Saturday, October 5, 2013

A Day at the Movies

The government shut down has inspired the AMC movie chain to come up with a smart bit of marketing. From now until the chain decides to pull the deal (or, as they claim, "until common sense returns to Washington"), all those federal employees suffering through unpaid furloughs can enjoy a free small popcorn when they go to see movies at AMC theaters.

AMC of course will claim to be doing it out of the kindness of their collective corporate hearts when in fact, let's be honest, they've simply found the lucrative bright spot in a bad situation.

More than 800,000 employees of the federal government have been furloughed since Oct. 1. That's 800,000 people not getting paychecks, and thus not being able to grease the economy by going out to dinner, buying clothes or...well yes, going to the movies. Instead they're liable to guard what little money they have saved up in the hope that it's enough to tide them over until the government opens up again. However long that may take.

But that's a big chunk of change gone from the theaters if the people who would normally go to the movies turn to Red Box or their local library instead.

What is a movie chain to do?

Why, entice the furloughed employees back in with the promise of free popcorn. We all like free stuff. And of course these people without jobs now will have more time on their hands to go see the movies (and perhaps offering popcorn will help them forget the high cost of admission, though AMC claims they won't need to buy a ticket to get the free popcorn). And it's not like these people have any place else to go.

This story led me to think about the recession/near depression this country has been suffering since 2001 and the Great Depression of the 1930s. When I conduct talks for my book Chicago's Most Wanted, touching on historical topics will inevitably encourage some older person to tell a story about what 50 cents could get you back in the day. You had 50 cents, you could take the train downtown, buy a ticket to a movie that included a short or serial, a cartoon and maybe a newsreel, buy some refreshments at the candy counter, then after, you could go for a soda, maybe even lunch, enjoy a trolley ride and still have enough left over for a couple of pints in the local bar once you got home.

Okay, maybe a bit of an exaggeration, but back then and even a few decades after, you could get quite a bang for your buck. And it was good too since during the depression, not a lot of people had many bucks to get bangs out of. More than ever, people needed a diversion from their every day worries so people turned to entertainment to take their minds off their concerns over looking for work and trying to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. If for a few hours they could lose themselves in a movie that might take their minds off their problems at least for a short time, it might be worth the money.

How times have changed. Tickets to a movie cost around thirty cents (with refreshments) in 1933. Today, the average price of admission alone costs $10 ($12 if you choose or are stuck into having to see 3D).

Those free popcorns now being offered: AMC normally charges an average of $6. Factoring in kernels, butter, and manpower, to make one bag it probably cost AMC $2. Now THAT'S a markup. But free popcorn or not, a person has to lay down a 10 spot just to see a movie.

People, of course, are making more then they did in the '30s, but the cost of living has risen dramatically as well.

Now in 2013 we have something that very few people had in 1933: TV. And even if you can't afford cable or "on demand" (and many can't) there is still free network TV (which seems to consist mostly of reality shows and shows trying to ape CSI). There are also devices such as DVD and Blu-ray players for people to enjoy a movie in the comfort of their own homes.

Still, there's nothing like going to the theaters to see a movie. The days of the grand cinemas with wide screens and classy surroundings are long gone, but even in the multiplexes, it's so much easier to lose oneself when sitting in a theater seat in the dark, staring up at images on the flickering screen.

The 1930s was a time of tough transition for the still new industry of cinema. By the time the Depression hit, the movie studios (who owned most of the theaters where the movies were shown) were already deep in hock from purchasing new cinemas and making the costly transition from silents to sound (a move that would prove lucrative and necessary). Add to that the fact that a public still reeling from the start of the Depression wasn't going to the movies as much. The studios turned to austerity to help them through it, cutting salaries, closing theaters and lowering production costs (the Universal movie "Dracula" which had the misfortune of being in early production stages as the Depression hit, was an example of this. And I believe the costs were cut to its detriment. But that's for another post).

But they also did something very smart. They appreciated the financial pain the average movie-goer was going through. Oh, it wasn't altruism that led the studios to consider this. Pure pragmatism. But they considered it none the less and they realized that the only way they were going to survive was to get the bodies in the seats. 

So they tried marketing ideas much more radical than free popcorn. They lowered the cost of admission. They offered more value for the hard earned money by offering a short movie, a serial, a cartoon, or maybe all three before the main movie. Sometimes there were live acts. Sometimes you got two movies for the price of one (one of them a cheaper B-movie. Lower production values, stars not so well known, but sometimes just as good as the main feature). There were also give-aways and events. They were asking the Depression-era public to give up the cost of admission for a few hours of dreaming. It would require a little bit of effort on their parts to entice these people do so.

Eighty years later, what do the movie chains offer? Well, one of them offers free popcorn (and if all AMCs are like the one I've been to, the popcorn has been pre-bagged and made stale by sitting out in a self-serve warmer for hours). If you don't get a free popcorn it costs you $6. Drinks can cost $4 for the smallest which holds about five gallons of liquid comfortably). Paying the $10 admission, you then sit through a half hour of coming attractions (and commercials) before the movie even starts. Rather than cutting prices, they're often raising prices, crying over the low attendance. Yet they do very little to encourage people to pay the high cost of going to see a movie. 

A form of escapism for the many people still hurting with a touchy economy is growing increasingly out of reach of the average person when they could use it the most. 

So AMC's free popcorn move is part of a long tradition of movie theaters trying to boost their attendance during tough times with special offers. The difference is that back in the 30s, the theaters knew how to treat those people they were trying to draw in. 

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