A Tales Of Two Theaters

The intent in writing this weekly article is to prompt theater goers and theater owners to realize that we are in a deep season of change. My intent is not to scare or to depress…but to suggest that we all starting re-imaging the theater of the 21st Century. As I have stated before, I know how important movie going is to our society as a whole. I also strongly feel that movie going should be both expansive and inclusive.

Over the past week I have had the opportunity to visit some multiplex theaters. I love going to movies and always get a buzz of excitement over the chance to visit a new theater. There is just something about experiencing a theater for the first time. Whenever I visit a town or a city I like to see if there is a classic movie palace standing that is still showing movies. More often than not those palaces are no longer operational or have been well purposed as a performing arts venue.

This week I visited New Orleans and Calgary, Canada. Two wildly different place on the map with each having their owns charm and sense of style.

New Orleans is unlike any city in America. It is a multicultural mosaic that explodes in front of you. Confident and focused people coupled with a distinct musical and culinary tradition. Building its persona from Spanish, French, Creole, Cajun, and deep African influences, this city is awash with experience and with offerings for the visitor unlike anywhere else. It is an old city with deep roots and a distinctly non-American outlook.

Calgary, Canada is a exploding city nestled close to the Canadian Rockies. A fascinating combination of prairie pioneer tradition and skyscrapers. In many ways it has almost a Denver like feeling, but that is just on the surface, it is really a much different place. Infused into the culture of Calgary is a deep commitment to multiculturalism, it is not uncommon to see men and women in classical African attire followed by a Thai monk heading his way back to the Buddhist Monastery which sits at the edge of the city’s downtown core. It is A very different .place

For Father’s Day my son and I were in New Orleans. My son was challenged to fund a Father’s Day experience. I suggested that he treat me to a movie, always a good thing. He found a nearby theater, an AMC to go since the next iteration of John Wick, John Wick 3 was playing. He reluctantly agree that that would be a good thing. My son is a gamer and for him the flow and pattern of the feature length movie is arcane and slow.

We got in the car and drove 15 minutes to an AMC theater. It was in a mall and it was immediately obvious that the mall was probably not going to be long for the world. As we walked in our suspicions panned out, it was a ghost town. You had to take an escalator to get to the theater as it was above the rest of the mall on a level all its own. The theater was dirty, dusty and looked shabby. The candy section was poorly stocked. This was a dine in theater but the menuing was confusing, you had to order at the concession stand and the images presented did not lead to any kind of sale. It was obvious someone at corporate had mandated the implementation but the execution was poor.

The concession stand was poorly laid out and seemed to prevent any form of up-selling. The staff was morose and reflected the ton of the mall. The floor were dirty and screamed out I DON’T CARE. The auditoriums were okay, the seats were at the lower end of the luxury seating spectrum. The projection was middle of the road and the sound nothing to write home about. Not a great experience. But I really could not blame AMC or the theater management. This theater is in a mall and this mall is dying. Any upgrade, any investment into carpet or seating would probably be a waste with little or no payback. Any theater in any struggling mall is going to face these challenges. At the end of this story is all the same, the mall slowly winds down and the theater echoes that fall. They both will meet the same fate. As an aside the show was very poorly attended.

A week later I am in Calgary. It rains the entire time we are there, plus its cold, 48 degrees in June is not fun. I go see Toy Story 4 at a Cineplex Odeon. Cineplex is run by someone who I considered both measured and visionary Ellis Jacob, who also helms NATO. If I hold out one glimmer of hope for NATO it is because Jacob has his hands on the rudder. I think Jacob is the best operator of multiplexes in North America.

I walk and the lobby is packed with people, all clamoring to see a movie. There are wide space just behind the ticket stand where people can wait for family, friends or dates. The concessions lines are crowded but are fast. The staff is warm and are gently up-selling. The theater is in a stand alone building right in the middle of an outdoor mall. Canada long ago gave up on the idea of enclosed malls and most new builds are open air. The stores are stand alone and if they fail they do not create a perception of a dying mall. They can be quickly be replaced. This is odd because this is a pretty cold country. What was interesting though is that the enclosed malls that do still exist are still doing a brisk business. I believe that this is due primarily to a wider variety of merchandise and the stores smaller footprint and overhead.

I quickly get popcorn and sit down. The theater is huge, maybe 450 seats, big by any modern standard. The screen is maybe 75 feet and silvered. The seating, although I often raise my fists against luxury seating, was top drawer. The projection bright even and bold. The theater was clean and fresh smelling. The carpet in the foyer did need replacing though.

The whole experience was great. As I got up at the end of the movie, I noticed that every seat in the house had been filled. The audiences were respectful and throughout the movie I had no idea they were there.

These examples further made clear some of the issues facing exhibition, the ability for stand alone theaters to still attract an audience and the sad fate of mall enclosed theaters.

But let me tell you sitting in a packed theater with 450 other movie fans was the greatest thrill. There is hope but there is a lot of work to be done.