Hi there all! Just trudging out of hibernation to make some general observations. I’m also cross-posting this to my podcast site, just for kicks (and because people are more likely to see it there, since I’ve kinda ignored The Wolfemann’s Den since starting the show).
I’ve been to the theater a fair amount this year, actually. First, I went to Insidious with my family. Great film, in my opinion, and an almost-perfect “intro to horror” film. I strongly recommend picking it up for this Halloween season (along with Trick ‘r Treat, of course, and the original Halloween, and….)
Second, I went to see Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, on the strength of Guillermo Del Toro’s producer’s credit. I liked it, but it wasn’t a ‘knock it out of the park’ film. However, I will give it credit for inspiring me to pick up some books by Machen that I’ll eventually read for my podcast over at Darkly Lit. I also liked the more stealthy reference to the works of Algernon Blackwood.
And, next weekend, I’m going out to catch Paranormal Activity 3 on opening day. This will happen; the last two films warranted it, and the trailer looks like they’re taking on at least half of my idea for what the third film should do (discussed in Episode 31 of Darkly Lit, along with my opinion of the Saw films)
And, while seeing these films, I’ve seen a lot of trailers. One of which inspired me to see the movie it was for; when I saw Insidious, it included a trailer for Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, which made me want to see it, and made my brother absolutely refuse to. I intend to punish him by watching John Carpenter’s The Thing later today.
But other than that one film, I saw a lot of trailers that did exactly what they wanted to avoid – they made me want to avoid the theater like the plague. For some of these films, I never was going to see them. Bridesmaids, for example. For others, I was actually seriously considering catching them. Straw Dogs, for example. The prequel for The Thing. I’d been considering trying to catch them… and then I saw the trailers. On the bright side, the trailer for Straw Dogs did make me want to go back and catch the Sam Peckinpas original, which meant I remembered to pick it up when I found it at Half Price Books that afternoon! But ultimately, both of these trailers kept me out of the theaters (along with the trailer for Dream House, which I caught on IMDB instead of in the theater itself.)
What this did make me think about was the current state of the theater. Why do I go so seldom? Because 99% of the films that are coming out are so freakin’ weak. There’s no reason whatsoever for me to go spend $10 on a theater ticket, $3.50 on a small drink, and $4 for a small popcorn when I can wait until the movie comes out on DVD, rent it at my local Family Video (or Netflix, or Redbox) for less than the price of the popcorn, and then watch it in the comfort of my own home, with a chilled bottle of Sprecher’s ginger ale (not available at my local movie theater, at least), and all the freshly popped peppered popcorn (not available at any movie theater) that I can eat.
Oh, and the ability to pause the danged thing when I need to use the can. Or turn it off if it turns out to be an absolute pile, which happens entirely too often these days.
Why should I go to the theaters? 3D films? I don’t have a 3D TV, after all, so that might be a reason. Except that (a) most 3D movies are this post-processed crap that aren’t worth the $3 surcharge, (b) most of the ones that are truly 3D films and warrant the surcharge are glorified tech demos (Avatar, I’m looking at you), and (c) I’ve got regular glasses. Have you ever tried wearing a pair of cheap shades over prescription glasses? Yeah, it’s not fun. Especially not for three hours of eye-strain (again, Avatar, I’m looking at you.)
But I understand why they’re pushing 3D. It’s something that most people’s home theaters can’t do yet, or at least can’t do well. That’s going to change in the very near future, I’m quite sure, but that tech’s still being worked on. Once they don’t have that any more… what will theaters do? Most people think that they’ll go the way of the drive-in; they’ll become a novelty, something that you do because you want a special night out, not because you just want to see a particular film . This is something that we’ve seen before; back in the 50’s and 60’s we had this sort of thing happening when TV came out, and then in the 80’s when video came out. At least then the theaters still had the advantage of the big screen and better projectors… but in the era of 62″ plasma/LED TV’s that have 1080p resolution and the Blu-Ray player, that doesn’t help so much.
What will convince people to pay through the nose for the privilege of sitting in an uncomfortable chair, surrounded by morons talking and texting during the film, all while paying 2-3 times the going rate for your snacks?
What the movie theater industry needs is another William Castle.
Will Castle was the marketing genius responsible for putting butts in seats during films like The House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, and Mister Sardonicus (by the way – both of those links are to Archive.org, where you can pull down perfectly legal public domain copies of the films to watch). These films were cheesy, yes. They were cheap, hell yes. But they were fun. They were enjoyable… and Will Castle got the guys running the theaters to make it an event. Take a look at some of the things he did in his films. And he wasn’t the only one, just the most common one. Roger Corman did this in the original Pirahna (you know, the good one). Here are the recommended tricks that Corman suggested theater owners to do (paraphrased from the pamphlet included with the 20th anniversary special edition:
1: Tie in the local tropical fish store, and get a tank full of pirahna placed in the lobby. Put a sign out saying “Fish don’t eat people. People eat fish.” Scatter a few old rings and watches on the bottom of the tank to complete the effect.
2: Turn the tables on the pirahna, and sponsor a “pirahna swallowing contest.” Replace the pirahna with goldfish, and give the winner complimentary tickets to the film. Be sure to have the local press cover the event.
3: Persuade local bars and restaurants to feature a special on a “pirahna cocktail” (better known as a Bloody Mary.)
4: Make a tie-in with your local sports shop, since the movie features a lot of summer water sports. Set aside some space in your lobby for the sports stores to set up a display.
5: Sponsor a dance contest, where the contestants are judged based on their interpretation of the new, as-yet-unknown dance craze, “The Pirahna!” (Ah, the 70’s.) Winners receive a free one-way bus ticket to Aquarena Springs (in Texas) and 3-days free use of top-of-the-line camping gear from your local sporting goods store.
6: Leave dead pirahna along local rivers and streams. Organize your local boy scouts and such to guard against “the oncoming onslaught.” Pay a few enterprising kids a few bucks to stay out of sight for a few days while the film is out, and watch your grosses soar!
Now, of all of these options, only 2 and 6 would be likely to get you picketed or sued or otherwise in trouble in the modern era (again – ah, the 70’s…). Maybe they wouldn’t have the strongest effect of putting butts in seats, but it would certainly get word of mouth going. Couple it with something like #1, and you can make it work a bit better.
Or maybe do what Hammer Films did with Rasputin, the Mad Monk, and distribute souvenirs to theaters (Rasputin beards, if you’re curious). If you got a little knick-knack when you went to see the movie, maybe that’d be a good reason not to wait for the DVD. As it stands, you’re more likely to get a knick-knack when you wait for the DVD, if you pay for the special edition!
And it’s not like it’s hard to figure out gimmicks to use. Pirahna 3D (or 3DD)? Just borrow the old gimmicks from the 70’s. Saw? Go back to William Castle, and have one of your underpaid ushers (or volunteer theatre major, if you’re in a college town) be the “victim” of a trap during a dull spot in the film. Dream House? Eh, this one’s a little tricky, but given the real estate market these days maybe pay somebody to set up a haunted house in their for-sale property? I don’t know, but then, I’m not getting paid to think of these things either.
The point is, there are lots of ways you could come up with gimmicks. Sure, they’re cheap. Sure, they’re propping up a movie that’s not necessarily that great. Sure, they’re chintzy.
That’s the freakin’ point.
They make going to the theater a unique experience. They get people talking about a movie, and about the amazing thing that happened there that you can’t see anywhere else.
Thiswould get butts in seats. Even I would consider paying to go see a Saw film if I heard that somebody had a trap go off on them in the back row of the theater and run out screaming. Sure, I’d figure out that it was a cheap gimmick in the theater, but it’d be fun! And isn’t that why we’re going to the theaters in the first place?
Shark Night 3D? Make it a real 3D film, and have a flying shark swoop down over the audience on rails! It’d get people laughing, but in a film like that, that’s what you want!
Don’t be Afraid of the Dark? Play a ‘whisper track’ that doesn’t have anything to do with the movie, have a paid plant or two to gasp or otherwise act like something grabbed at them, knock something over in the back of the theater – pretend that the fairies are loose in the cinema!
Of course, you’d have to rework the movies so that they had scenes where these sort of things weren’t too disruptive, or otherwise played into the tension of the film. But it’d be a blast! It would make the movies enjoyable again. It would make that $10+ ticket actually kinda worth paying for, because you can’t get it at home. You would be selling memories that’ll last forever, and sometimes little collectibles that folks can hang onto just for fun.
And, if all else fails, you can always fall back on offering life insurance policies in case you die of fright during the movie.
And then pray to high heaven that nobody just happens to have a coronary in the middle of it.