Wednesday, March 29, 2006

I'm a sell out

An interesting thing happened to me tonight when I went out to the movies. (This tends to happen; it's why I resolve to see at least one movie in a theater each week). Martha had the great idea to go see "Thank You for Smoking". When she gets an idea into her head she is great about looking into it and figuring out how we can do it. She planned for a show after I got home from basketball, and verified that the movie was in fact playing at a nearby theater.

Unfortunately, she's not always reliable when it comes to verifying details :) She brought us to the Aquarius in Palo Alto where we were surprised to find out that the Thank You for Smoking was not on the schedule for the evening. As we tried to figure out where it was playing, the well-informed girl staffing the box office stated "It's not at the Guild, it's probably playing at a Century Theater". There was a hint of disdain in her voice.

If you have been following this blog for the last year or so -- as I'm sure you have ;) -- you might remember that I commented (mostly in Century's defense) on an article about an independent theater protesting Century's booking practices. Steve Mason, the operator of the Palm d'Or (the independent theater), actually emailed me about the blog post and provided me with his personal perspective on the issue. I think an exerpt from his message is appropriate:
"Your perception of Century Theatres is interesting as a customer. As an exhibitor in this industry, they are known as ruthless, demanding, and prone to litigation. It is often that a distributor says that dealing with Century is like dealing with the mafia."
I couldn't help but be reminded of this discussion when I heard the tone of the Aquarius employee. The Aquarius and the Guild comprise the Palo Alto presence of Landmark Theaters. Landmark, of course, has been a long time supporter for independent films. Until a few years ago, it had been the only chain to carry them. And now it seems that they, too, are getting shut out of movies that they may have wanted.

It all seems a little bit wrong. Landmark, being a first mover, and playing a pivotal role in creating the audience for movies like "Thank you for Smoking" doesn't deserve to be shut out of movies.

The worst part, though, is that when I heard our movie wasn't playing at either the Aquarius, or the Guild, I was actually relieved. Truth be told, as much as I love where they came from and the movies I can see there, I hate watching movies at those two theaters. The seats are uncomfortable, the screens are small, feel a little dim, and the sound is subpar. I'd much rather be at Palo Alto Square lounging in a comfortable seat, and experiencing all the polish of a well produced movie in sweet sweet hi-fi.

I was a little alarmed by this. What does that mean for people like me? If I'm ever lucky enough to have a theater, won't it be more likely to be a place like the Aquarius, than Palo Alto square? Where do my alliances lie? Do I really think the bigger theater chains like Century should be able to steal me away from theaters like the Aquarius, or the Palm d'Or?

In a word, yes.

It boils down to providing the best movie going experience possible. If the resources of a theater chain enable me to do that better than independence as a theater owner, than I'm siding of the Regal's, AMC's, and Century's of the world. To take it even further, if providing people with home theaters enables me to do that better than multiplexes, I guess I'll go into selling home theater equipment.

I find some theoretical grounding in all of this as well. In yet another previous post, I clumsily challenged the propriety of capitalism for all of our social needs. I've been doing some basic thinking and reading about capitalistic economies and competitive environments. And where capitalism (and competition) is really effective is at the margins. For example, providing people access to independent movies where there were none before (what Landmark did). But after the bloody competive battles yield the proper way to do things and still cut a profit, there's no need to compete in that space. It starts to be counterproductive, if nothing new is going to be developed. The only thing left to do is to make the experience better. And that battle will go to the people with the most resources to do so: the institutions.

With no disrespect to the important work that indpendent theaters have done in bringing a fresh variety of movies to watchers like me, their role in all of this is a bridge between and undeveloped market, and an optimal solution for getting people to the movies they want, how they want them.

To be sure, the work that first movers, like Landmark, do is both costly and instrumental to the development of any industry. And they should be awarded with some sort of patent on the process that they've perfected (if other people are going to use it). But independent theaters that are gradually losing this battle should not assume a protectionist stance on their roles. I hope that when I'm faced with these types of conflicts, I have the foresight to understand this.

Of course all this aside, at the heart of the matter here and at the Palm d'Or, the issue is that the question of who can provide a better service is not answered. Locking out nearby theaters from showing the same movie limits the ability to compete on even ground. Some people may prefer what the Aquarius has to offer, and the Aquarius may even want to offer it on a different schedule than Palo Alto Square. That, of course, may impede Palo Alto square's ability to make a living. But stamping out the competition and winning by denying the audience choice doesn't seem like a very productive practice.


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