I was in civilian gear watching No Country for Old Men in one of my theatres when a young man answered his cell phone, put his feet up on the seat in front and talked loudly into his Bluetooth earpiece while waving his brightly lit cell phone. I walked over and said quietly: “I’m sorry, but if you need to use the phone you’ll have to take it out into the lobby.” He looked at me and said, “And who the **** are you?”. I retorted: “I’m the ******* theatre owner”. Enough said.
Every day, in movie theatres everywhere, we face this and other behavior that requires the situation to be managed. There’s an old saying in the movie theatre business: “The show starts on the sidewalk.” It was coined to convey that your theatre should be spectacular, making patrons feel like they’re somewhere distinctly different from home. Exhibitors spend millions making their theatres stand out and establishing and enforcing a tone is every bit as important as sconces, carpet, and lighting.
For five years I owned a busy bar and became expert at making people feel safe and at home, creating an atmosphere that was comfortable as well as identifiable – one my customers knew they’d enjoy no matter when they came in. When patrons visit our theatres they want the same experience. The public does not sign up to be our police. They’ll help, hopefully, by letting us know if there’s a problem, but no patron should ever be expected to confront unruly patrons. I always remind staff that movie-goers are in a delicate state: they began suspending disbelief when they decided to come to the movies and they want to be transported and entertained, not bothered and aggravated. A managed and predictable atmosphere that provides a relaxed, quality movie-going experience is what our patrons want.
At least, most of our visitors want that. Don’t forget that even those who arrive and talk loudly, who use bad language, spend the time texting friends or else move to better visit a prospective girlfriend, are our customers too. They may behave badly but treating them like enemy combatants isn’t good for business.
After 15 years in business I also know that the very same kids I’d once had cause to ask to leave, grew up quickly to become good patrons who are themselves now bothered by kids talking. I drill into my staff that a talking teen is someone we need to talk with. They may aggravate us but they are not the enemy and we don’t threaten to taser them. They are customers and we hope they’ll be back and behave better next time.
We ask people to correct behavior, or leave, for a few reasons. First, it deals with the issue, but there are also spin-off benefits: the event is observed by others and no one wants to be asked to leave a theatre; it encourages others to behave, and it sends a clear message to customers that you’re protecting them and your theatre’s atmosphere. They know they can count on you. There is a long-term positive residual effect from actively controlling problems, namely: kids learn they cannot misbehave without consequences.
Of course, not all problem patrons are incorrigible or indeed a problem every time. Some stand in your lobby yelling at you because of any number of real or imagined infractions. When you start packing the house with sold-out shows, emotions will bubble. Wherever there are people, there are issues; and the more people, the more issues. This is when calm and effective communication is invaluable. Okay, so we won’t “win” every argument, but if the resolve is fair and you believe they’ll return to your theatre, then everyone wins. What our theatres definitely do not need is a couple of hundred people walking around telling everyone they’ll never visit again.
Training staff in calm, proactive, positive conflict-resolution is as important as upselling or asking: “Would you like butter on that?”. How you handle tough customers – whether they’re right or wrong – will impact your business. Make sure to get it right. And, by the way, stop kicking my seat: I’ve got a Taser and I’m not afraid to use it.