Now that the weekend is nearly over, and you all have seen The Dark Knight multiple times, let me ask you a question: did you sneak your own snacks into the theater? Be honest. I won't get angry. I'll just let out a huge sigh.
Yes, it's time once again to ask the question, only five months after Kim asked it the last time. But it's an issue that I must continue discussing (at least once each busy movie season), because I see it as one of the worst cyclical problems affecting the exhibition industry. Of course, if you commonly do it, you'll no more listen to me now than you've listened in the past. The other day, a very good friend let the world know (via her Facebook status) that she was sneaking snacks into a movie. If I can't get through to those close to me, what's the chance I'll get through to you? Here's giving it a shot, anyway, first with some analogies: Do you ever buy coffee at a coffee shop even though it's cheaper if you just make it at home or at the office? Do you ever get a drink at a bar even though it's much, much cheaper to just drink at home? Do you ever eat out even though it's cheaper to just buy food at the grocery store and cook a meal yourself? And do you ever go to the movies even though it's cheaper just to stay home and watch TV? So why do you think it's so outrageous to pay extra for concessions even though it's cheaper just to buy snacks at a drug store?
Okay, maybe analogies aren't the best way to argue my point. Plus, I feel like those recent anti-piracy ads that compare downloading movies to stealing someone's car or purse. Even if the two things are somewhat morally relatable, I don't know anyone who really believes the two crimes are really equal. And likewise I don't know anyone who believes smuggling contraband food into the theater is as silly as bringing store-bought beers to a bar (actually, I know a few people who don't think the latter is silly either).
Unfortunately, the concession issue is really spiraling out of control. As prices increase, fewer moviegoers purchase concessions, and to make up the profit difference, prices increase further, and so on. Maybe eventually the prices will have to go back down in order to lure the customers back, but I can't imagine I'll ever see that day. It's kind of like the garbage Catch-22: you leave your trash on the floor, so the theater hires ushers to clean your mess, so then you think it's okay to keep leaving your trash on the floor, because there are people there who'll clean it up. Of course, those ushers get paid with part of the money made from concessions. It's possible that if suddenly everybody picked up after himself or herself, concession prices would go down. Or that more ushers will be able to monitor the audience in your auditorium and therefore keep people from being too disruptive.
Yeah, no, I don't believe theaters would lower concessions just because they don't need ushers. Nor do I think they'd continue paying so many ushers just to be ushers, either. But helping to solve both problems may, at the very least, lead to a concession-pricing plateau. At least I hope that it would. Otherwise, what better reasoning do I have to keep people from sneaking in snacks? Tell you that if you keep doing it that the movie theaters will all close? I've already gotten a few too many "meh" responses regarding that threat.
Here's where you guys comment that going to the movies in general is too expensive these days. Between the ticket, the gas, the babysitter and the concessions, the last of these is the easiest expense to knock off. And for most of you, it's probably the more preferred expense cut for your fellow audience members, too. Surely you've been annoyed with people who chose to subtract the babysitter expense rather than the concessions (see Scott's recent moviegoing rant for a lot of complaints about kids). Yet despite the fact that we're in an economic recession right now, moviegoing is reportedly still the best entertainment for your buck (would the media lie?). That is, as long as the quality of that entertainment is high.
Of course, the theaters aren't actually in the entertainment business; they're in the snack bar business (for a great comparison of this to TV networks, see DJ's response to last week's column). So, every time you sneak in food, you're hurting that business. You're literally sabotaging it. In a way, you're stealing, but fortunately for you, not in any way that's illegal.
It's not all up to you, however. As part of the cyclical state of this problem, theater owners need to fix their own businesses as much as, if not more than, moviegoers need to mend their ways. The first way to do this is to make sure their concession stands serve great popcorn (not even just good). After all, that's the main attraction of a movie theater concession stand. Fresh-popped, movie theater type popcorn. Even if you live a block away and stove-pop your own, by the time you get it into the auditorium it isn't as good as the best theater corn.
Unfortunately, most of the big chains and the small independent theaters have some really crappy corn. In my experience, Loews' is always stale, AMC's always tastes like it's from a store-bought bag, National Amusement's was somehow only good when I used to make it, most of today's "butter" will give you a stomach ache (or worse) and too many concessionists carelessly crush half the kernels into crumbs. Fortunately for us New Yorkers, we can choose those theaters that pop the best (here, for chains it's Regal, for indies its Film Forum). Elsewhere, I doubt there's a whole lot of choice in the matter.
One thing theaters shouldn't do is bully on the customers. This isn't an amusement park or a Yankees game or a rock concert, and bag searches are both too costly and too unfair (for awhile after 9/11, theater owners got away with using terrorism as an excuse, but thankfully no longer). When I worked in the industry, it was policy that customers weren't supposed to bring in outside food, yet it was good customer service not to make a big deal out of it unless it was obvious, like when people walked in with whole pizza pies or smelly Mexican food. The thing is, food can be a health issue, and therefore it's wrong to deny certain people their dietary needs. And then after one thing is permitted, it's difficult to weigh subsequent circumstances.
So, as much as I'd like to read your comments confessing your snack sneakage, and as much as I'd love to hear about the quality of your local cinema's concessions, I'd even more like to know what we can do to stop the problem, both on your end and their end. Maybe you won't listen, and maybe the theater owners won't listen, but I'll listen. And one day when I'm president of a big theater chain, or even better, of the National Association of Theatre Owners, it hopefully won't be too late to make a change.