I love going to the movies. When I was a child, my parents (primarily my mother) often took my brother and me to the movies. In high school and in college, a typical date involved going to the movies. Once our kids were old enough, my wife and I started taking them to the movies. And now, in our 50s, we go to the movies on most Saturday nights, often with friends. While I enjoy the convenience of watching a film at home on Netflix, it is not the same as the theatre experience, with the large screen, high quality sound, absence of interruptions and distractions, and sense of community, albeit temporary. The theatre experience provides the motion picture industry a major bulwark against the competition presented by copyright infringement as well as the many legitimate alternatives in the home entertainment universe.
Why, then, is the motion picture industry allowing its partners, the theatre owners, to ruin the theatre experience, and thereby harm this profitable distribution channel? This past summer, my son and I went to a movie with my parents at an AMC theatre in suburban Maryland, where I live. AMC theatres in Maryland allow you to purchase tickets in advance, but not reserve your seats. Because it was a Saturday night, and sitting too close to the screen hurts my 83 year-old father’s neck, we arrived at the theatre half an hour before showtime so that we could get decent seats. For 25 minutes we saw commercials for TV shows, cars, soft-drinks, and cellphones. This was followed by 20 minutes of previews. So, we had to sit through 45 minutes of advertisements to watch a 100 minute movie. In addition, the bathrooms were dirty, and half of the urinals were out of order. We were all so annoyed by the entire experience that my parents vowed never to return to an AMC theatre, and I can’t even remember what film we saw. (This experience is evidently not unique.)
What is AMC thinking? How can it hope to compete in the long run with all the legal and illegal alternatives available to its customers when it refuses to adopt seat reservation software that has been widely available for more than a decade and it forces a paying audience to watch an endless stream of commercials? How can the motion picture studios allow AMC to abuse the customers in this manner? Regal Theatres, AMC’s main competitor in Maryland, is no better. It, too, has refused to adopt seat reservation software and holds its audiences hostage through multiple previews and other advertisements.
Theatre owners certainly are capable of providing audiences with a better experience. Landmark Theatres in Bethesda, which screens independent and foreign films, allows you to reserve your seat in advance. This means that you can arrive right at showtime and still have a good seat, even on the Saturday night after a film was released to good reviews. Landmark also shows less than 10 minutes of previews. Unfortunately, Landmark will exercise little competitive pressure on AMC and Regal because it does not screen the major Hollywood releases.
The good news for us in the Maryland suburbs is that ArcLight Cinemas reportedly is opening a theatre here. ArcLight shows major studio films, allows advanced seat reservations, and claims to display a limited number of trailers. In other markets in which ArcLight operates, such as Los Angeles, AMC offers seats reservations in some theatres. Thus, the opening of ArcLight Cinemas at Montgomery Mall not only will provide us with an alternative to AMC and Regal, it also might force those chains to clean up their act, at least in this area.
In the absence of a direct theatrical competitor such as ArcLight providing audiences with a better experience, AMC and Regal appear content to maintain their current practices. In the long run, however, this strategy will harm these chains as well as the studios as audiences decide to take advantage of the ever-improving home entertainment options. Even if all movie theatres in the country eventually offer seat reservation and fewer commercials, it might be too late. Once American viewers get out of the theatre habit, it could be difficult to get them back.
Sixty years ago, before television, the typical adult saw five movies every two months. Now, the typical adult sees just one movie every two months. If Hollywood wants to prevent further decline in the profitable theatrical window, it will need to work harder with its theatre-owner partners to preserve and enhance the theatre experience.
Jonathan Band is a DC-based attorney whose clients include Internet companies, providers of information technology, universities, library associations, and CCIA. He previously guest-posted on DisCo about the ”I Have A Dream” speech and copyright reform.