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Popcorn and More: Why Discount Theaters and the Movie Theater Industry Continue to Thrive


I wrote this article a while back for a Journalism course, and it almost was published online, but never reached the final phase.  So I present to you my article on the appeal of discount theaters.

While some might think of sticky floors, stale popcorn, and scratchy speakers at the mention of “discount theater,” this is slowly but surely becoming the exception, not the rule, for the discount movie theater atmosphere.

Elaine Castaneda, Associate Director at the Waco Square Premiere Cinema 6, said that’s what it all comes down to:

“They come for the experience.”

Castaneda began working at the Waco discount theater in 2009.   At the time, the location was under the ownership of Starplex Cinemas and was known as Starplex Super Saver 6.  In August of 2010, the lease ran out and Starplex didn’t seek to have it renewed.  The theater closed, much to the dismay of its customers.  Premiere Cinemas, which had already been interested in the location, took over the lease, but before they reopened the location, they invested a great deal of time and money in improving the theater.

“We have new paint,” said Castaneda, “new carpet, new menu screens, new video games,” and the list goes on.  The entry to the theater was once dull and dim, but now modern hanging lights illuminate the foyer.   Movie quotes decorate the bright beige walls.  The concessions counter has a new popcorn machine and new soda fountains.  They now even serve Dippin’ Dots, an enjoyable treat once found only at shopping malls.

Improvements do not end there, though, but continue into the theaters.  Movies at the Waco theater are shown with DTS, one of the industry’s best surround sound systems, installed in over 16,000 theatres across the globe.

The theater reopened its doors in October, but the people weren’t coming.

Castaneda noted that before they closed, they always had a big crowd.  Unfortunately, since the change in ownership, such is not the case.

“People still don’t know that we’re open, so it’s kind of been slow.”  The theater is trying to put the name out in the community.  Castaneda hoped that by the time summer arrives, they will build up their customer base.

Castaneda said that while they do well on the weekends, the money doesn’t come rolling in as much during the week.

Due to the low numbers of movie goers, they decided to cut each day’s first showtime.

The discount theater (or dollar or second-run theater) shows second-run features, films that have already been released and first run in the theaters for a few months.

Many theater chains own a number of discount theaters, and of the 15 theaters of Texas-based Premiere Cinemas, a third of them are discount theaters.

The discount theater thrives because of its low prices and is favored by families, the elderly, teenagers, and others with low income and little money to spend.  The Waco theater sells two dollar tickets, except on Tuesdays, when the price is simply one dollar.

The benefits of a discount theater are more than simply low prices.  People can see movies they missed first time around.  Many theaters are in urban locations, good for those who cannot afford to drive to far-away multiplexes.

Discount theaters grew in popularity in the 1980s, at the same time the multiplex model was becoming commonplace.

Since then, the movie theater industry has begun dealing with many issues.

Many people are upset at the high ticket prices, but the theaters argue that prices are better than they were in the 1970s, keeping inflation in mind.  According to the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), the average ticket price in 2010 costs $7.95, while in 1977 it cost $2.23.  Ticket prices have grown slower than the rate of inflation, meaning that it costs less to buy an average movie ticket than it was 40 years ago.

Some theaters are working hard to update their systems and practices to be able to profit from the growing number of 3D films, which usually cost the movie-goer an extra dollar or two.  Other theaters are adding IMAX screens to give people the big, big screen experience.  Major competition, though, seems to be coming from the small screen.

There are a multitude of new technologies and businesses that create new movie watching opportunities for the consumer.

While it once took a long time to watch movies on DVD the release window, the time between when a movie leaves the theater and comes out on DVD, is also narrowing.  What once took an average of five and a half months in 2000, now takes as little as four months.

The DVD market has grown, notably through Netflix, Blockbuster, and Redbox. RedBox, founded in 2003, offers more than 22,000 kiosks, each containing 60 to 200 titles.   Both Netflix and Blockbuster each offer around 100,000 titles, and though Blockbuster exceeds Netflix with its physical locations, it declared bankruptcy in September.

Both offer an online service, which Netflix has built a reputation around.   They also allow “instant” online viewing, Netflix offering over 8,000 titles and Blockbuster more than 5,000.   Meanwhile, other online options abound, with sites such as Hulu and Youtube.  While they are not primarily movie driven, they offer countless entertainment options to the consumer.

The abundance of cable, satellite, and DVR system options give even more ways to view movies at home.  Thus, consumers are investing in home theater systems, especially with the ever increasing audio and video products such as HDTV and the newer 3D technology.

Lee Rainie from the Pew Research Center commented on the growing popularity of the home theater in an article by Jenna Wortham of the New York Times.

“More people are creating experiences in their homes that are very similar to the kinds of public experiences they enjoy in movie theaters and concert halls.”

The 2009 estimates from the Census Bureau show that the average spending on home entertainment and media for the individual consumer has nearly reached $1,000 a year.

With all the other forms of entertainment available, how, then, is the movie theater industry?

According to the 2009 data from NATO, there are more than 5,500 cinema sites in the United States with more than 38,000 screens.

The total US box office grosses for 2009 were 10.6 billion dollars, a record year.   Regal Entertainment Group, the largest theater circuit in the US, announced recently that their rate of earnings was still increasing from the previous year.

Premiere Cinemas, which is based on Big Spring, TX, has added locations in Florida and Alabama, and will finish construction on a theater in New Mexico in the spring of 2011.   They converted more than half of their locations to 100% digital projection in 2009, and more recently signed a deal with D-BOX Technologies Inc. and installed the motion simulation systems in a number of theaters.

Gary Moore serves as the CEO of Premiere Cinemas, and he said the following in a press release in regards to the recent D-BOX installations at their College Station location.

“As entertainers we’re always looking for new ways to entertain our guests.  There’s nothing more rewarding than getting a great response from our movie-goers and D-BOX helps take the experience to a new level.  I think it’s a great fit for theatres wanting to stay on the cutting edge of technology and entertainment like Premiere strives to do.“

While none of Premiere’s discount theaters have been equipped with D-BOX seating, the company seems to create the best cinematic experience for their customers everywhere.

John Sampson, the director of Premiere’s Waco location, shared comments with the Baylor University Lariat on Premiere’s quality of service.

“Premiere runs their dollar houses the same way they run first-runs: It’s first-class customer service, great presentation on the screen, excellent popcorn, just the same as you would expect from a first-run, just the tickets are cheaper and the movies are older.”

It all comes down to the popcorn.

“People come to the movies for the experience,” said Castaneda.  “They come for the popcorn.”  Customers have commented to her “You can’t make popcorn like this at home,” and such comments reflect the expectations that the consumer has when going to the movie theater.  It’s more than the movie itself—it’s the environment in which they watch the movie.

In a recent article by Alex Dobuzinsk, the President of the MPAA, Bob Pisano, said that while there are a number of issues the motion picture industry must overcome, one thing is true.

“We’re reminded again this year that the cinema is the heart and soul of our industry and it is thriving.”

Despite the issues and the rise in new technologies and various forms of entertainment, the movie theater industry is thriving.  It looks like discount theaters should be here to stay, all because of the popcorn, the prices, the auditory and visual experience, and all of the other factors that contribute to a quality theater environment.

“[People] come to have that big screen theater experience,” said Castaneda. “Even if they have a big screen at home, it’s not big enough.”

People will continue to find new ways to enjoy movies at home, but nothing can compete with the experience of going to the theater, and as theaters continue to grow and make improvements, the experience can only get better.

Then, hopefully, the bad reputation of sticky floors and scratchy speakers will finally disappear.


Posted under: Film

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