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No Refunds for Ben Stiller…

This is one of those interesting stories from the weekend. And, by interesting, I mean “interesting to me”. Anyway, apparently cinemas in Los Angeles have stuck up notices for Ben Stiller’s new movie Greenberg, stating that they’ve had a huge number of patrons demanding refunds for the film and that they won’t be issuing refunds for those who stay more than an hour. I’m going to presume it isn’t a technical fault occurring at every single screening and it’s just the movie itself which is upsetting patrons. So, do you think it’s fair to demand a refund from the cinema because the movie is a bit crap?

He's got a lot on his mind...

I’m going to be honest. The thought has never crossed my mind. I’ve been impressed and diappointed by screenings, but I’ve never used that as a gauge to determine how much I should be charged. Surely if we can demand a refund for a disappointing movie, we should tip for movies that surpass our expectations?

The way I see it, the cinema provides a service. It screens these films, gives us a place to watch them and provides beverages and refreshments. If any of these were disappointing, I would complain. If my seat were damp, for example, or the projector broke down, or I found a fly in my popcorn, I would complain to the staff. Hell, if a particularly loud parton is interrupting the viewing experience, I would complain. These are factors within the domain of the cinema. And, in fairness to our regular Cineworld, these are factors they are very good at dealing with – they’ve always issued us vouchers without us even having to ask (though my better half does prefer the Screen).

However, the film being shown is not. They don’t produce it, or cast it or write it. It isn’t even like television, where the place where you see it generally has some say in how it is produced. Cinemas simply provide screens for you to watch it and (hopefully) enjoy it. Besides, whether a film is good or bad is inherently subjective. Somewhere there’s a lone voice in the wilderness trumpeting Transformers 2 as the best movie either. Tahnkfully it isn’t a very persuasive voice, but it’s out there.

Besides, I think we all know what’s happening here isn’t a case that people are convinced they’ve seen an objectively inferior product and they blame the cinema. I think they feel like they weren’t sold the product that they eventually ended up with.

Greenberg is splitting critics, although the consensus is generally positive. It isn’t necessarily universally loved, nor is it universally hated. It certainly isn’t as reviled as, say, Transformers 2 or GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra. I assure you a lot less patrons were demanding refunds for those perhaps worse regarded films. I think the issue is that it is advertised as a comedy which stars Ben Stiller. People are paying to see a comedy starring Ben Stiller. And they don’t feel they are getting a Ben Stiller comedy.

The movie is a character piece. It’s slow. It isn’t slapstick. There’s no over-the-top conventionally hilarious moments. And I imagine that a lot of people are treating Ben Stiller’s face on the poster as an advertisement for that sort of film. Imagine expecting to see Zoolander and getting The Squid and the Whale instead. That’s what the audience probably feels like.

And it doesn’t matter that the movie isn’t outright terrible, somehow that disappointment is all the worse because the audience feels they were tricked. If the filmmakers had made the movie they expected, it could have been terrible, but at least it would have been honest. Or at least that’s how the typical Ben Stiller audience feels.

Just because I understand it doesn’t mean that I agree with it, but that would seem to be the only reason I can imagine for a solidly average film to be provoking such a strong reaction from movie-goers. I’m a little worried the reaction is so strong though. Being honest it isn’t as though there weren’t one-million-and-one ways that audience members could have found out about the content of the film. Film criticism may be dying, but you imagine picking up a newspaper or reading a review on-line would have warned them that this wasn’t typical Stiller fare. Generic plot summaries in cinema magazines or on websites should have clued them in. I won’t pretend that “from the acclaimed director of The Squid and the Whale” should have been a giveaway, because what average cinema-goer has heard of that indie classic?

You can argue that reading reviews or websites or magazines (or even asking the staff what the movie is like) would have been in someway spoiling the experience for these movie-goers, but I’m not convinced. The fact that they were expecting “x, y and z” perhaps suggests that they weren’t hoping to go in blind – they’d allowed some factors to sway them into seeing the film and had based their expectations around these factors. The only difference is that assuming the movie is a slapstick comedy because it stars Ben Stiller is a faulty assumption, much more so than assuming a movie is a slapstick comedy because the plot summary told you it was. One is a reasonable base to build an assumption off, the other is not.

Why should a cinema refund you for a faulty assumption? It isn’t that you bought something and it doesn’t look like it does on the outside of the box. It’s that you bought something you thought was metal detector despite the fact the words “YARD TRIMMER” were printed in big bold letters on the box (I use the example because I think the two objects could look similar when photographed for the box, with the long thin handle and round base and such).

That’s just me though. This is coming from a film nerd who enjoys reading reviews and looking up articles and story descriptions. Maybe I’m out of touch. But I don’t think that you deserve a refund because an actor is making a film you wouldn’t expect them to and you didn’t bother looking it up.

17 Responses

  1. Very interesting. Red on our site just posted a review and he absolutely hated it. He mentioned the no refund policy and attributed it to the characters being so unlikable. I absolutely agree that the movie theater should not refund anyone because they disliked the movie though. That’s completely absurd. We live in a society where some individual feel entitled. People will buy clothes, wear them for months and then return them to the store for God’s sake!

    • Really? I always thought that was an urban myth. The cinema can’t guarantee the quality of the material, which is subjective. There’s a reason they don’t put “satisfaction guaranteed” on movie posters.

      • Not an urban myth. That’s very common, at least in the US because of very liberal return policies by most department stores.

      • That’s a little frightening. Sorry to go off topic, but this is fascinating. Can they sell those clothes on again?

  2. good read Dazza. never asked for my money back. wish i had have though after Tim Burton’s Planet Of The Apes

    • Yep. Part of me wants to rewatch that and see if maybe I was too harsh on it at the time – age and experience and all that might mellow me. On the other hand, the man messed with a sci-fi classic and replaced an iconic ending with a monkey Abe Lincoln. If that Abe Lincoln hunted vampires, maybe I’d be interested.

  3. I picked the movie I can’t fault the theatre for that decision. And at least at times it was thought-provoking more than I can say for Hot Tub.

    • Yep, I agree – at the risk of being harsh, it’s your own damn fault if you pick a crap movie. It isn’t like you buy a ticket and the cinema assigns you a random film. I’ve only walked out of a cinema once (that I can recall) and probably should have done it more often, but I would never dream of asking for a refund.

  4. […] character is just too unlikable for this film to get its meaning across. So much in fact, that some theaters had to put up signs stating that refunds won’t be given after the first hour of the movie. I figured that was just people who were disappointed that this […]

  5. Very interesting story! I’d say you’re right, people picked it, because they thought it would be another Stiller slapstick comedy. I’m totally with you, it only takes a few minutes to look up a review or two. If you go into a film completely blind, then it’s your own fault. Seeking a refund? Seriously…

    • Well, the problem is I don’t even think they went in completely blind. I’m speaking with no hard evidence here, but i imagine most of them were expecting a slapstick Ben Stiller comedy. That’s worse than going in blind, that’s going in with tunnel vision. I’ve actually found I enjoy movies more going in blind, with no expectations. But you’re right, it does only take a second to look up a review or read a summary.

  6. […] Factoid #253 7 04 2010 The inspiration for this factoid came from The M0vie Blog reporting that there have been so many people demanding refunds for “Greenberg” that […]

  7. I have asked for my money back. The last time was for the flick Dreamcatcher. I didn’t think the producers even tried to make a decent film and I got my money back. Almost the entire audience went with me that time and we all got our money back. It was at the Grove in Hollywood. I don’t think anyone should have to accept a product of dubious quality if they paid good money for it. I also believe if more people asked for refunds we’d get batter movies.

    As for Greenberg. I knew what I was getting into, but I understand why people asked for a refund. The trailer played up the comedy in the film and while I’m sure people knew it wasn’t a typical Stiller film they probably didn’t expect a lazy, half baked mumble core flick either. I actually thought I was watching bad acting class improv a lot of the time.

    • Maybe you’re right about the “we’d get better movies”, but I doubt it. The same people demanding refunds for Greenberg wouldn’t dream of requesting the same for Transformers 2 or GI Joe or infinitely worse movies. Truth be told, I try to let myself know what I’m for before I go to the cinema and if a movie I really want to see – The Wolfman for instance – gets completely panned, I simply won’t spend my money seeing it. I know it seems harsh, but even if the cinema is only refunding 20% of their own money (and 80% of the distributors), I’ve still taken up a seat in their screening which arguably could have been filled by someone who would have been satisfied by the dross. And, no matter how small the percentage, the cinema hasn’t done anything wrong which would justify me taking back even a euro of their earnings.

      That said, I can see where you’re coming from.

  8. This is awesome, and what a shitty movie. I remember hearing way back in the ’90s about a guy called “The Movie Angel” who would wait outside a theater and give his pocket money to people to who had to sit through crappy movies. That guy needs to make a comeback.

  9. I don’t think that anyone should receive refunds. If you go to a restaurant and try something new and don’t like it, you don’t get to pick another kind of food or get a refund. It’s an annoying sense of entitlement that people seem to have now, though I am amused that people are this revolted by a Ben Stiller movie. Since I’m no fan of his, but even so, people can’t get refunds. It will start an ugly precedent and theaters will find ways to get their money back by upcharging elsewhere.

    • I agree with that – the cinema is providing a service. It doesn’t matter if you don’t eat catfish, you still asked for it and received it.

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