I went to see a movie, and instead I saw the future

A few days ago my wife and I went to see Uncut Gems at a Regal theater in Chicago.

We booked our ticket online, reserved our seats, showed up 15 minutes ahead of time, and settled in.

After the coil of previews, and jaunty, animated ads for sugary snacks, the movie started.

About 20 minutes in, a loud, irritating buzzing started coming from one corner of the theater. No one was sure what to make of it. Was it part of the movie? We all just let it go.

But it didn’t stop. Something was wrong with the audio. It was dark, so you couldn’t see, but you could sense people wondering what happens now. Was someone from the theater company going to come in? Did they even know? Is there anyone up in the booth watching? Did we have to get someone?

We sent a search party. A few people stood up and walked out to go get help. The empty hallways were cavernous, no one in sight.

Eventually someone found someone from the staff to report the issue. Then they came back into the theater to settle in and keep watching the movie.

No one from the theater came into the theater to explain what was going on. The sound continued for about 10 more minutes until the screen abruptly went black. Nothingness. At least the sound was gone.

Again, no one from the theater company came in to say what was going on. We were all on our own.

The nervous, respectfully quiet giggle chatter started. Now what?

A few minutes later, the movie started again. From the beginning. No warning. Were they going to jump forward to right before they cut it off? Or were we going to have to watch the same 25 minutes again?

No one from the theater company appeared, no one said anything. The cost of the ticket apparently doesn’t include being in the loop.

Eventually people started walking out. My wife and I included.

As we walked out into the bright hallway, we squinted and noticed a small congregation of people way at the end of the hall. It felt like finally spotting land after having been at sea for awhile

We walked up. There were about eight of us, and two of them. They worked here. We asked what was going on, they didn’t know. They didn’t know how to fix the sound, there was no technical staff on duty, and all they could think of was to restart that movie to see if that fixed it.

We asked if they were planning on telling the people in the theater what was going on. It never occurred to them. They dealt with movies, they didn’t deal with people.

We asked for a refund. They pointed us to the box office. We went there and asked for a refund. The guy told us no problem, but he didn’t have the power to do that. So he called for a manager. The call echoed. Everyone looked around.

Finally a manager came over. We asked for a refund, he said he could do that. We told him we purchased the tickets through Fandango, which complicated things. Dozens of people lined up behind us. The refund process took a few minutes.

Never a sorry from anyone. Never even an acknowledgment that what happened wasn’t supposed to happen. Not even a comforting “gosh, that’s never happened before” lie. It was all purely transactional. From the tickets themselves, to the problem at hand, to the refund process. Humanity nowhere.

We left feeling sorry for the whole thing. The people who worked at the theater weren’t trained to know how to deal with the problem. They probably weren’t empowered to do anything about it anyway. The technical staff apparently doesn’t work on the premises. The guy at the box office wanted to help, but wasn’t granted the power to do anything. And the manager, who was last in the line of misery, to have to manually, and slowly, process dozens of refunds on his own. No smiles entered the picture.

This is the future, I’m afraid. A future that plans on everything going right so no one has to think about what happens when things go wrong. Because computers don’t make mistakes. An automated future where no one actually knows how things work. A future where people are so far removed from the process that they stand around powerless, unable to take the reigns. A future where people don’t remember how to help one another in person. A future where corporations are so obsessed with efficiency, that it doesn’t make sense to staff a theater with technical help because things only go wrong sometimes. A future with a friendlier past.

I even imagine an executive somewhere looking down on the situation saying “That was well handled. Something went wrong, people told us, someone tried to restart it, it didn’t work. People got their refunds. What’s the problem?” If you don’t know, you’ll never know.

48 thoughts on “I went to see a movie, and instead I saw the future

  1. @Jason, it’s really starting to look like the movie Idiocracy (2006) is slowly becoming some sort of prequel/documentary.

    1. I’d say this looks even more like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. “Mistakes? We don’t make mistakes.”

    2. Wall-E also comes to mind.

      I see this all over various industries. It’s relentless cost cutting. Tesla is another example. People love the cars, but by all reports, what used to be a strength at Tesla (customer service) is now a weakness.

    3. That was the FIRST thing that came to mind while reading this blog post and I was about to make the same comment. That movie was supposed to be a parody and sadly it’s looking more and more to be a prophecy.

  2. Customer service (or even customer service theater, for that matter) is dead in so many places these days.

    Idiocracy is THE best. And, yes, I worry it is a documentary from the future.

  3. Something similar happened a few months back, people have become so far removed from each other.

    I tried to have a chat with the lady at a fast food window whilst waiting to move forward, all I got was one word responses.

    We have become so obsessed with efficiency and profit we have omitted empathy and what it means to live in a world surrounded by amazing interesting human beings.

    1. @Ruberto Don’t fault the likely exhausted and minimum wage fast food worker for this—corporate might restrict customer interactions in the name of efficiency and probably monitors every little thing she does and the timing of her little “cog-in-the-wheel” step in the whole soul-crushing process. Aside from that, she’s probably working multiple low-wage jobs, but even if just that one, how chipper would you be at the end of yet another long and tedious shift and yet another day at a corporate fast food establishment with a drive-through window. Maybe if she was paid decently, or treated with some
      autonomy or respect by management you might expect a little more life, but when the job you need to (just barely) survive reduces you to just another easily replaceable automaton, we shouldn’t be surprised that that’s what we get.

  4. It’s like Wall-E from Pixar. A future where everything is so automatized that people even loose the use of their legs, don’t even mention sentiments like empathy. The entire humanity on a starship that goes nowhere, guided by an IA that makes sure people doesn’t get their power back (for their own sake). A pretty dark movie now that I think about it.

  5. I’m with you, but taking the efficiency model to it’s logical conclusion, I wonder if turning you and everyone else who was there into bad word of mouth gets factored in at some point?
    In their fight to get prospective patrons off their couches may wit will clue in that experience is matters.

    1. I don’t think so. Bookstores are still around (though rarer) despite Amazon. There is a difference between disappearing completely and scaling back into more of a boutique nature. I would love if theaters became charming, local businesses again, like most bookstores have.

    2. That’s supposed to mean something? Like “look at them using this antiquated service”?

      People who care for movies go to the movie theater. People who care for TV watch movies on Netflix at home.

  6. I must be missing something… this seems like a decent solution to the problem these days… I’m surprised you wrote an article about it TBH. In a way, this is the future, privileged people writing articles about their subpar customer service experience and it becoming popular content… and people like me critiquing it…

    1. > this seems like a decent solution to the problem these days…

      That this is “a decent solution” (…) “these days” is the problem.

      And it has nothing to do with “privilege” (a word used for anything and everything these days, meaning little).

      Well up into the 90s, blue collar and middle class families going to the theater, would expect, demand, and ultimately have a better service than the one described here.

      This is not about some upper middle class isolated diva person finding it out that their latte art is not exactly right.

  7. I’m ok with automated future if that reduced the cost down more. If they eliminated all people and made it all automatic. Also no ads! Then let the markets decide. Public reviews of their reliability would be enough to make a decision. Sure something can wrong sometimes, but if I’m paying $5 and can get a refund as easily as Uber, then I don’t have as much issue. We can still have a smaller number of “full service” theatres that charge $40, and provide a luxurious experience. It’s the middle tier that sucks.

    1. But Uber isn’t fully automated. Those are actual humans that are driving you places, and if you get a refund you’re generally also getting your driver fired. But the process is so opaque you probably don’t realize that you’re costing someone their job over $5.

  8. Jason, I watch such movies after every few months while dealing with my bank’s online service, our Internet or phone service provider, the TV streaming service provider, or sometimes with my office supplies vendor in the city. They are all the same, all are heroes, working on similar scripts, on the same stage, for the same kind of audiences, and seeking the same rewards.

    And people like you and me and many others are trying to find success stories that make sense. Who cares?

  9. One side effect of this is boutique cinemas where essentially you pay more to get what you used to get, ie a decent experience.

    The promise that tech brings with it never materialises, instead it just becomes cheaper to offer a minimal service and fewer get rich off the back of it.

  10. What about a cinema theater that does not belong to a massive chain? My feeling is that they have way more character than sugar loaded warehouses.

  11. It’s great when our efforts lead to reduce mistakes/errors to the minimum.

    The problem is that when errors are less frequent, less important is to asign budget and efforts in being ready for those “unique” occassions when things can go wrong.

    It’s kind of a paradox..

    How do we develop a strategy where our people can perform at their best, be helpful and kind, by teaching them in an environment where there are not many occassions for practicing.. which is also great?! hahaha my brain is going to explode haha

  12. Many times have I followed this same thought path about our dystopian future of customer disservice. I suppose the answer is, more niche opportunities will arise for things that are popular enough to absorb the niche potential, and things that do not follow the supply/demand curve for niche potential will be assigned to oblivion. I recently had the revelation that it’s not the self-checkout counter that has a problem with me, it’s me that doesn’t know the protocol to adapt to the limiting scope of the self-checkout counter. So I started ringing up my 5-gallon water refill as 5 1-gallon water refills, and my robotic overlords are now pleased, and will let me continue on with my day.

  13. I think some commenters are paying too much attention to the particular situation and ignoring the writers conclusions/reflections, which seem to ring true in my mind.
    Going to the whole customer service issue, I’ve seen this in my own industry, where everyone expects prices to remain the same or go down, while quality remains the same or improves. I think if you want these customer service things, cost of entry has to go up. If you want the price to remain the same, or quality of product to go up, expect the price to keep going up.

    1. Not just the cost of entry. There are many businesses that are increasing their margins by cutting staff and expecting technology to keep the product the same, all while increasing cost to the consumer. It’s the “run lean” concept gone amok. I spend a lot of my time traveling outside of the US and the gap in service is very noticeable when I come back. Other countries pay higher wages to their front-line staff, have enough staff to provide good customer service without getting burned out, and still remain profitable enough to continue.

  14. Jason, the exec perspective seems not only plausible but practical, especially if this experience doesn’t prevent you from buying tickets there again. Why should they prioritize customer service if it’s not essential to winning your sale, right?

    Guessing you care enough about this that this theater is now #cancelled for you, but wonder if you’re the anomaly. It really does seem like retail culture these days is driven by consumers who care more about convenience than principle.

    1. I’m not into #cancelling. I’ll visit the theater again and hope it’s better next time. But this post wasn’t really about this specific theater – it’s about a broader experience.

  15. Digital and automated or not, in the end it is about the service we receive from companies. And if that service sucks, we will think twice of using that service again.
    I personally believe that automation and digital technology should be in function of building close relationships with customers, at scale. and that will only work out positively if you offer stellar service. In all other cases, it feels as if you are fighting against a machine.

  16. I see this (automation of customer service) more and more, especially in services that are totally digital. It is so frustrating to me when the responses are either non-existant or feel as if the person replying did not read my message. At least in the real world, it is harder for them to ignore you as you are standing in front of them.

    The human layer in your process is going to more expensive and harder to automate than you think.

  17. While I haven’t had a glitched experience at a theatre, like that one, recently, I have had two similar experiences in terms of “where are the people”.

    One was at a CMX. First, having gotten there early, for a just-after-dinner-time weekday show, the place was devoid not merely of staff (who were on a skeleton crew it seemed) but customers. The specific theatre I was in eventually filled up with people, but the pre-show experience was eerie. I’m also reasonably sure that I could have walked in and just taken a seat in an empty theatre and unless it was a seat someone else was eventually going to take (reserved seats) nobody would have ever even asked for a ticket.

    The other was at a Showplace ICON, where the box office had no staff at all, any more. All the staff positions were replaced by kiosk screens. Now, I’d pre-bought my tickets anyway, and rarely interact with box-office any more, but it was still odd, to me, and definitely showed the future the executives prefer: one with as few people in it as possible.

    I do like seeing certain films in a theatre, but I’m increasingly thinking I should just upgrade my home equipment to 4k and call it done.

  18. We built monstrously complex “machines” for the sake of scale and efficiency, but when those machines fail — cancelled flights due to a storm over an airport, a glitch, an automated flag, a faulty projector — we are, all, powerless. And we are all a little responsible for allowing this drift. When we chose quantity over quality, an email instead of a phone call, a notification instead of a conversation, an app instead of humans.

  19. I love your writing, Jason, and on this post I was waiting for the part where you outline the opportunity this future presents. Maybe it was inherent in there for us to figure out on our own (in which case, thank you for that level of trust in your readership), but man did I feel down by the end.

    What’s GREAT about this situation is that there is a huge opportunity to do the thing that can’t be scaled or automated – human connection. Understanding needs and meeting them before they need to be met. Expanding your skillset outside of what your job description asks of you and becoming a linchpin.

    There are so many opportunities and lessons in this story if we’re willing to see them and do the hard work to make changes to our interactions with people, to the way we run our companies, and the way we work.

    Thanks for helping remind me of all of these things today 🙂

  20. Just a thought.

    Jason, your time is pretty valuable. And as a pretty wealthy person, why to even wait for a refund? Why to wait and waste lets say 20min of your and your wife time.

    We have: value of 20min unpleasant, kind of stressful time vs. ticket price

    I agree, that you deserve the refund, 100%. It is also worth to show, that customers were treated badly and push cinema to take some actions and fix things. But there was a whole line of people, who were able to send the message for you.

    Basically my questions are: What is your way of thinking here? How do you deal with those kind of situations?

    Do you think, let’s say, an hour of my time is X$, so I’m not going to waste it for stuff i don’t enjoy? Or you are more ‘justice is more important’ type of person?

    1. We were first in line for a refund so it was no big deal. If there was a long line for refunds I’d have just walked out. It’s not about justice, it’s about context. I paid for the movie, which we couldn’t see, and getting a refund was fairly quick. That felt fair. But no I wouldn’t have waited in line for 5-10 minutes for a refund.

  21. This reminds me of my Grandpa. He was a businessman and a farmer. Which is quite the combination when you think about it. He owned and operated a truck farm outside of Portland, Oregon before it was a cool thing to do. His peach orchard was the largest u-pick peach orchard in the state at one time. He didn’t grow into that by offering poor service to his peach customers. He would meet customers at the gate an hour before opening to let them get an early start. He would stay an hour or two after closing to often helping those customers pick their u-pick peaches. When a problem occurred with a customer he would listen and reassure the customer that the problem would be fixed. He treated his customers with the honor and respect they deserved because they were people and his customers.

    He always had customers, and they always returned year after year after year.

  22. I don’t know if you saw the future … so much as simply a dying industry. Movie theaters aggressively pushed up prices to where home theater became a substitute.
    Demand dropped. Pressure is now on costs so staffs are trimmed. It’s a downward spiral. Have you walked into a Sears lately? Or before that a Toys R Us? Terrible consumer experiences – but I don’t think either is more broadly representative of the future of retail. Simply poorly run companies.

  23. This translates so well how errors in consumer apps or services are handled nowadays. Either it works or you get a “whoops, something went wrong. try again later”. No proper error messages, no error codes no troubleshooting. Just wait (and sit in the dark) and try again later. Opening a support ticket is usually greeted with an automated response a la “demand is a little high right now, so it will take longer …” which means customer service is understaffed and the problem will solve itself before you get an answer.

  24. Sorry to hear about your terrible experience. What a beating! Do you have Alamo Drafthouse in Chicago? We have them here in Texas and they are absolutely wonderfully run. Friendly, intelligent, competent and well-trained individuals work there. Judging by our consistently excellent experience they do know how to deal with people.

  25. Loved this article! We all know what it feels like to be in these types of customer service situations.

    I work for a coffee company called Cat & Cloud, and in our cafes we have a concept called “Power to Please.” It means that if a guest is having a shitty experience, whether or not it was due to a mistake we made or not, we give our baristas the power to make sure that guest is satisfied – no matter the cost, no questions asked.

    Typically, this ends up resulting in a free drink or a gift card for their next experience with us, but it always leaves our guests smiling!

    Sounds like the folks at Regal haven’t hear of the concept of Power to Please!

  26. I know you’re trying to make a general point but I’d bet dollars to donuts this was the Regal City North theater on Western Avenue. I had a similar awful experience months back and it was the last straw for me with them.

    It’s fascinating to me that when so many theaters are moving to upscale experiences with dining and cocktails that this particular chain seems to be doubling down on the “hands off” experience and shirtking of responsibility.

    It’s my hope that the regular dolling out of refunds and free tickets that they need to give out for these things proves from an economic standpoint that this model of operation is a failure and leads to change, but I also fear that this could be the future.

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