My open letter to
John Fithian, President & CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners
On Saturday, October 26, 2013, Netflix’s Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos delivered the keynote address at the 2013 Film Independent Forum at the Directors Guild of America (DGA) in Los Angeles. His remarks included critiques of movie theaters, which he claimed had resisted innovation and contributed to the spread of piracy through the restrictive theatrical windows that frustrate end consumers. Within hours, CEO and President of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) John Fithian struck back, accusing Netflix of trying to “kill the cinema.” As a former lover of movie-going and current Netflix subscriber, I respond to Fithian below.
UPDATE: The dialogue (and dispute) has continued in the years since. Most recently, in October 2016, Fithian spoke out once again to warn against simultaneous release dates.
As someone who truly, truly used to love going to the cinema to see films, I read about your rebuttal to Netflix’s Ted Sarandos’ comments at the Film Independent Forum with great interest.
Your focus on business models and delivery systems is understandable, but I’m troubled — and was moved to write — because your greatest threat is not any alternate delivery platform. It is the lack of evolution/innovation of cinemas and the ever-deteriorating movie-going experience. Please save it.
I watched my first movie from a cinema seat at the tender age of five (it was Star Wars, for the record) and instantly fell in love with film. Even after the rise of VHS rentals, I was committed to seeing new releases on the big screen. The enormous images and booming sound made all the difference. That immersive experience was the great differentiator.
But after years (and years) of trying to keep enjoying going to the movies, at a certain point, I gave up. While the world around the movies was changing, inside the theatre, time seemed to have stopped. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the very notion of aligning with the customer had apparently gone out the window.
Please, please consider: I love films. Everyone who subscribes to Netflix does.
But when we go to the movies, we are met by typically sullen staff, who are proficient enough at selling tickets and tearing stubs, but no help at all when fellow patrons become disruptive in the theatre (which is common, and rarely leads to any consequences). The prices for truly horrible food and drinks are — as you know — absurdly inflated. And the theatres themselves are often filthy. It’s hard to enjoy a movie when you have to keep un-sticking your feet from the floor.
Then there’s the indifference to the quality of the film image itself. I can’t tell you how many times I have sat through a film with gorgeous cinematography…being shown just that little bit too far out of focus. I’ve watched other patrons walk to the back to tell someone. I’ve wandered out into the hallway looking for help myself. We find an underpaid staff member. We tell them. They shuffle off. We sit back down. Nothing changes.
I’m sure these complaints frustrate theatre owners, who must feel that dwindling revenues make it “impossible” to hire better people or maintain better conditions. But is it? I mean, did the world of retail collapse and disappear at the advent of Internet shopping? No.
Rather than stubbornly keep offering the same experience until bankruptcy broke out, successful retailers transformed the way they interacted with customers and brought more value to the live interactions that happen in-store. The answer to dwindling revenue at theatres is not to jack up the prices on bad food. It’s to improve the experience and go back to selling more tickets in the first place.
There is plenty of research out there, already completed and paid for by other industries, about how to effectively engage visitors to any out-of-home event in this our age — when staying on the couch would, of course, be cheaper and more convenient. Customer-centricity is practically the new black. Real-time responsiveness to customers is par for the course. Except at the movie theatre, where the general formula has remained essentially unchanged since my first unsteady steps over the threshold in 1977.
As far as I’m concerned, every new movie theatre should be building one or two old-fashioned, cavernous viewing halls…but also more private viewing rooms for small reserved groups. Build in smaller but higher-quality screens, the larger ones visible from multiple private spaces, like boxes at the opera. Offer annual subscriptions for private parties around new releases in different genres: action, comedy, romance, documentary. Make it a scene.
Offer comfortable (and spotlessly clean) seating. Sell traditional popcorn in the lobby, but let patrons carry food in, from snacks to potluck dinners. Offer to arrange for entire meals to be brought in from local restaurants and served. Don’t fight our preferences. Profit from them.
Mix it up. Come out of the bubble. Recognize not only that more and more people like me are choosing to watch films in our living rooms — but why. Come up with great ideas to woo us back. You know theatre operations and logistics better than we do. So set up a think tank and get thinking. Find investors. (There are a few wealthy people in Hollywood.) Reinvent the movies. There’s more to life than ticket prices. If the experience is worth it, we’ll pay.
You can rely on producers around the world to keep creating great films. The top priority of theatres today must be to reestablish trust with us, your customers. Persuade us that you still love movies as much as we do. That you understand no film should be watched out of focus, or from a dirty seat, and that you are ready to enforce reasonable standards for behavior. Because no great scene will be ruined by a jerk. Not on your watch.
I know I’ve been hard on theatres in this letter. It’s only because I miss them, and the magic they used to make me feel. Those of us who’ve stopped coming would love to return, every one of us. You have to care about us. You have to make it worth it for us to come back.