All Quiet at the Movies

Oct. 27, 2008
New surveillance system gets five stars from Muvico Theaters

We have all experienced the ritual. Waiting in line with growing anticipation to buy a ticket. Then shuffling into a second line for popcorn, sodas, candy and snacks. The expectancy grows as friends, families and dates find their seats and chatter about the hype for the latest show. But as the lights dim and larger-than-life figures appear on the “silver screen,” their voices quickly fade to a murmur as they settle in for the story to unfold.

Unfortunately, this momentary escape from the real world doesn't exist for theater managers and owners. They still have to deal with real-world activities…including disturbances in the auditorium, employee theft and the occasional faked slip-and-fall.

Darryl Leversuch is the director of technical services for Muvico Theaters in Fort Lauderdale , Fla. The company owns 13 theaters in Florida , Maryland and Tennessee .

Two of its premier theaters in Florida , the Palace 20 Theatre in Boca Raton and the Paradise Theater in Davie , offer an upscale movie experience. The Palace, which employs about 250 people during peak season, has six balcony theaters, a restaurant and a bar. For about double the price of a standard ticket, customers can enjoy extra-wide seats or love seats, popcorn and valet parking. Customers are also permitted to bring wine and food from the restaurant and bar to their reserved seats, eliminating the need to rush from dinner to the theater only to find that there are not two seats together.

When it came time to address the issues of loss prevention, employee and customer safety, Muvico turned its attention to a CCTV security system.

“Our first systems used videotape, but they were hard to manipulate,” Leversuch says. “The system was cumbersome. When we had a slip-and-fall, we couldn't document it well. The video was too grainy and had too much time lapse.”

Muvico contracted APS 2000 of Boynton Beach , Fla. , to install a new system with digital recorders and higher quality cameras.

“The old security system didn't allow the end-user the flexibility to manage their system,” says Marco Torres, crew supervisor at APS 2000. “It was very difficult to find events, and the picture quality was poor because the camera lenses were too small. We replaced the black-and-white cameras with a variety of color cameras that featured 3.5, 4 and 6 mm lenses. The improvement increased the viewing quality by 60-70 percent.”

APS 2000 replaced the VCRs at the Paradise and the Palace with Dedicated Micros' Digital Sprite 2 16-channel DVRs with 600GB internal storage. Five Digital Sprite 2 units support nearly 80 Samsung, American Dynamics and Speco cameras at the Paradise ; another four units support 64 cameras at the Palace. The DS2A model offers remote log-in and large storage capabilities. Each theater has several Tatung Monitors for onsite monitoring, and Muvico employs staff to physically man the system on weekends. In addition, Leversuch can access any theater remotely from his corporate office in Fort Lauderdale .

“All of the cameras are overt and most are fixed,” Torres says. “The speed domes have advantages and disadvantages. The advantages are that you can pan/tilt/zoom and move the camera wherever you want and see more details. The downside is that if you have moved it and you leave it looking “nowhere,” you can end up watching nothing, unless you have a motion sensor or you have it programmed to return to a specific spot.”

Since the system was upgraded to digital, Leversuch said that more than 90 percent of the slip-and-falls have been determined to be unfounded.

“People pretend to fall,” he says. “I watched one a couple of months ago. Someone spilled a drink, and an usher went to get a ‘Wet Floor' sign so he could clean it up. At first, it looked like a man accidentally fell, but he didn't slip. He just laid down.”

“If you can prevent a single payout from a faked slip-and-fall, you are recouping a lot of your investment of the security system,” Leversuch adds. “It wouldn't be unheard of to have to pay out $50,000 for one faked incident.”

Once Muvico installed CCTV systems in both the Paradise Theater and the Palace Theater, it also saw a significant savings in employee theft. Fifty to 60 percent of the theft at the theaters comes out of the till or because employees were giving away concession items. Theft is down by about 75 percent, and the theater is able to actually catch the people who still try it.

“The day we put in our Dedicated Micros DVRs in Boca Raton , we caught someone taking money from the register in the first hour,” Leversuch says. “APS 2000 was training the staff on the units. They zoomed a camera in on an employee who was stealing. This gave us the tool to focus in on the areas that gave us the most problems. That's a very effective surveillance system.”

Designing a CCTV system for a theater has its own set of challenges. Leversuch offered advice for other theaters looking to install a digital system. First, he said, maintain a broad view of design — know your building physically, but no not rely solely on blueprints. Next, cover as much as you can with no “islands” of unsupervised areas. Islands create a problem. The people who work there have knowledge of the system and where the cameras are not covering.

“When people ‘test' the system and get caught, that sets the example. If they don't get caught, then more people try to steal from you,” Leversuch says. “That's why no area is less important than another. From a storage room to a cash register, they each have an importance.”

Additionally, you should accept that you will always be adding something extra — no matter how good your planning is , you'll find blind spots that require a few more cameras. Finally, use the technology from various types of cameras. Some areas only require a standard camera, while others need a low-light (for inside the auditorium or darker areas) or high-resolution (around money) camera.

“Our high-resolution cameras are so good that we can actually see the denomination of the bills,” Leversuch says. “We can use any distinction — a mark on it, a partial serial number — anything that can differentiate it from another bill.”

At the Palace 20 Theatre in Boca Raton , cameras in the auditorium help curtail the occasional issue of disruptions. When an usher enters the darkened room, they may know the general area of the disturbance, but might not be able to pinpoint it if the trouble has temporarily stopped. On the weekends, they can radio the surveillance person and ask him or her to check a particular area, such as the back five rows, for the last five minutes. The monitor can do a quick scan of the system and tell the usher which moviegoer is the troublemaker.

In addition to having a successful theft and false accident deterrent, Muvico has found a new use for the CCTV system — training new and existing employees.

“One of the benefits of cameras in the concession stand is that we can study how the employees work and use that information as a training tool to show them how to be more efficient,” Leversuch says. “You can show them what works and what doesn't, how they could be filling the drink while they take the order, or how one employee does something with more efficiency than another does.”

Another added benefit has been the ability to maximize the efficiency of customer flow by locating employees to serve customers most efficiently, and to study the cycles of slow and busy times. This efficiency system increases the “per caps” — how much the theater makes on average per customer.

“In our business, lines are bad — if the line is too long, the customer will leave,” Leversuch says. “Because we deal in volume, the more efficient we can make the staff to serve customers, the more we increase our profit.”

Muvico's success has led it to build a new theater in EsteraEstero , Florida , between Fort Meyers and Naples . The theater will deploy Dedicated Micros' NetVu Connected Digital Sprite 16 units with 600 GB to monitor more than 48 cameras.

Because of the success of the digital system, Muvico has designed a capital expenditure over the next two years to retrofit their existing sites as well. “Surveillance systems have almost become a necessity in our business, but it pays for itself in a short amount of time,” Leversuch says. “If you don't put one in, you're losing money.”

Joanne L. Harris is a security marketing consultant. She can be reached at [email protected].