Clarence Fanto: Other options exist to keep food out of cinemas
Fade in: Woman in her 80s has her last bite of a sandwich snatched away from her.
At the least that’s the story line described in a letter published in The Eagle last Thursday.
The scene was the Beacon Cinema in Pittsfield, and the plot is about the way management is handling food brought in by its customers, leaving a critic to wonder: Does this drama deserve a rave review or a severe pan?
But first, let the record show the Beacon and its older sibling, the Triplex (plus one) in Great Barrington, are fine additions to both downtowns, generating considerable economic activity while giving moviegoers a reasonably diverse selection of current fare.
Owner Richard Stanley and Manager John Valente deserve kudos for their diligence and their efforts to run successful ventures in a movie industry facing declining attendance and heightened competition from home and mobile entertainment on big and small screens.
But here’s the rub, to slightly misquote Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Both theaters, in common with nearly all others, restrict "contraband" food and beverages, a policy reviled by many patrons who believe, probably correctly, the ban on outside snacks is designed to pump up business at those vastly overpriced emporiums of junk food and drinks, the dreaded concession stand. It’s not uncommon for a moviegoer to pay more there than the price for admission to the cinema.
Enforcement varies widely -- apparently lax at the thinly staffed 11-screen Regal Cinema in the Berkshire Mall, but too often heavy-handed at the Beacon in particular.
From time to time, outraged patrons have vented their spleen, complaining of searches and seizures at the Pittsfield movie house. In his letter, Karel Rose, a New York City college professor who lives part time in Lenox, complained of what felt like a "personal assault" during a recent Saturday Met Opera in HD screening.
"An arrogant assistant manager who shall remain nameless Š patrolled the aisles searching for any food that was brought into the theater, either in our hands, pockets or handbags. ... Next to me was a woman, in her 80s, taking the last bite out of her sandwich. He demanded what was left, and trembling, she gave it to him."
As Rose told it, "this self-appointed policeman saw a pear in my handbag and insisted that I give it to him. I explained that I would not eat it. He continued to harass me and others in the room."
The professor acknowledged the "marketing value of ‘requesting’ that you buy your food at the theater. But no one can condone a search that violates one’s personal space. (See the U.S. Constitution)."
Vowing to boycott the Beacon, Rose wrote: "Good will and graciousness is what brings so many to the Berkshires. This arrogant behavior mars Pittsfield’s reputation as a place of civility."
During a conversation on Friday, Valente told me he did not dispute the facts presented in the "emotionally charged" letter. He acknowledged that when Stanley returns from Mexico this week, the policy and method of enforcement will be reviewed. "If we think an adjustment is needed, we’ll make it."
Citing personnel issues, Valente declined to say whether the assistant manager on patrol had been reprimanded or otherwise urged to change his ways.
The Beacon/Triplex manager downplayed the notion the policy is based on "a desire to force people to buy from the concession stand."
"We’re responsible for everything consumed on our premises," he said, noting that a few patrons have brought in alcoholic beverages disguised in a water bottle -- the cinema’s liquor license bans outside alcohol.
As for food smuggled in, Valente stated several staff members who suffered allergic reactions to nuts consumed by moviegoers had to visit the hospital.
He blamed the incident at the April 26 opera screening on patrons who chose to ignore the theater’s policy -- "maybe that has the potential to create a situation that might be avoided otherwise."
Valente also observed that Fenway Park, which bars outside refreshments, inspects customers’ belongings -- to which I pointed out the primary reason for that is security.
He complained of a cleanup problem when moviegoers bring in their own food -- I responded that spilled popcorn and sticky soda are commonly spotted on the floor after the film’s final credits roll.
In an effort at conciliation, Valente asserted "we don’t check bags the way we used to. We don’t want to insult anyone, and we talk about these things afterward. We review situations all the time and try to do this in an even-handed manner."
But, he insisted, "this is a very tough issue. Either you have a policy or you don’t. Either you enforce it or you don’t. It’s difficult to have a policy but not enforce it."
Here’s my list of suggestions.
1. Lower the prices at the concession stand to a reasonable level so customers don’t feel gouged.
2. Make healthy snacks such as apples and bananas available. (Valente said an experiment with such offerings at the Triplex yielded low sales.)
3. Ensure staffers treat customers with respect, even if someone is "caught" smuggling in a pear or a power bar.
4. Consider enforcement as a gentle tool of persuasion rather than an intrusive search and seizure. (Valente pointed out any contraband -- my word -- snack that is taken from a customer is returned after the film).
5. Most important: Make the "no outside refreshments" policy a recommendation, rather than a command. The vast majority of customers should comply, especially if they can buy fruit at the concession stand or spend less than five bucks on popcorn.
After I suggested that independent, non-chain cinemas like the Beacon and Triplex are held to a higher standard than the big chain multiplexes, Valente maintained that "we do any number of things to live up to that. We do try to hold ourselves to a higher standard."
To which I say, try harder. Abandon autocratic enforcement, ease a dubious policy and make the movie houses an inviting destination even for those of us who prefer "an apple, a pear, a plum or a cherry, any good thing to make us all merry."
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