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Don’t Ignore the Core Product!
Pradeep Anand: 1999

Being a lover of Disney animated movies makes it easy to fulfill fatherly duties of taking children to the movies. So, we went to see Disney’s Tarzan on the first day of its release. It was a wonderful movie that did not disappoint, but the experience at the theater was far from satisfying.

The theater was one of those fancy stadium style multiplexes that promises a great "movie experience", with louder-than-necessary surround sound. The expectations are high when we enter the theater and usually we are not disappointed. However, this time we were.

The quality of projection was substantially below average. The images were in focus for about the first thirty minutes or so, and thereafter the movie was somewhat fuzzy. I was surprised that no one from the audience stomped out to complain to the management of the theater.

My assumption was that everyone had the same reason as I did- we were with kids who were not as picky, and we did not want to disturb them. Why disturb this escape into a make believe world, though somewhat out of focus?

However, after the movie I had a chat with the polite theater manager who shared with me the process, and helped me discover the root of the problem. They calibrate and set the projectors for a few minutes at the outset of a show, and then the projectionist is pulled to start another movie, for another show.

The consequence is that at splices the original calibration may not be appropriate, and the projection quality for rest of the movie can be affected. Being short on manpower, the theater management cannot continuously monitor every show.

Of course, the manager apologized and gave us some passes to future shows but the horse had already bolted from the stable. This was not the first instance when I was disappointed at the quality of projection; it was the first time that I complained about it.

Recently, I had a similar experience when I saw the much-awaited Stars Wars: The Phantom Menace. The projection quality was substantially below par. I expected DVD like quality when I went to see a George Lucas movie.

With DVD home theater systems, consumers like me are becoming aware of the superb quality of movie production. Even with the limited resolution in North American television sets, DVD users can have a better "movie experience" at home than at theaters. DVD now offers moviegoers a standard by which we can measure quality at movie theaters.

Since the early 1990s, the movie exhibition industry has invested in the "total movie going experience" to compete with the onslaught of VCRs, and to draw moviegoers back to theaters. They are doing a great job in providing the product "surround" like substantial, well-lit parking lots, choice in convenient times, extensive options in concession stands, frequent moviegoer programs, great sound, and many more.

Unfortunately, the movie theater business may be losing focus on its core expectation- quality projection of a movie. Of what consequence is the "surround" like parking, food, and frequent usage programs, if the main purpose of the theater is not served? The management of theater companies had better rediscover its central purpose soon.

Most movies are released in videocassette and DVD formats very soon after their theatrical release. Quality of movie projection cannot be compromised because viewers can vote with their pocket book, and take their business to alternatives like DVD. This situation may well provide opportunities to niche players, to fulfill the need for high quality theaters of uncompromising quality.

If recent data points do really represent a trend, it won’t be long before financial statements of major cinema exhibitors will deteriorate, requiring very expensive corrective actions, and major investments; in Wall Street parlance, it will be time to short movie exhibitors.

The time to act is while industry economics are still sound- with the right technologies, business designs and even minor tweaking of current systems. Small but timely efforts to get back to basics will help exhibitors to avoid history repeating itself- consumers in large numbers watching quality movies in the comfort of their homes.

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