The last picture show?

We recently asked readers how they would fix moviegoing. Then we put their spirited responses to US theater owners.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

'The Da Vinci Code" opens Friday and movie-theater owners are as jittery as, well, the stylist who gave Tom Hanks the haircut that's almost as controversial as the movie's themes. Given the film's poor critical reception, the movie industry is wondering whether Hanks will underperform at the box office - just as Tom Cruise did with "Mission: Impossible III." Or, even more horrifying to nervous showbiz folks from coast to coast, actually tank as "Poseidon" did this past weekend.

The poor start to the summer blockbuster season hasn't reversed the decline in movie attendance of the past three years, a trend that culminated in an 8 percent drop in 2005.

Part of that falling off can be attributed to the movies themselves - many of which trigger a "wait 'til Netflix" response in audiences. Consumers also have an ever-expanding menu of competing entertainment options before them, including Internet, video games, and premium cable on high-definition TVs.

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More fundamentally, going to the movies is no longer the hallowed pastime it once was. A Pew Research Center survey released this week found that 75 percent of adults prefer watching movies at home to going to the cinema.

So what can theaters do to entice people to leave their cozy couches and high-definition TVs for a night out at the movies?

Several months ago, the Weekend section asked you that very question. Given the deluge of reader responses we received, you'd have thought we had posed a question about immigration reform! Your e-mails were mostly colorful, thoughtful, and, to put it mildly, impassioned.

It seems that many of you are fed up with crying babies, ringing cellphones, dirty theaters, overpriced food and tickets. Some of you are simply underwhelmed by today's movie-house experience and are just as happy to spend your money elsewhere.

We took these grievances to movie-theater owners, large and small, in an effort to see what is actually being done to bring the magic - and the audiences - back to the movies.

"Managers make little or no effort to control the behavior of the audiences. Cellphone use during the movie, yelling, talking, screaming infants, and out-of-control teens (sometimes all at once!) should not be tolerated."
- Susan Umpleby, Ontario, Calif.

Silencing noisy patrons without losing customers is tricky. The key? Tact. Most managers offer offending patrons the opportunity to step outside and return at another screening. "If moms are having trouble with their babies, we like to gently offer them either a refund or [a ticket for] another time when the babies aren't so tired," says Irene Garcia of Regal's UA theater in Marina del Rey, Calif.

Large chains, such as AMC and Regal, post signs or screen premovie ads asking patrons to mute cellphones and pagers. But small theaters have the advantage over the franchises in many ways, most notably through the ability to make decisions at a local level. At Hawaii's KuKui Grove Cinema, owner Marlene Blair says she likes to educate her young customers. "We have special school matinees," says Ms. Blair. "I sit these kids down and give them a good lecture about movie-house etiquette."

The Arclight cinema in Hollywood sends adult ushers into the theater to offer similar reminders prior to each show.

One anonymous reader would like cinemas to go a step further. "Use actors to stage incidents: One talks, another posing as an usher shoots him and drags him out. Get local police in on the act, so when someone phones to report the shooting, the dispatcher says, 'Yes, he was talking during the movie,' and adds, 'don't worry about it.' "

Theater owners do seem to realize something more needs to be done. At their recent meeting in Las Vegas, the National Association of Theater Owners asked its board to look into the requirements for changing federal laws banning devices that jam cellphones in movie theaters.

"I love movies and I even like to go to movies in the theater for the experience, but it is a very pricey proposition now."
- Betsey Ward, Silver Spring, Md.

Attendance may be going down, but ticket prices only seem be going up. (AMC theaters saw some price fluctuations when it recently merged with the Loew's group, but that was an attempt to bring the new chain's prices in line with the old, says AMC spokesperson, Melanie Bell.)

Most of the franchise cinemas have, however, begun some form of membership program, offering redeemable points for loyal customers. Regal even offers a MasterCard with frequent-viewing points.

A quick primer on prices might be in order: Theater owners typically take home roughly 10 percent of the ticket price on the first weekend. Under their contracts with the movie studios, they only start to see more revenue from box-office sales as the movie plays multiple weekends. But these days, most movies move on after a week or two, so theater owners are forced to find profits at the food stand. That's the biggest reason tubs of hot corn are popping at sky-high prices.

That business model might not be working. The Pew Research Center study found that 55 percent of adults cited cost as a reason they don't go to movie theaters more often. Many of the e-mails we received called for theaters to go upscale to justify their prices.

"If the snack bars could become health bars with, say, organic popcorn and real butter, I wouldn't mind paying the hiked up prices ... well, I'd mind, but not nearly as much. Give me some VALUE for my big bucks!"
- Mary Hemme, Tabernash, Colo.

"Perhaps movies should offer the salon atmosphere where you could sit, relax, and talk about the film you saw or will see... Have a lingering atmosphere... A gathering place for coffee and dessert after the show..."
- Barbara, Port Washington, N.Y.

Most of the major chains have begun experimenting with a few upscale movie houses that offer more for your movie money. Of AMC's 419 theaters, 14 are considered "premium."

The Arclight Cinema (whose parent company is the West Coast-based Pacific Theater chain) charges adults $14 on weekends but offers exclusive parking; reserved seating, and full-dinner menus; as well as lattes, cappuccinos, and alcohol. Arclight is also housed in a complex with a bookstore and lobby lounge. "We are offering a complete experience from start to finish," says retail manager Robert Brugerman.

Even small-theater owners know that customers want more bang for their movie buck. Signature Theaters, a four house chain in Montana and Washington, now offers sugar-free candy and what George Mann calls "a critic's corner with special sausages and pizza. We also offer hand-dipped ice cream that I have to stay away from," he says. His movie houses include leatherette, stadium-style seats that rock back and forth, as well as the "biggest screens we can find."

"I'm already paying a high price to get into the movie and completely insane prices for snacks and popcorn. For what reason do they need to put in commercials?"
- Derek Heidmeier, Vancouver, B.C.

The simple answer, of course, is ad revenue - a necessity for theater owners given their small profit margins. Movie trailers are different because they're attached to the films from the studios.

"Offer family nights, couples, grandparents nights."
- Jim Dilling, Pa.

"Host film clubs."
- Nathan Smith, Kimono, Japan

All the theaters we talked to have begun finding ways to create communities around their movie houses - even the large chains. "We've gone back to grass roots [and] interacting with our local communities," says Terry Martin, who owns the Regency Cinema 8 in London, Ky. "We have a Chamber of Commerce night. We provide a movie and concessions - they're our core business people in the community," he says. And that's not all. The theater sponsors local high school sports teams and academic teams. "In rural areas, we support the schools anyway we can," he adds.

A number of big theaters have experimented with family afternoon shows, such as the "mommy matinees," for mothers and young children. Both AMC and Regal plan to launch a version of "summer movie camp" this year. At least 125 AMC locations in 40 cities will offer free PG- or G-rated films (not first run) for children and adults to view together.

One final note: theater owners are willing to take a beating over sticky floors and food quality, but they point out there's only so much they can do.

"In the end, attendance is picture driven," says Signature's Mr. Mann, who has high hopes for "The Da Vinci Code" this weekend. "If the movies are good, people will come."

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