Theater of the Absurd: A Night at a Premium Movie House

I loved going to the movies. I always have, but I’m not so sure I do anymore.

We all know Hollywood is spinning around the bowl, waiting for the final flush. Attendance at theaters is not just flat-lining, it’s in free fall. There are a lot of reasons, some of which Hollywood really cannot do much about. Video games occupy young eyeballs. Technology now delivers a tsunami of entertainment options to our TVs, computers and iThings. But there are ways that Hollywood can respond. It can make movies that don’t suck, but that’s another subject for another time. And it can make the theaters into something new and different – that is, it can make them into places we want to be.

I (and folks like me) should be a target demographic for the green eyeshade guys who supposedly run Hollywood. While, even if all the conditions were perfect, I wouldn’t go as much as I used to, I used to go a couple times a week before I was married, and even after I’d go weekly. I’ll spend my few free bucks (including the fortune for babysitters) if there’s something I want to see (doubtful, and again another issue for another time) and if going to the theater itself is something other than a nightmarish death march.

Which brings me to my trip to the El Segundo, California, ArcLight Cinemas on a recent Friday night to see “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”

The ArcLight, and other “premium” theaters, represents the industry’s attempt to address some of the more common complaints about theaters from people like me – decrepit facilities, careless projection, and snack options that range from bland to hideous. As a drunken college student, I didn’t mind going to some hellhole theater on dollar night to see awesome fare like “The Exterminator II” and “Pieces”- hey, aesthetics aren’t Consideration No. 1 when your flick’s tagline is “You don’t have to go to Texas for a chainsaw massacre!” But today, I want a little more than sticky floors and discreet ticket takers who overlook the beer cans I had obviously secreted in my pockets.

The ArcLight promises a premium movie-going experience; it’s a concept that is being tried around the country. In theory, it’s awesome. There’s assigned seating – no more battling for a seat with some nimrod who announces that he’s “saving” the entire row for his coterie of quarter-wit buddies who are out in the parking lot sparking a doob in the back of somebody’s mom’s Dodge Caravan.

There’s alcohol, both in the refreshment area and in one of the 14 theaters. The snacks are of higher quality and are carefully prepared. There’s even gourmet coffee. The seats are roomy and clean. A nice young attendant comes in and introduces the movie. There’s no coming in after the first five minutes, and they do not show ads during the previews.

It all sounds awesome in theory. In practice, however, the ArcLight is a pain. It seems that the proposed solutions to our complaints simply spawn a whole new set of different problems.

Start at the beginning – buying the ticket. The first thing you notice is the price – $14.50 a seat. To be clear, that’s dollars, not pesos. I started off flipping burgers at Carl’s, Jr. for $3.10 an hour; $14.50 is a lot of dough. And double it if you’re not a creepy loner. Leaving aside parking and a sitter and dinner, you’re out $29.00 walking in the door. That’s like the per capita income of residents of Burkina Faso.

So, if I’m dropping $29.00 on a flick, I want it smooth and I want it comfortable and, most of all, I want it hassle-free. But the hassle starts when I try to pay that $29.00. There’s a line, and there’s a line because everyone has to go through the ritual of picking their seats. It takes forever. I took forever; I wanted one near the aisle but not up in the stratosphere because I enjoyed a light alcoholic beverage and didn’t want to shimmy past a dozen folks to go out and hit the head. Buying a ticket is just a pain in the tail.

Now, I could have avoided the hassle by buying the tickets online – I’d have even gotten a discount. But leaving aside the fact that many couples are still arguing about which movie to see right up until they plunk down the cash (as we were), when I’m paying people to provide services, I expect them to conform their behavior to my desires, not vice versa. I’m not here to make ArcLight’s job easier by buying tickets the way they want; they need to make whatever choice I make easy. I’m called a “customer.” Look it up.

Oh, and no, I don’t have the answer on how to make the process less annoying. It’s not my job to figure it out; it’s theirs.

So, after getting a ticket, I was ready for a drink. I looked over to the tiny bar and observed a long line of thirsty patrons snaking into the dining area, being frantically served by two overworked bartenders who not only mixed drinks but had to make gourmet coffees. Having only 20 minutes until the movie started, we headed to the theater. ArcLight lost a sale, probably $20 worth.

I made sure to hit the restroom on the way in. See, the 14 theaters are strung out along a long hallway and there’s one bathroom in the whole place, which is back in the lobby. Yeah, it’s like a 150 yard walk each way, and you have to go through the ticket guy again. Are you kidding me? If you were watching “Gone with the Wind,” and you left to hit the restroom when Scarlet is watching her suitors ride off to battle, you’d get back about the time Atlanta catches fire.

“What did I miss, honey?”

“Just the Civil War.”

Here’s another suggestion for the restrooms. Managers, you might want to walk through them once in a while. Your people will keep spotless the things they see you inspect. I don’t like to have to strategically position myself before the urinal to avoid stepping in the puddle of used soda generated by those whose aim fell short. There’s really no excuse for it.

And heaven forbid you want a snack. See, they give you extra loving care when you buy your snacks – they even insist on putting the cream into your regular coffee themselves. That’s nice. And utterly inefficient. It takes forever to get a popcorn – no, I don’t want to hear about how your butter is locally-sourced. Get me my food, take my money (and they want a lot of money) and let me get the hell back to my $14.50 movie.

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Oh, here’s another idea. You might want to have more than two of the cashier stations open. I mean, I understand that Friday is not usually a big “movie night” and all, but it might speed up the process from “agonizingly slow” to merely “ridiculously slow.” ArcLight lost yet another sale, probably another $10-$20 worth.

The theater itself is okay – the seats aren’t as comfortable as ArcLight thinks they are, but they aren’t awful. I felt cheated because we did not get the usual cheery pre-movie briefing by one of the ushers. Ironically, this is the one movie that really could have used it. “Tinker, Tailor” appeared to be shot on particularly grainy stock, probably to recreate the feeling of 1970s England and movies of that era. But it looked odd, and it would have been nice to hear that the movie was shot that way on purpose.

Note that all the employees I encountered were well-groomed, helpful and polite. There was just the right number of previews – not too few but not too many. And no one decided the theater was the perfect place for an extended cell phone chat, but that might have to do with the fact that “Tinker, Tailor’s” target demographic is not teen morons who were raised by wolves. We liked the movie too.

Experimentation is good, and I think ArcLight (and others) should be commended for trying. However, there are some serious bugs that need to be worked. They need to engineer their processes better – I find it hard to believe any ArcLight executive has dropped in unannounced like a regular customer.

If any had, they would have seen how many of the processes are not fully thought through; if you want to sell drinks to 14 theaters full of people, you need more than a pair or bartenders. You need to speed up the food service or you’ll lose sales – like they lost mine. You need a toilet within walking distance of all your theaters. And you need managers who get off their tails, walk through their operations, and actively lead their people (hint: hire some recently retired Army non-commissioned officers to run your theaters – problems solved, gentlemen).

I want to go back to the movies, and I appreciate that premium theaters like the ArcLight are trying to address the concerns of people like me. I really want to patronize you, so fix the flaws under your control and I’ll give you a chance. It’s just too bad you don’t have control over the quality of the movies.

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