Sunday, November 26, 2006

Co-ops and Numbers

So a quick update -- over the last three months, I have: quit my job at Google, Spent approximately 1.25 months on vacation in Europe, moved to Hawaii, interned with the Hawaii International Film Festival, started working on a construction site as a laborer, and finally done the thing I came here to do... I've worked two nights as an employee of a real, live, multiplex.

The Ko'olau 10, to be exact.

And for a while, I thought, I'd be too busy with my 3 jobs to contribute anything meaningful to my blog of blogs. BUT after two nights at the job I've always wanted, I had to post about two things I was thinking about.

1.) I think movie theaters would support a FANTASTIC co-op variant. Maybe.

I've probably mentioned the idea of a co-op movie theater before, because it tends agree with my liberal communist slant :). But my current vision of it is really just an incremental change to the current system that would benefit two parties that really have a stake in the movie theater's success.

So, after 2 days of working in the concessions booth, I have to say, I'm blown away by the beauty of the efficiency machine that sits behind the counter. There's never any downtime, there's always cleaning, sweeping or restocking to be done. When the rush comes, people are working in super-adjustable, minimal bureaucracy style to pump orders out efficiently and accurately. And the whole theater is like this. More importantly, it has to be this way, because it's the only way, the operation is able to turn a profit. Concessions have to sell. They have to sell in volume, and they have to sell for large profit margins.

As an employee of Consolidated Theaters, the benefits are a frequent movie-goer's dream (I should know). Free Movies for you and up to 3 friends and HALF off concessions!

This got me to thinking, wouldn't it be rather natural to have people that come to the movies every week, work and multiply their productivity in the amazing movie theater machine, rather than pay the marginally helpful ticket fee every week? The benefits are numerous

- it could help keep operations costs down if people could play a limited role and only receive movie benefits
- the community as a whole would have a better understanding of and relationship with the operation of the theater which, I hypothesize, would increase either loyalty or attendance
- the full time, or more permanent employees, would have more meaningful work as managers, and coordinators of the benefits-only employees, and would spend their time retuning the machine, while...
- ...spreading around the occasional tedium of operating the machine
- solutions to problems would have a natural customer service orientation since they would all be customers
-there's a growth track for both employees of the theater and patrons of the theater (who can grow into benefit-employees, and even full time employees if they want). Allowing for growth seems to be a good key for customer retention.

I actually came across this idea while discussing the Hawaii International Film Festival operation. We were talking about volunteer shortages, and it had been suggested that we take volunteers from the people standing in line. I had already thought converting patrons into volunteers would help add a new and interesting dynamic for the long time festival supporters that would also help them understand our problems.

Same kind of thing here, but in a lot of ways, even better. People like me, who go to the movies a lot, eventually start looking for ways to cut costs. One can't sustain 10 dollar movies, 10 dollar snacks 2 or three times a week on normal working class salary. So things like theater hopping, sneaking food in, etc all start becoming the only way to deepen (so to speak) and add sophisticatication one's relationship with the theater.

The only problem would be to enforce the quality standards, training, and incentives that are inherent in a paying employee contractual relationship. But that's where you can turn to the beauty of the corporate number crunching machine. If the machine is just modified to suit this purpose, I think it could easily accomodate benefits-only employees.

It might only be me, and in reality, there may be very few people who are actually interested in saving 15 dollars a week by putting in an hour at the concessions stand. But it may open up a whole new market of customers who have outgrown the theater or are just tired of paying the money and have found ways like netflix to cut costs.

Philosophically, I also think it's important for businesses to run like this. Eventually, the ones running the places, shouldn't be the ones who do it for the money, but the ones who actually like doing it. This is a good way to start bridging the gap for the movie-lovers to make their way over to becoming movie operators.

2.) In a previous blog entry, I speculated about some keeping set of statistical measurements much like the ones John Hollinger of ESPN keeps for NBA players. Well, I found out that multiplexes DO in fact keep awesome numbers like this. They record fascinating things like, the number of patrons that show up per employee hour worked, concession sales per ticket sold, etc. All rather logical things from the perspective of running an efficient business, and all rather effective in incentivizing the things that will make the theater use it's resources efficiently to turn the largest profit.

What was missing (at least from what I've seen so far) are the counterbalancing statistics. The ones that focus on the customer satisfaction side, and prevent unfettered pursuit of the profit calculating numbers. Stuff like, amount of time a customer spent waiting in line. Accuracy of order. Satisfaction with purchase, etc. With the right set of numbers, you could just start optimizing the hell out of them with the operation, and still get all the important things right. Keeping the business alive, while still fulfilling the purpose of having the service in the first place.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

So much Business yet to be done!

Box-office bounty stirs deals
go to original article
""Seventy-five percent of the revenue comes from the weekend," Mr. Brown said. His recent initiatives are attempts to address the question: "Is there a way with price that you can create opportunity, a new market?""
This is the question that first got me thinking about how movie theaters run. Or I suppose, it was this question's inverse/evil twin which goes something like:

"All these seats are empty on tuesday afternoons. What a waste! Wait, why am I paying full price for this?"

So, it certainly makes intuitive sense from the consumer side that there's room for a new market based on a new pricing structure.

But after a couple of years of thinking about it, I don't think it's true. There's certainly some amount of inefficiency that is inherent in most theater businesses. They only fill to capacity under very specific conditions. The rest of the time, a lot of them go unused.

But the reality is, the rest of that space can't really be used for the same kind of stuff during the rest of the day. Society revolves around a set of fairly rigid schedules, that are pretty much inflexible. The 9 to 5 workday pretty much accounts for most people's productivity time (including people who work at home). There's just this implicit contract that everyone is going to conduct productive business at this time. 6 to 10 and weekends and holidays is entertainment time. Period.

Until recently, the amount of business that was able to be done during the entertainment hours was plenty fine. But with the current competition for those entertainment hours, the dedicated entertainment spaces can't get it done anymore.

So is there something else that the big spaces can be used for during the daytime? Not that I can think of. Company meetings are not consistent enough, or there are already other resources devoted to that kind of thing within the company. It might be nice to use a public venue like a movie theater for conducting meetings or trainings, but it's just not suited for the task. Think of trying to watch a movie in a company conference room. It works, it's kinda fun for a while, but in the end, it's not that comfortable and it doesn't feel right.

Movie theaters are designed to evoke certain emotions, and productivity is not among them.

And if you think about the other entertainment spaces that are really successful right now, their hallmark is their multi use. Home Theaters that double as living rooms. PCs that double as everything.

I suspect there needs to be some push towards efficiency (if you can call it that) of this nature: making theaters that can totally transform during the day into some other useful venue.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Newsflash: Kids Bored!

Fun Isn't Fun Enough for Teens
go to original article

The LA Times (two stories in the last two days) has been making a lot of noise about a recent poll that showed a couple of noteworthy things about teens. They don't particularly like to go to the movie theater. Their interest dwindles as they get older, and they like to multitask (see a nice graphical summary here)

With regard to the last bit, it seems to have brought up a little concern about the negative impact it might be having on our
Another concern for adults is multi-tasking. For the most part, experts have not looked closely at how teens' and young adults' thinking skills, especially when it comes to homework, may be affected by what one software executive has dubbed "constant partial attention."
This is very similar to the zombie epidemic that swept America when people first started trying to do their homework and watch TV at the same time 30 years ago. Or the dip in number of intellectuals suffered in the 1920s when they started selling concessions at the theaters and people would actually attempt to eat and watch movies at the same time.

It's shocking to me that this comes up so frequently. I suppose it's because people aren't familiar with the technologies that "kids these days" are using, or something, that makes everyone so panicky and... insightless. Kids are the same now, as they have been for a bazillion years: easily distracted. This part here, hits it on the head:
"It's like being in a candy store," said Gloria Mark, a UC Irvine professor who studies interactions between people and computers. "You aren't going to ignore the candy; you are going to try it all."
Kids have always been in candy stores. Before there was the internet, there were malls (just ask Kevin Smith). And TV. There have always been places to excite kids who want to try it all.

Movie theaters used to be a place where you could try it all. Adventure, travel, love, sex, fun, friends, popcorn without butter, popcorn with butter... Maybe people are reaching for an explanation that doesn't make them look stupid for not having seen this coming all along. "Kids these days are totally unpredictable! They like to multitask! Who ever heard of that?! There was no way to plan for this!"

Texting seems to be the en vogue way for theaters to get back into the mix. Mark Cuban mentioned it in his response about the rock and roll movie theater and head of MTV films David Gale mentioned it in the second LA Times article about this same poll. Presumably, this is because it's the least disruptive way for people to use their portable devices in the middle of a quiet movie theater. The fact that phone companies will charge the same 15 dollars for unlimited text messages as they do for unlimited data transfer speaks to its popularity.

I can attest to wanting to use my phone to look up actors while in a movie, or jot down notes (to myself). A screen dimmer would definitely help the cause. But, I digress. Whether or not incorporating people's texting into movie theaters will change kids' regard for theaters remains to be seen. I don't see it competing with the flexibility of sitting at home on the internet. Unless they become internet cafes... which, come to think of it, is how they do it in Bangkok.

Patent me a Donut

Patent Reform Act Proposes Sweeping Changes:
"Geccie writes 'CNet is reporting that Senators Patrick Leahy and Orin Hatch have proposed sweeping changes in the patent system in the form of the Patent Reform Act of 2006. Key features are the ability to challenge (postgrant opposition) with the Senate version being somewhat broader and better than the house version.' From the article: 'Specifically, it would shift to a 'first to file' method of awarding patents, which is already used in most foreign countries, instead of the existing 'first to invent' standard, which has been criticized as complicated to prove. Such a change has already earned backing from Jon Dudas, chief of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.'
In case I haven't mentioned it, I'm an advocate of Intellectual Property (some refer to it as Information Policy) rights reform. I think the copyright and patent systems should be restructured.

My rather uniformed opinion is that the processes as they are now, do not seem to encourage and reward innovation as much as they create semi-arbitrary rules for the entities with the most power to play by.

From the perspective of how exhibitors and distributors could be more flexible, I think copyrights should be devalued and things should enter the public domain more quickly. To be honest, I don't know much about patents. Ironically, I filed for one (with a group) last quarter, and it seemed the only point was as a protection against someone trying to take advantage of the system.

In any event, none of this seems terribly relevant to the legislation that's being proposed. I just think it's generally a good thing, that this is an issue on people's minds. I had been worried that this was something that would never change.

Friday, August 04, 2006


Movie Theater's New 'Complaint' Button
go to original article ... or email me for article text
"Loud talking, chair kicking and other movie-theater annoyances may soon be a thing of the past, thanks to a new device similar to the flight attendant call button on airplanes.

Moviegoers at the Regal Deer Valley Cinema complex are testing devices that will alert a theater employee when a fellow patron is behaving badly.

Instead of searching the theater lobby for an employee or fuming silently, the "guest response system" enables people to subtly tell on their neighbors from the comfort of their own seats."
I love it. It's a simple fix, that if deployed correctly, can cut right to the people who actually care about these things.

I don't know if these are intended to be installed in seats (I hope not - they'd be rife with abuse from some of the people patrons complain about) but if a patron can choose to pick one of these up at the lobby, or the door of the theater, I think it would go a long way towards silencing some of the most common complaints.

I've always felt like the people who complain about things like cell phones, the people they sit next to, and other things related to the experience are a vocal minority. And on top of that, they're complaining about a few instances that are by no means representative of the majority of moviegoing.

Now, if they have a venue for voicing their complaints (provided, they actually get dealt with), I think people will begin to speak more reasonably about it. It's the feeling of being trapped and helpless that is the biggest contributor, here, I think. If there's actually something that can be done, people might decide that it's worth it to tolerate whatever minor annoyance rather than go through the trouble of picking up a radio device at the box office.

Additionally, I like the idea of a way for people to notify the projectionist about things like sound and focus. I know that I always care about these things (but never want to leave my seat and miss part of the movie). Very sensible. What more can you ask for.

There are a lot of ways to go with this. Obviously cell phones are like a dirty word in theaters, but being able to use any device (i.e. text messaging) to notify the theater about problems would be nice. It might even be workable with proper signage around the theater lobby.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Multiplex Labs

Reading Mark Cuban's response to his own call for suggestions on how to make going to the movies better has renewed my interest in an idea that I tossed around a few months back (but I don't think I ever included in my blog).

At one point, I thought this might be an interesting way to see if it would make more people go to the movies, but I don't think the difference in price will actually make it so that attendance is affected significantly.

But anyway, the idea is this: What if everything about a movie-going experience was sold at a variable price. The quality of the movie, the time, the distance you sat from the screen, the amount of time you actually sat in the movie. Even if this idea didn't serve to bring in more people, I think it would be totally interesting to see answers to the following:

-if people could pro-rate their experience would they cut their losses during movies they didn't like and try a different movie?
-if people could exercise more control over their situations, would they generally be happier?
-would the selections of the people in this setting be a truer indicator of box office success (or maybe DVD sales projections) than current metrics?
-would the pricing for movies that people walked out of halfway through eventually eat into ticket sales that are currently sunk costs when people walk in the door?

(I suppose another interesting extension of this would be to find a way to tally a box office figure minus the people who would have wanted their money back - maybe the intersection of people who watched the movie, but didn't buy the dvd, or the people who bought the dvd, but then sold it -- come to think of it, that's a really good idea. Do people track this? This could probably be done more accurately by selling DVDs along with the movie.)

Just to note, this would be very hard (but very cool) to set up. I envision a card reader in every seat that marks your personal data-card of some sort with all of the day's viewing history. This info would be useful for countless other things... I must have written about this before.

If I ever get to be in charge of a theater, the mad scientist in me just might make a showing.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Mark Cuban's Movie Theater Challenge

Me and 600+ other people over the last 3 days thought it would be cool to come up with responses to the challenge Mark Cuban posted on his blog . It's hard to see how my response -- despite it's tremendously high quality :) -- won't get lost in a sea of 700 other comments, (or even to see if my response didn't just repeat suggestions that were already made), but I have faith in Mark Cuban's ability to go through all those emails. I have heard he's extremely devoted to reading Mavs fan emails, so I trust him to take this challenge seriously, and read all the suggestions.

I've included my complete response (which I clipped when I added it to the comments on the blog post) below.

Of course, there are a lot of suggestions like, cheaper movies, cheaper concessions, easier parking, better access, etc, that as a frequent moviegoer, I would love to see. However, the reality of those suggestions, are that they won't _bring_ more people into the theater. They'll just make the people that are already going happy. And those people (people like me), unfortunately, well, they're already there, so they're not who you're interested in.

My guess is that you want to figure out how to get people to come to the specialty/limited run films that landmark shows.

-So, let's start with the broad question, "what's fun about going to the movies?" Even for adults, catching a movie with all your friends is still a reason to get out of the house. Adults even have the added dimension of wanting to discuss (and maybe scream about a movie for hours after it's over, which is another need that a specialty venue can serve). It's fun to a go a movie in a group, so find a way to crank up the peer pressure. Find a way to tap into a social network (a small myspace group, for example) and let them know exactly when and where they can go to a movie. If one friend wants to go, make sure that the other friends have an easy way of knowing about it (link his ticket purchase to a broad text message/email and give him a discount for inviting more people rather than charging extra for a convenience purchase) (on a related note, I feel strongly that this service should be provided by the theater itself, since it can directly help other revenue streams and does not need extra money to stand on it's own, making it a win for everyone and cutting out an expensive third party)

-Organize special screenings a little after the fact, or when the DVD comes out. With specialty movies, the news can come around kind of late, so let people encourage each other to see the movie, and then show it when enough people commit. (booking movies on demand shouldn't (technically) be a problem since all your screens are digital)

-Boost DVD sales for a movie by screening it when the DVD comes out. piggyback on the dvd marketing, and let people try watching the movie before they commit to buying it. sort of a watch to own program (especially in light of the recent report that 80% of people that watched a movie said they were likely to buy a DVD of the same movie).

-Offer people small discounts on tickets on an irregular basis. Nothing is more irresistable than cashing in on a coupon, no matter how insignificant it is. My girlfriend found out that she can buy AMC tickets in pairs at costco for 7.50 and now she wants to go to a movie every week (as opposed to me having to drag her every week). People are totally irrational when it comes to coupons.

-Also, get people to commit to coming to the movie the instant they're interested and hear about it. If they see a trailer they like, offer them a 10 dollar ticket for 8 dollars if they put down 2 dollars up front. People will be much less likely to flake on the movie even if they forgot about what they liked about the trailer, because of that minimal investment. It doesn't even have to be a sneaky thing to do. You can just tell people straight up "we really want you to see this movie, so we're trying to get you to commit to it so you don't forget how much you want to see it" I think people will be happy they did.

-Speaking of that, give people a flawless way of keeping track of the movies they want to see, and alerts when the time comes for the movie. (this ties in great with the social networking component of this). Use pictures. People do a lot of work to make really enticing posters, and all it takes is a glance to remember why you wanted to see something (something I've learned from years of DVD shopping). Then pile on the small inexpensive incentives and remove some of the uncomfortable barriers, and it's hard to refuse.

-Put together some continuity in the films you present. Going to the movies can be addictive, so tap into that. Start with an arena rocker like Inconvenient truth, and then follow up with Who killed the electric car, (hell, you might even be able to sell people on "the Day after tomorrow" after they see Gore's movie), the book every other eco-documentary you can think of after you've gotten them hooked.

-Occassionally throw in some movies that take place locally. People are totally narcissistic when it comes to their hometowns. I went to the San Francisco International Film Festival this year, there was a line around the block for a movie about people who jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. And the show was at 2:00 in the afternoon on a monday.

If you're interested in the more traditional multiplex/teen demographic (some of this applies to the sophisticated art film watching adults too, though) here are a couple of other ideas. I heard somewhere that if you want to innovate, don't ask people what they want, watch what they do. I just got back from the San Diego Comiccon (for the first time) and two things were utterly clear to me. There are two things the people can't get enough of

-seeing cool secret sh*t
-seeing famous people

-The preshows that have replaced the terrible TV ads are actually a pretty good start. Now they should really step it up and throw in a random selection of totally secret trailers, and just blindside people. Remember when people bought tickets to wing commander and then walked out after they saw the trailer for Star Wars Ep 1? People still
really love that stuff (at least the geeky kids do, and if the movies are good enough, everybody will become a geek). Make a showing that's entirely, cool, secret stuff. Really high quality stuff that will not translate well to a camcorded internet jpeg. I'd even stoop so low as to stir up celebrity gossip about the movie stars in the movies you came to watch. People who watch the movies are really interested in the people in those roles. It's a fine line, because star bios can be totally boring or very trite, so it really needs to be worth the look.

-And then get the famous people to actually show up. I used to go to this theater in Palo Alto, because sometimes I'd see Stanford Basketball players there (lame, I know). But it's irresistable. Get the Mavs to hang out at the theater. Even if people don't know who Dirk Nowitzki is (god forbid) they'll know they're witnessing something special if they's standing in a popcorn line behind a 7 foot german giant. You could probably even get them to work the concessions stand. I know that stuff is usually reserved for soup kitchens and charity work, but I know every time I hear kobe was at some charity event, I find myself wishing I was really poor.

-And down a totally different path, if your goal is just to spread awareness of films that you're showing through your circuit or producing at 2929/Magnolia, I would suggest frachising out the movie theater running experience. It seems like everyone is a movie buff, and those people can make a huge difference in the distribution potential of films (ala gladwell's tipping point). Also, lots of people have amazing home theater setups that are not getting maximal use that would make great community resources. If people had a way of securing permission to screen movies theatrically with minimal hassle (and maybe alleviate security concerns for showing movies at their houses :) ), I think a lot of people would be interested in running their own little movie theaters.