Monday, June 27, 2005
The Shrinking Box Office
Reportedly, Hollywood is in something of a tizzy because of declining box office revenues. I think a big part of the problem has to do with the behavior of movie house patrons, and the reluctance of their owners to intercede.
A few years ago, an older woman I know expressed to me that she stopped going to movies when they were transformed from a nice night out to a place where you had to suffer through the person behind you slurping soda and chomping a bucket of popcorn. I don't think she would be attracted back to today's movie houses, where increasingly you can add such items as pizza, nachos, and hotdogs to your list of "eat while viewing" pleasures. Yet most people adapted to that level of interference with their movie enjoyment. So enter what bothers me.
The phenomenon of parents dropping kids off at a movie theater for several hours, such that the movie theater acts as a de facto babysitter, is not new. Nor is the fact that some teens don't behave well in the theater. But in recent years the type of bad behavior one might associate with a young teenager seems to be exemplified in a population of young adults - people in their late teens and early twenties - who seem to believe that the movie theater is an extension of their living rooms. Most of these people are just plain inconsiderate, but some actually make a special effort to make a movie unenjoyable for everybody else in the theater. When a patron complains, missing part of the movie to do so, management may warn the rambunctious viewers, but the sanction for bad conduct rarely extends past a warning, and the bad behavior often resumes the moment the manager (or security guard) leaves the theater.
I think that the theaters view this as in their own self-interest. The problem customers are frequent visitors. The complainers are typically infrequent customers. With profits turning on repeat viewers (that is, people who watch the same movie more than once) and high concession sales, movie theaters seem to prefer losing the older, more mature customers who are irregular movie viewers, in favor of retaining those who disturb the viewing pleasure of other patrons but (statistically) see lots of movies. (Movies, particularly "blockbusters", are increasingly written to draw viewers in their teens and early twenties to the theater, two, three, four or more times. The economics of a blockbuster are dependent upon repeat viewers.)
Two adult tickets, a couple of sodas, and a bag of popcorn - about $25? A DVD rental, a bag of microwave popcorn, beverages from your fridge, and nobody talking over the movie dialog - about $7? If this Michigan experience is typical of the rest of the nation, presumably a big part of the box office decline can be attributed to people deciding that there are darn few movies which they want to see so badly that they won't wait for the DVD.