I go to one or two movies a month in theatres these days. Most of the time, I go to the theatre that's halfway between my home and my office, about a ten-minute bike ride or a five-minute car ride from each: the Century Cinemas 16, on Shoreline in Mountain View.
(This got a little long, so here's my tl;dr summary: The Century 16 is cool, their manager is cool, and I hope they manage to stick around.)
It used to be that on a Friday or Saturday night, there was a crowd outside standing in line; it could take ten or fifteen minutes to get tickets, and popular movies regularly sold out. It could even take ten or fifteen minutes to find parking, in their fairly big but (I'm convinced) non-Euclidean parking lot.
That's changed in the past year or so. These days, the parking lot always has plenty of room, even on weekend evenings. And there's almost never a crowd standing in line when I go; I don't think I've had to wait more than a couple minutes to buy a ticket in months. A lot of the movies I go to have sparse audiences. I saw Captain America the other night; granted it was a 9:30 showing on a weeknight, but I was one of five people in the theatre. That doesn't seem sustainable.
Anyway, I know it's not a local mom-and-pop kind of theatre, I know it's part of the big Cinemark chain, but I do like it, and I've been going there for years, and most of the time my experience there has been fairly pleasant, unlike (say) the Evil Mercado.
Which is the other closest major movie theatre to my house. There's nothing really wrong with it, except that almost every time I've seen a movie there, something has gone wrong. Once it took me, iIrc, forty minutes to find a space in their parking lot. Once the only seats left were in the front row, about five feet from the bottom of a gigantic screen; unwatchable, and we got a refund. Once (I think this was at the Mercado) they labeled the theatres wrong and we missed the first few minutes of Tomb Raider. Once I watched Sixth Sense there and the other ten people in the theatre sat in the back talking loudly on their cell phones through the entire movie. And almost every time I've gone to the Evil Mercado, they've left the house lights on throughout the movie.
So I try to avoid the Evil Mercado. But in the past year, more and more often, the Century 16 has also left the house lights on throughout the movie.
And of course when things are operating as intended, the house lights are supposed to stay at least partly on through the previews. So there's no way to know that the lights aren't being turned off until the movie itself begins, at which point it's too late to find a staff person to turn them off without missing some of the movie.
The first couple of times, I talked to the staff afterward. They apologized and offered me free tickets. I said I didn't need free tickets, I just wanted them to check on the house lights next time.
Later, I started preempting this unfortunate trend by talking to the staff before the movie. I would tell them “The last few times I've been here, the house lights have been left on. Could you send someone to check on that after this movie starts?” And they've done it.
But then a couple months ago I went to see Green Lantern. (The first time I'd tried that, technical difficulties had resulted in the movie being cancelled after a forty-minute wait.) Before the movie, I asked them to check on the house lights after the movie started, as usual. They told me that wouldn't be necessary because there was a projectionist for that theatre who would be there and could make sure the house lights were turned off.
So I went into the movie. And, you guessed it, the house lights were left on through the whole movie.
This finally got me to write a letter to the management. I was very polite and friendly, and I explained the situation, and I asked them to start having a staff person stop by the beginning of every showing of every movie just to make sure the house lights were off.
I included my phone number in the letter. And a couple of days later, I got a very friendly, very concerned phone call from the manager, who assured me that they had just finished installing all-new equipment that would preclude this from happening again.
He also pointed out to me that the side house lights are actually supposed to stay on (dimly) throughout the movie. I'm kind of disappointed by that—I do find it a bit distracting—but maybe that's always been the policy everywhere and I just don't always notice. At any rate, that hasn't been the big problem; the overhead lights have been what's really bugged me.
At the end of the call, he said he wanted to send me some free tickets. I said that wasn't necessary. He said he'd really like to. So I said okay, and a couple days later, four free movies tickets showed up in my mailbox.
I've used two of those tickets in the past week, one for Captain America and one for Harry Potter, and both times the house lights behaved well.
So I'm hoping that the problem has been solved. And regardless, I wanted to publicly say nice things about the theatre and the manager.
I suspect that movie theatres may not last much longer. Watching at home is in many ways a better experience, and most movies don't need really big screens, and even 3D is becoming feasible at home.
But I still like going to the theatre and sitting there in the dark with the big screen in front of me, and being part of an audience that's enjoying the movie together (or, conversely, having the theatre mostly to myself). So, for all the flaws of the movie-theatre experience, I hope it lasts a while longer.
And I particularly hope the Century 16 manages to keep going.