The Art of Theater Hopping

"Theater Hopping," also known as "Plexing" (by some uber-trendy cinematards) is all about maximizing the most for your hard earned and soon to be spent box office dollars. There's a lot of information already out there about theater hopping. There's also a lot of incorrect information that could potentially get you into serious trouble. So as a service to the community, (see, were saints here) here is the Hollywood Dump's guide to seeing more than one movie in a day.

[ED note]: The Hollywood Dump does not condone defrauding, stealing or otherwise depriving theater owners of any money they oh so rightfully deserve. In fact, we're not too keen on anything that involves breaking the law at all. Theater hopping is technically stealing and depending on who catches you and how their day is going, you could be escorted out of the theater or even arrested. Is seeing the latest bad movie for free worth getting a criminal record over? We don't think it is. This article is strictly for informational purposes only. (And please don't sue us if you use this information and get caught) You have been warned.

First, you should know that the local theater doesn’t make a whole lot of money on a film in the first initial weeks of its release. The majority of the box office take ends up going directly back to the studio, or more accurately, the distributor of the film (which is probably owned by the studio anyway.) After a while, the percentages change so that the theater starts making more money. But opening weekend and for the first two weeks of a films run, it's typical for the distributor to take 90% or more of the box office profit for that film. There’s a great article on film distribution over at How Things Work that explains the distribution process in a lot more detail, if you're interested in the business.

This is one reason why concession food is so incredibly expensive. Theaters gouge on the price of the snacks because they have to make their money some other way than depending solely on what goes into the box office till. “Seven dollars for a box of popcorn??,” says the father of the three kids he’s taken to the movies to shut them up for a few hours. “That’s outrageous!” he exclaims as he pulls out his debit card and wonders if there's enough money in the bank to cover the costs. After all, you can't see a movie without popcorn, right?

This is the other reason why concession theaters charge so much for snacks: because they can. It seems to be subconsciously embedded into our brains. From an early age we associate popcorn with movies. I’m not exactly sure why or how this got started, but since popcorn costs pennies for a theater to purchase, it’s a huge profit potential for the local theater owner. And with the smell of fresh popcorn wafting through the air (I swear they design the air conditioning systems to to take advantage of this) you are drawn to the glass counter like Pavlov's dog. Now take out that second mortgage and buy that 50 lb carton of popcorn.

And because that popcorn is so heavily salted, you are going to need a drink to help satisfy that thirst that’s going to build up. And not just any drink will do. You will need something that will be large enough sustain you for the 90 minutes you will be in the theater grazing on the popcorn. Something with enough sugar in it to help your brain think that what you are watching on the screen is worth watching.

Soda also costs next to nothing for a theater to purchase. The most expensive part of a soda is the cup, which is why some theaters offer free refills on their gargantuan containers. Most people wont even consider it, and that’s OK with the theater. It’s the perception of value more than the reality. The idea that you THINK you are getting more for your money.

And remember: no outside food or beverages are allowed inside the theater! You would think initially that this is so they can keep the mess down to a minimum. Now you know the reason why: it cheats the theaters out of their chance to squeeze every cent out of your pockets.

OK so you know the consequences, you know what you are getting yourself into and you have decided to throw caution to the wind and catch the latest mega-million-dollar flick for free.

There are a few tricks to successfully getting the most for your box office dollars. Some of these may be a little far-fetched or just downright anal-retentive. But paranoia is a good thing. The more you can think ahead and think through all the possible ways you can get caught, the more you improve your chances of getting away with it.

So here are the key points to remember:
  • Plan ahead
  • Safety in numbers
  • Keep a low profile
  • Consider costume changes
  • Target your next movie
  • Time your exit
  • Use the bathroom

Take a moment to figure out which movie you want to see and at what time you want to see it. Try to determine how long the movie is and then look to see what movie is starting shortly after the first one ends.

Also, its best to plan out your strategy before you show up to the theater altogether. Use the internet. Don't stand in front of the box office, staring at the marquee for 30 minutes coming up with your plan.

If you can avoid it, dont go on a weekend. Yes, there are more people going at this time and it will be easier to blend in, but its also prime time for the theater and they will have additional staff on hand. They might even have a person tearing tickets just past the concession stand. That's a tough one to get around.

Don't go to a theater you usually go to. You don't want to be recognized as “that guy that always comes to the movies on Tuesday.” Pick a theater you don't frequent that often. And is best to find a theater with a large number of screens. This maximizes the chances of your second movie starting at a time when your first movie is ending.

Keep in mind that just because a film may be scheduled to play at 11:20am, doesn’t mean that it’s actually going to start at that time. Long before the movie starts there is a carefully orchestrated parade of advertising that is displayed on the screen.

First there's the slide show. This is usually comprised of ads for gift certificates, reminders that the theater is available to be rented out for private events and ads for whatever local businesses may be around the theater. They also may show 3rd grade level movie trivia, or famous quotes from celebrities. The slide show seems to be about 7 slides long and if you get to the theater too early, you will see every slide numerous times over. Still, its better than staring at a blank screen.

Next comes the ubiquitous “on-screen entertainment” (in other words, more advertising). Some theaters have a 30 minute video that plays before things get started. This video is usually comprised of a TV network’s new series, hyping some film that will be coming out several months from now or whatever advertising the company that produces the video wants to show off.

Finally we get to the actual scheduled show time. The screen tells you to silence your cell phone and refrain from talking, the house lights dim to 50%, the top curtain moves down the screen a little to change to the proper aspect ratio for the film and then we get to...

The trailers. Yea! More advertising! This time the advertising has been selected by the studio to target the specific audience in that theater. If you are going to a big-budget action movie, expect trailers for other big-budget action movies to play. There may be some cross-over to other genres, but for the most part, its all tarteged to the current demographic in the theater.

And then finally, mercifully, the trailers end, the house lights go out, and the movie starts. This is usually about 10 minutes after the posted start time. All good to be aware of if you are keeping track of when the movie is supposed to end.

Don't go to the first screening of the day. Of course you will want to take advantage of the early matinee prices if you can, but you don’t want to show up too early to the theater. The first screening of the day can be problematic: The employees are fresh and alert and because the first screening doesn't usually have a lot of people going at that time, you will stand out more if someone spots you later in the day. Figure that the employees will have to be at the theater to open the place around an hour or two before the first scheduled showtime. So if the first screening of the theater is at 11am, its good to assume that the employees started around 9am.

Try to pick the first movie you see that starts somewhere around the time of scheduled shift change. This way while you are enjoying your flick, a whole new shift of eployees will have started and they are not going to know that you’ve been in the theater for two hours already. If you can plan to have your first movie end after the start of the next shift, its one more way to avoid problems.

When you first go to the theater, its important to try not to attract attention to yourself. This means that you should probably avoid the concession stand. Sure, most employees working at a theater are getting paid next to nothing and could care less if you cheat the theater out of the cost of an overpriced ticket, but chances are, the concession stand is where the manager is probably going to be hovering, and since he’s in the business of making sure his theaters make as much money as possible, he is going to be very alert for anything that might be out of the ordinary. At the very least, he might remember you three or four (or five) hours from now and that could spell trouble.

Part of the idea of keeping a low profile is to blend in as much as possible with the other theater-going lemmings. Don't wear anything flashy. Don't try to stand out and make a fashion statement. Don't wear bright colors or funny shirts. You’re not there to impress people with your keen fashion sense. When it comes to what you are wearing, you don't want to be memorable.

Instead, consider wearing layers. Maybe a jacket or a hoodie, a hat and a pair of sunglasses. If its Summer, wear a second t-shirt. Then between movies, you can easily take off the hoodie, tuck the cap or t-shirt in your pocket and stow the shades. However, don't make it too obvious that you are trying to disguise yourself when you first get there. You don't want to look like a bank robber or a celebrity. Anything that draws unnecessary attention to you should be avoided. Think: suburban camouflage. What is everyone else wearing? Wear the same thing.

On your way to the theater, you'll want to avoid eye contact with as much of the staff as possible. The easiest way to do this is to pull out your cell phone and either act like you are talking or texting someone. Head down, unobtrusive, just another body walking into the auditorium.

You’ve bought your ticket, avoided the concession stand and eye contact with the staff, and are wearing a top layer of clothes as your first costume. The next step is to target the movie you will be jumping into next. On your walk to the first theater, keep your eyes open for whatever theater the next film is playing in. Some theaters have electronic signs over each auditorium that show you which movie is playing and at what time. Make a mental note where your next movie is playing so that when your first film ends, you will already know which way to go.

Once your first film ends, you will want to try to walk out with the largest group of people at the same time. This isn't always possible, depending on how tight the schedule of start times are and what you've picked to see, but again, there is safety in numbers. Some theaters try to offer a level of customer service where they individually thank each patron as they exit the theater. They think this will make you feel more comfortable and want to return. Of course, most people don't choose their movie theater because of customer service, they choose it because it’s the closest theater to their house. So the idea that a 16 year old kid holding a dust pan and broom saying goodbye to you as he impatiently waits to sweep up after you is going to make you feel more welcomed doesn't really fly with most folks. But still, some theaters think this is what sets them apart from the rest. If you time your exit from the theater at the same time 20 other people are exiting, you will be just another head in the crowd. Easily forgotten.

The bathroom is your safe haven. If there is a considerable time between the first movie ending and the second movie starting, the bathroom is the best place to cool your heels for a few minutes. Duck into a stall and hang out. This is a perfect time for a costume change.

When you are done watching movies for the day, try to exit out the side exit of the theater rather than the main entrance. This way you will avoid the chance that anyone will spot you as being there longer than expected. It’s one small way to avoid any potential setbacks.

And there you have it: the easy way to get the most for your movie-watching dollars. Like I said at the start, a lot of this is probably overkill, but the more you prepare and the more you overestimate your opponent, the greater your chances of making a day at the movies very affordable.

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