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Building a Better Box Office
by Christopher Stone

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Addressing customer complaints and making things better. Some theater owners are adding daycare, concierge desks, gourmet food, even heliports, to their upscale theaters. But these extreme movie theater makeovers are somewhat gimmicky, and they probably won't be coming to a multiplex near you, anytime soon. Other exhibitors are building a better box office in ways that are important and practical. Let's focus on them.

Last time, we explained that theater owners keep only 10 percent of the opening week box office gross, with ninety percent going to the distributor. When you pay $20 for two tickets to opening night of RENT, the theaters keeps a scant $2, and Sony Pictures banks $18. You can understand why exhibitors are in no position to lower ticket prices. That doesn't mean they can't, or won't, address successfully other complaints.

Not surprisingly, concessions are the profit center for theater owners. That's why you pay three times more for a Coke at the multiplex than you do at your favorite fast-food restaurant. It's also why the price of popcorn is as high as an elephant's eye.

Exhibitors understand that you know what a soft drink and popcorn should cost. They know that you feel ripped off when you buy these items at the concession stand. When customers feel ripped off, they become angry. When customers get angry, business suffers.

Some exhibitors have come up with a simple solution: self service concession stands. Earlier this year, independent Kalamazoo, MI exhibitor Joseph Chabot, told THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR, "We let people get their own drinks and popcorn and they love it. It saves them money and still allows us to make a profit." Chabot claims that audience numbers have steadily increased since he initiated the new service. Look for a theater near you to follow suit.

Exhibitors believe that patronizing movie theaters offers an epic viewing experience, along with an unsurpassed social adventure, that you can't duplicate elsewhere, no matter how good your home theater. Toward that end, they're making changes to lure you off of your couch or easy chair, and back into their theaters.

Some exhibitors claim that they get as many complaints about their sound delivery as they do about cell phone use during the show. Customers tell them that the sound is too loud, distorted, unclear, unable to deliver nuance and subtlety. Gary Boardman, owner of the Lorraine Theatre in Hoopeston, IL, and Robbie Criswell, owner/operator of the Devon Theatre in Attica, Indiana, are two exhibitors who heard their customers' sound complaints, listened to them, and have acted upon them. Both exhibitors upgraded their sound systems dramatically. They know this was a sound investment on many levels. Today, they listen to compliments, not complaints, about their theaters' sound, and their independent movie houses are, screen for screen, out-grossing the local multiplexes.

Some theater owners appreciate that one of the reasons that you go to the movies is to escape commercials. You tolerate fifteen minutes of ads during DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES because you're getting the show for free. It's a different story when we're paying $10 to see CORPSE BRIDE. Don't expect AMC, or most of the major theater chains, to stop showing commercials anytime soon. Last year, advertisers spent $438 million in theater ads. So it's an important source of revenue for most exhibitors. An exception is Century Theatres, the seventh largest chain in the country. Operated by brothers Joe and Ray Syufy, these canny exhibitors refuse to show ads. They know that if you want to watch commercials, then you'll stay home and watch them for free.

The Brothers Syufy, along with many independent theater owners who have never shown commercials and probably never will, are among the men and women of the motion picture industry who are building a better box office.

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The Business of Show
Every other Friday

Does advertising, public taste, or overindulged stars determine a movie's box office fate? Christoper Stone explores what's going on behind the box office.

Other Columns
Other columns by Christopher Stone:

The Cautionary Box-Office

Box-Office Holiday Season Heads Up. Part Two

Box-Office Holiday Season Heads Up, Part 1

Quality Is Independent

Oh, the Horror!

All Columns

Christopher Stone
Christopher Stone is the author of the international best seller Re-Creating Your Self. With Mary Sheldon, he co-authored three highly successful hardcover books of guided meditations.

He is a member of the Writers Guild of America, West.

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Christopher Stone by clicking here.

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