even referred to the cans as "the cigarette fund." Horrible, to be sure, and it probably didn't end with the minimum-wagers. Rumors abounded at all the cinemas I've worked at that managers also skimmed off the top.
While I can assure you that I never did nor never would steal from a charity, and I admit that I never saw people take from the cans, it's a definite possibility in any situation of giving in this manner. A lot of non-profits would actually prefer and recommend that you donate in a more secure fashion. Fortunately, both the Jimmy Fund (and the affiliated Dana-Farber Cancer Institute) and the Will Rogers Institute take gifts via their websites.
But, more on point, it should still be acceptable for movie theaters to collect for charities through less offensive practices than panhandling in the auditoriums. I'm pretty sure that in my last few years working at the multiplex, money for the Will Rogers Institute was collected strictly via boxes located at the ticket booth and the concession stand. No annoying pressure and no dark auditorium corners for quick pilfering. And now, according to the Will Rogers Institute website, "when you make a special purchase at participating movie theaters, a percentage of the purchase price will result in a donation to the Will Rogers Institute." That's certainly a better idea than begging, as most of us can agree.
As for the Jimmy Fund, well you'll probably see ushers panhandling for them this summer, if you haven't been accosted for your donation already. Feel free to give as usual or not give as usual. Or wait and donate on the website when you get home. But if the practice annoys you, make sure and complain to the theater. Just please don't take your annoyance out on the children by refusing to give altogether.