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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 / May 19, 2006

'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.

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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.

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.)