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The Death of the Movie Theater

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | August 31, 2012 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | August 31, 2012 |

When I went to see The Expendables a couple of weeks ago, it was a brilliant and warm southern California morning. With no clouds to temper it, the sun gleefully sat at exactly the right mid-morning angle to reflect off of every windshield and shiny window, plunging a cacophony of migraine daggers deep into any exposed corneas. The theater perched on the top floor of an outdoor mall, sitting in the middle of the food court. So after purchasing a ticket for the usual exorbitant rate I did the only thing any rational adult with a headache in the middle of a food court would do. I bought a cup of coffee.

Yes, you can probably guess what is coming, and roll your eyes at my idiocy. Of course one can’t bring food and drink into a theater, what did you expect? See, this is exactly how they get us. They invent arbitrary rules, hold our entertainment hostage, and then every time we meekly submit because it’s less of a bother we get more used to the leash.

As I walk up and hand my ticket to the teenaged girl I lift the cup to my mouth to take the first sip and am interrupted with “you can’t take that in.”

“Why not?”

“No outside food and drink. You’ll have to finish it first.” She says.

“Finish it? I just bought it, I haven’t started it yet.”

“I’m sorry, that’s our policy.” Oh, policy, those simple little three syllables that can excuse any idiocy imaginable. It’s not me, I’m just following orders, you know, policy.

“Then I want the money back for my ticket.”

This breaks the teenage bored employee facade, and I get the slightest hint of a stammer. “But, I can’t do that.”

I’ve moved past anger into that comfortable zone of cheerful antagonism that feels warmer than a double shot of whiskey. “I’d like to speak to a manager then.” I say with a smile. There’s palpable relief on her face, as I spoke the magic words that gave her the out that she should have thought of herself.

The customer service manager is a bit older, clearly a longer timer than the summer help at the door, but just gives the same answers and responses. I’m cheerful, not raising my voice in the least. Yelling at the poor bastards at the bottom rarely solves anything. Finally, they call down someone from upstairs, he doesn’t even have a name tag, so he’s probably the highest ranking guy on site.

The policy excuse works both ways because while it means that no one is individually responsible for the inanity of a rule, it also means that any individual employee doesn’t have to make a stand on it so long as punting it to their boss is less painful than just letting the customer have his way. You can work your way up the food chain this way, until you find the poor bastard crouched with his balls pressed against the apex of that graph, the one who can’t punt it higher without getting smacked, but also doesn’t have the power to make his immediate subordinate deal with the problem. That’s the bureaucratic sweet spot. And that’s what this guy is.

“You just can’t bring in outside food and drink.” He explains without explaining.

“Why not?”

“It’s our policy not to allow it.”

“But why is it the policy?”

“It just is.”

Movie theater chains have to pay ninety cents of every dollar right back to the movie studios. They don’t make jackshit on the actual movies, so they’ve only got two recourses: raise ticket prices so that their paltry percentage yields more money and mark up fifteen cents of popcorn by a thousand percent and not let anyone bring in outside food and drink. Never mind that every time they raise the prices of those items, they sell less of them, getting sucked down into a never ending cycle of rising prices and declining actual sales.

“Look,” I say, trying to take another tack since we both know the answer is very simple. “I get that you make your money on concessions so you don’t like people bringing stuff in. But if that’s your business model, then why did you put this theater in the middle of the mall’s food court?”

“I don’t know, sir. But it’s still not our policy to allow outside food and drink.” Ah, the party line, sweet shield of the weak in the wrong.

“Ok, so you want me to throw my coffee away, walk inside and buy whatever food and drink I want inside, right?”


“Do you sell coffee?” I can see the concessions menu from where we are standing, so I know this is the safe crack to pry at.

There’s a long pause. “No.” He admits. There’s a bit more back and forth, but I’ve been tenacious enough that he’d rather just let me in than waste more of his time with this. The compromise? I’m given a large soda cup to pour my coffee into, because the mere sight of a logo that hasn’t paid the company would be a gross indecency.

This has burned twenty minutes of time and so I stroll into The Expendables ten minutes after its slated start time. I don’t have to worry though. The trailers haven’t even started yet, we’re still on the pre-trailer commercials. Dean Winters winks at me. Thirty minutes of commercials. A hundred minutes of movie. At least when I have to watch this many commercials on television I can do so without pants and without being arrested.

I used to love going to the movies. As a teenager I’d often go once a week: the huge screen, the trailers, the experience of watching with your friends. Now? The trailers probably were online yesterday, the TV I’ve got at home is proportionately just as big, and I don’t have to pay extra for my friends so long as there is room on the couch and floor. And hey, at home I can make myself a fucking steak dinner for less money than a hot dog, popcorn and soda costs at the theater. And since searing a steak to a succulent medium-rare takes about eight minutes, the time investment is still less than sitting through the shit before the movie.

The only gain to seeing the movie in the theater is that you get to see it a few months before it shows up with six different DVD versions from which to choose. You pay a premium for instant gratification, but in every other comparison, watching the film at home is the better option. If your product is objectively worse than an alternative that costs significantly less, then you are going to go out of business.

To put it another way, and to really channel my inner curmudgeon, it’s entirely possible that my next new review might be from prison. If I have my backpack searched by a sixteen year old usher again for rogue M&Ms under the grave pretense of customer safety, there’s going to be a hostage situation.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.