The cacophony of idiots

has a feature on its splash page today. “How should Japan avoid a complete nuclear catastrophe? Send us your ideas and we’ll run them past nuclear experts.”

In a lot of ways, the Internet is wonderful. But this is yet another case of the frivolous cacaphony of nonsense created by the vox populi. A lot of what I see on the Internet is like this. The small "d" democracy of the Internet gives license to anyone with a keyboard and a loud opinion, without the necessary common sense to go along with it.

Stop for a second... How do you think people get to be top of their profession in a hard science such as nuclear physics? By spending their days playing golf or watching Star Trek episodes? They work hard studying their discipline and we should respect that.

When I was working in an urban movie theater, from time to time there would be a story about how difficult it was for us to survive because of the competition from Netflix or the monsterplexes in the malls with 20 screens and ten different movies and free parking. I worked in a small, pre-WWI neighborhood theater with only four screens, surrounded by one-hour parking meters with the only free parking two blocks away in a dark lot under a freeway overpass littered with shards of broken autoglass on the asphalt. (A sure sign if you park here, some crack addict is likely to break into your car to steal your stereo.)

We were also losing business because our customers would have to interrupt their movie after 55 minutes to run out and feed their parking meter or risk a $40 ticket. Our city was using parking citations as a major revenue source, consequently they had parking officers constantly patrolling our neighborhood hunting for violations.

❝Yet another case of the frivolous cacophony of nonsense created by the vox populi.❞

It only takes one forty-buck parking citation for a customer to decide to drive half an hour to a mall theatre with newer, stadium seating, a dozen different features playing, and best of all, free parking so you don’t have to risk a parking ticket. Even if you’re careful, it means frequently checking your watch and then interrupting your movie (and the people around you) to go out, feed the meter and come back. Meanwhile you miss five or ten minutes of your feature.

We’d get a lot of well-meaning but dense customers who would pester us with suggestions. “You folks should play classic movies, I’d come to see that.” No, you won’t. With the advent of home video and now huge flat screen televisions with Dolby sound, no one wants to come to see classic movies. Well, I take that back. A handful of diehards do. A downtown combination movie and live concert theatre has a Friday night classic movie for five bucks on the weeks when it’s not booked for other events. It does okay, but not well enough to bump the live acts.

“I’d pay to see classic movies
on a big screen.’ No you won't.
You might be able to run a revival series in from January to March and again from September to early November, when the blockbusters aren’t playing, but even then, you have regular features which make more money day-in, day-out than any of these. Even if you had the screen to spare, it would only be a small one, because the studios insist their movies open on the your biggest screens. Does anyone really want to pay money to come to a theatre to see a movie in a small auditorium when they could easily rent or stream it at home?

A few years ago, we had a gorgeous, pristine 70 mm print of Lawrence of Arabia, which came straight from the lab. Whenever Criterion or one of the studios releases a “Director’s Cut” DVD, the studio takes the negative out of the vault and strikes a new print. After the DVD is struck, they have an expensive set of reels which will be stored until another release is needed. Rather than let the half-dozen cans sit in storage gathering dust, they send it out to a few select movie houses where they know a professional projectionist will treat it with the reverence and care it deserves. The theatrical run also creates a little buzz, sparking some movie reviews in those markets and on the internet which helps promote the DVD sales.

Well-meaning naïfs hear about a problem and start free- associating, flinging ideas at you like testing spaghetti to see if they stick.

We played it in the largest auditorium, where a huge screen emphasizes the 70mm splendor. You could see each grain of sand the make-up artist carefully placed on Peter O’Toole’s face; that’s how good 70mm is. And we played it to fewer than two hundred people in a whole week. Three shows a day, for a whole week. For most showings there were fewer than twenty paid customers in a 600 seat auditorium and for a couple, it played to an empty house. (You must always run a feature whether even if you haven’t sold a ticket; because if someone shows up late, you can’t start late without upsetting the schedule for the later shows -- and disrupting the carefully choreographed routine the projectionist has to perform going from booth to booth to start up a show in #1, then #2, etc. and then repeat the sequence to inspect the print and restart it for the next show. See? You didn’t think of that.) For most shows, you could have thrown a grenade in there and not hurt anyone. Huh? Wouldn't everyone want to see an Academy Award-winning classic in 70mm on a big screen. No, they don’t.

You get the idea. “You should run film festivals.” Film festivals are nice, and in special cases they make a little money, but the only time they do is when the festival is supported by sponsors, because the organizers pay to rent the screen and sell their own tickets to their donors. In the meantime, you’ve given up your best auditorium and your regulars are blind-sided when they show up in the biggest auditorium with the biggest screen and the best sound system and you have to tell them you moved it to a smaller screen down the hall. If you do that a couple of times, you lose your regulars.

“You should have special Wednesday matinees for seniors, showing movies from the 40s and 50s.” Seniors don’t buy snacks. If you get fifty seniors, they might buy a dozen cups of coffee, a half-dozen small popcorns and soft-drinks, and that’s it. If you don't sell snacks, you might as well lock the door now and hand over the keys to the bank. What’s more, seniors can’t or won’t climb the stairs, which means you can only run the show downstairs where there is only one handicapped bathroom. “Well then, you should put in an elevator.” Where would you put the elevator? Over there? Did you know this is a listed historical building, and that alterations of that nature require special permits? Do you know how much an elevator costs? I resisted the impulse to say, “I thought not.”

The next time you want to be “helpful,” stop and take a breath.

“You should do live shows.” The stage isn’t deep enough for live shows because the screen is very expensive, so all you need is for one person to trip and fall into it, and you've lost your screen and weeks of bookings in that auditorium. What’s more, it’s permanently fixed in place. We had no dressing rooms, and we didn’t have a cabaret permit.

“You should rent it for weddings.” Again, the stage isn't very deep, the only entry is from backstage, and there's that troublesome five-foot drop off the front edge. They can’t use the stage so they have the ceremony on the main floor, which isn't quite so dramatic. Regardless, anyone who rents the theater has to show proof of insurance. You can only do weddings on weekend mornings. It also means you have to pay a manager overtime to come in early to let them in; because their set-up has to be done very early in the morning. He has to make sure they stay in their designated areas, then tactfully give them the boot as soon as the ceremony is over. The wedding party has to clear out all their fixtures and decorations and vamoose before 11:30, because you need the auditorium for those weekend matinees.

“You should do Saturday morning kiddie matinees. Disney features with cartoons. You’ll sell a ton of popcorn and soda!” You'll sell a few tickets and yes, the “per cap” is higher for kids (“per capita,” the average spent including ticket and snack bar sales), but kids also are much more labor-intensive. You have to make sure you have extra staff on hand to clean up. Kids are messier than grown-ups, by a geometric factor. You have to keep the kids from sneaking into the R-rated features. (It’s not just a matter of enforcing morality standards. Kids who sneak into R-rated features are not smart enough to sit quietly and enjoy the naked bodies and violence. They laugh and hoot and text on their phones - which light up - disturbing the paying customers.)

My point is that these well-meaning individuals hear about the situation and they start free-associating, flinging ideas at you like testing al dente spaghetti to see if sticks. They don’t know and never consider the exigencies of insurance, security, staffing, and regular operation. The owner isn’t sitting up in the office, drinking martinis and reading Daily Variety. They don’t know that the owner thinks very carefully about every possible strategy to bring in revenue so he can pay utilities and mortgage. It never occurs to them that he’s operated successfully in the business for a quarter century, and strategies that worked as recently as a decade ago no longer make sense. It never occurs to the yahoos that he might have considered their sure-fire idea before. He and dozens of other small exhibitors around the country have even tested it (and every other idea you can come up with) and now has empirical evidence it doesn't work or isn’t practical. If someone had a panacea, it wouldn't be a secret for long.

So the next time you want to be “helpful,” stop for a second, take a breath, and resist the urge. You aren’t smarter than the authorities. Really.


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