30 December 02004

Why I'm boycotting Picturehouse Cinemas and the Brixton Ritzy

You can file this under 'disgruntled customers' and 'name & shame', though it's also a case of failure in responsiveness and the breach of trust this creates, as covered in my posting on e-commerce usability.

The story is a simple, one-sided tale that starts with an annoying but modest failure and ends up escalating to farce, as the organisation concerned advertises communication channels but does not respond to any messages sent via these channels.

Lucy and I went to the Ritzy in Brixton last May to see a film, but the first five minutes of it were unintelligible when the film began with the house lights still up, no sound, and projected in the wrong aspect ratio (so the pictures were all 'squidged up'). None of the staff were in the cinema to notice, so a few audience members went out to find them and tell them. By the time the problem was eventually fixed, we had effectively lost the beginning of the film, so again a few people, including me, went out to ask for the film to be restarted. We were told this could not be done (though no explanation was given), but we could apply for a refund at the box office if we wanted to. Having travelled 45 minutes to get to the screening, that didn't seem a very attractive option, so I decided not to miss any more of the film and to take up the issue afterwards.

The next week I went to the Ritzy's web site and found the Contact Us page. I submitted a complaint there and this was acknowledged with a page that said "Thank you for your enquiry, we will get back to you as soon as we can".

Nearly three weeks later I'd heard nothing so I sent a follow-up message including the original and prompting them for the response I'd been promised.

After another full month without response, I gave up on the Ritzy, so I went to the home page of the parent company, Picturehouse Cinemas and clicked the 'email us' link from there. I asked them to let me know how I could get a response from the Ritzy.

When I got no reply to that email, my resolve started to harden in the face of being ignored so stubbornly. That's when I decided to find out if I could notch up ten messages to this organisation — all using their advertised communication channels — and still not get a response.

Six months after the first message, I achieved this dubious feat. None of my email messages 'bounced', and I did not experience any problems with my email (on which I depend for my work) during this period. I include below the tenth message I sent in November, which in turn includes each of the previous messages (so read from the bottom up to see the sequence in normal chronological order).

I hope this makes clear why I'm boycotting Picturehouse Cinemas.

[Update, 6 September 02007: Nearly three years have passed since the series of events and exchanges recorded here. That is long enough for Picturehouse Cinemas to overhaul their communications. Whether they have or not, I can't say. But I have decided to end my boycott. I want to draw a line under this. There are still comments coming in from time to time that seem to be aggrieved by what I did (or didn't do) when my requests for a response went unanswered. I've tried to answer all of those, and I think, after three years, there's been enough time to explore every aspect. This page stands as a record of what happened, but my boycott is over, and I am closing comments on this page.]


Date: Thu, 11 Nov 2004 21:27:32 +0000
To: enquiries@picturehouses.co.uk
From: David Jennings
Subject: Fwd: Trying to get feedback from Ritzy Cinema

Dear Picturehouses,

For the final time, do you care enough about your customers to respond to their dissatisfaction when they contact you about it ten times?

If I receive no reply to this message, I reserve the right to publish the full text, or any excerpt, of the messages I have sent to your organisation over the last six months.

David Jennings

Date: Sun, 17 Oct 2004 19:19:47 +0000
To: enquiries@picturehouses.co.uk
From: David Jennings
Subject: Fwd: Trying to get feedback from Ritzy Cinema

Dear Picturehouses,

For the ninth time, any chance of a response?

David Jennings

Date: Sat, 2 Oct 2004 20:32:47 +0100
To: enquiries@picturehouses.co.uk
From: David Jennings
Subject: Fwd: Trying to get feedback from Ritzy Cinema

Dear Picturehouses,

For the eighth time, any chance of a response?

David Jennings

Date: Fri, 10 Sep 2004 13:43:10 +0100
To: enquiries@picturehouses.co.uk
From: David Jennings
Subject: Fwd: Trying to get feedback from Ritzy Cinema

Dear Picturehouses,

For the seventh time, any chance of a response?

David Jennings

Date: Fri, 27 Aug 2004 13:45:37 +0100
To: enquiries@picturehouses.co.uk
From: David Jennings
Subject: Fwd: Trying to get feedback from Ritzy Cinema

Dear Picturehouses,

For the sixth time, any chance of a response?

David Jennings

Date: Fri, 13 Aug 2004 17:11:18 +0100
To: enquiries@picturehouses.co.uk
From: David Jennings
Subject: Fwd: Trying to get feedback from Ritzy Cinema

Dear Picturehouses,

For the fifth time, any chance of a response?

David Jennings

Date: Mon, 26 Jul 2004 12:07:41 +0100
To: enquiries@picturehouses.co.uk
From: David Jennings
Subject: Fwd: Trying to get feedback from Ritzy Cinema

Dear Picturehouses,

This is getting funny now. Following my three previous messages (copied below) I am writing for the fourth time to your organisation to ask for a response to my complaint.

If you continue to ignore me, I shall continue to write every two weeks until either I get a response or I notch up 10 requests. I will then contact Time Out to see if this constitutes a record among London cinemas for the greatest contempt for customers and their feedback, and invite them to take this into account next time they do a round up of cinemas.

David Jennings

Date: Wed, 30 Jun 2004 12:48:11 +0100
To: enquiries@picturehouses.co.uk
From: David Jennings
Subject: Trying to get feedback from Ritzy Cinema

Dear Picturehouses,

I have sent comments to the Ritzy Cinema twice via the web site (http://www.picturehouses.co.uk/site/cinemas/ritzy/contact-us.htm) on 5 and 25 May - my messages are included below. After submitting these comments the web site said "Thank you for your enquiry, we will get back to you as soon as we can." But no-one has got back to me.

I wonder if you could tell me how I might get a response, please?

Thank you, David Jennings

--- message sent 25 May ---
I sent the following message on 5 May. Your web site promised a response, but I have not heard anything yet?

--- original message follows ---
I just wanted to complain about the 9.20 screening of Shaun of the Dead last Friday, which began with the house lights up, no sound, and projected in the wrong aspect ratio. As a result everyone missed the opening scene of the film. Requests by me and other audience members to restart the film were refused, which strikes me as a disgrace.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Miscellany on 30 December 02004

Dear David,

I'm writing to you from City Screen, who run The Ritzy and other Picturehouse cinemas, with an apology! I'm really sorry that we've failed to contact you so persistently. It's really not the refusal of a faceless corporation to respond to individual customers but simple human error, of which we are ashamed. We are very serious about communication - at the end of the day, a cinema is nothing but its audience - and we're currently engaged in rebuilding our website, updating our email, and redesigning our ticketing system in order to improve our service.

To return to your original complaint: that the problem with the screening was not picked up on rapidly by our staff is a problem which I have brought to the attention of the Ritzy managers. With the rewinding issue, it's true that a film cannot be simply rewound, unfortunately - the strip of film is fed through a central spool and wound again so that it finishes ready to be re-played, and it has to be played through from beginning to end. This isn't something that everyone in the cinema will be fully aware of, as its a technical issue, but they were correct that the film could not be rewound.

I hope this answers some of your queries. We still don't know how your email repeatedly slipped through our nets, but we will be even more careful not to let it happen again.

Please get in touch if I can be any more help.

With all best wishes,


Posted by: Rebekah Polding on 4 February 02005 at 6:06 PM

Liars. I'd bet they were using video format anyway. I would not be satisfied with an apology produced by name and shaming, we should all vote with our feet regardless.
You would expect flakes to be running an arthouse flickhouse in Brixton anyway.
Rhiannon Hill
former chief reporter
Brixton Advertiser 1969.

Posted by: rhiannon scarybirdhill on 6 February 02005 at 10:39 PM

hahaha - you get a really high google hit with yr deserved rant.

ive been using the ritzy for twenty years and have known a bulk of the staff for nigh on ten. hate to say it but rebekah's apology sounds about right. in my experience youve got to take the rough with the smooth with the ritzy. theyre not the most on it organisation and in truth i appreciate the slackness of their efforts, their ahem 'human touch'. i certainly wouldnt trust their IT system to deliver my grevances but then again, i know quite a few of the staff, so id just get stuck in to them instead.

i think you might want to step back from the 'flakes' adjective and vent that ire on organisations who really deserve it: thames water; BT; yr mobile company, the bank; whoever sorts yr broadband (not that i dont disagree with your analysis). but in the scheme of things the arthouse in brixton aint worth it.

i presume yr alluding to the clock of the long now with your dating system - - now thats worth it peace teddave

Posted by: teddave on 13 July 02006 at 4:38 PM

I appreciate your comments, ted, and hope you won't mind if I respond to them each in turn.

I visited the Ritzy several times in 2003-4, and generally had few complaints. I understand what you mean about everyone being human, and we all make mistakes. But customers like to be treated as human too, and when I complained to Ritzy and to Picturehouses, I was repeatedly ignored, when all I sought was the acknowledgement finally provided by Rebekah Polding.

I should say that 8 out of the 10 times I was ignored by Picturehouses head office (enquiries@picturehouses.co.uk), rather than by the Ritzy. So my frustration is directed more at Picturehouses than at the Ritzy. Rebekah's response above remains the only one I have had from them. It seems that 8 messages to them "slipped through our nets" (quoting Rebekah), but when I sent a message to the same address advising them to do a web search, suddenly their nets became very effective. Hmmm.

I once attempted to go to an event at Greenwich Picturehouse. It was a fruitless journey and miserable experience, involving poor event information, location information and ticketing. My boycott of all Picturehouses remains in place. I'm not inciting others to boycott them. I'm simply saying that that's what I'm doing, and why.

The 'flakes' comment was not made by me but by Rhiannon (whom I don't think I have met). I haven't condoned it, but I haven't censored it either (it's only spam advertising comments that I delete).

Yes, I've had some bad experiences too with my bank and Thames Water (I co-founded the company that supplies my broadband, so I find them quite responsive if I ever have to get shirty!). This isn't a clearing house for all my gripes. No one would read that. Picturehouses still stand out among all my customer experiences as the company that have ignored me the most times.

Yes, you're right about the allusion to the Clock of the Long Now. Thanks again. David

Posted by: David Jennings on 13 July 02006 at 6:02 PM

While organisations should not provide comment areas on their sites if they're not going to respond to them, I'm curious about what you imagined would happen as a result of your pressing the "submit" button on their web site, when you had no specific question or demand. If you wanted a response so badly to have dogged them, month after month, allowing your resentment to fester like yeast, why not pick up a phone? The Picturehouse phone number is pretty easy to find. Or was it more pleasing to sit back and wallow in your righteous ire?

Posted by: Tracer Hand on 24 October 02006 at 6:04 PM

Dear Tracer,

What did I imagine would happen as a result my pressing the 'submit' button? Well, the website told me, "we will get back to you as soon as we can", so I expected someone to get back to me.

When a company says you can contact us using this email link, I assume that I can contact them using the link.

I took them at their word. You seem to imply that I was somehow perverse to do this, but surely it would be perverse to assume they were just kidding when they said I could contact them by email, or when they said that they would get back to me.

I promise you I didn't feel any righteous ire and no resentment was festered (I'm not sure where you got that idea from). As I said in my fourth message, I found it funny, and I set out to conduct an experiment to ask the question of Picturehouses: "You could be in danger of shooting yourself in the foot here -- do you really want to do that?"

This page shows the results of that experiment.

Posted by: David Jennings on 25 October 02006 at 12:44 AM

The problem is not exclusively with the London end of the corporation.

The Cameo in Edinburgh, which is part of the same group was up for sale as a go-go bar earlier in 2005, despite the main screen being one of the city's treasures, and this was stopped by a massive grass-roots campaign.

However, the cinema survived. While the main screen is a beautiful room, the same can't be said of the attitude of some of the staff, who are arrogant and rude, and seem to think we have some kind of duty to receive their scorn submissively. Some of the staff are decent enough, but unfortunately the attitude problems extend up into the management.

Posted by: Jennifer Houston on 27 November 02006 at 6:07 PM

I can't believe you persisted in trying to contact them through email. So many companies ignore email. If I hadn't had a response to one email then I'd write a letter or call.

I've always been offered refunds whenever there's been a film issue at the Ritzy. I think it's a great cinema and very good value if you go before midday or to the Orange Wednesdays.

Posted by: Patrick Cain on 31 March 02007 at 8:42 AM

"So many companies ignore email." Really? And these are companies who publicise their email addresses on their web sites and promise a response? Please name them.

As you can see above, Rebekah Polding said my emails "repeatedly slipped through their nets". I wish I could be charitable and believe that -- but you imply, Patrick, that she might be fibbing and Picturehouses might have a widespread practice of ignoring email. You don't seem to find that shocking, but I guess I'm not quite as resigned as you seem to be to the idea that companies might knowingly mislead and ignore their customers -- and then fib about afterwards.

This response was brought to you in association with T-mobile, currently offering a special discount to all commenters on this web site [only joking].

Posted by: David Jennings on 31 March 02007 at 11:49 AM

Since I ususally go to a multiplex and experience the usual non-conducive atmosphere to watching a film, yesterday I decided to try the Greenwich picture house having been told how wonderful it is by a friend. Unfortunately the performances were sold out so we ended up going to our usual multiplex. However I decided that today we would book tickets in advance....

I tried phoning but the lines were busy and I held for 15 minutes before deciding to go online. I have repeatedly tried to book tickets online but apparently they are experiencing some problems with their online bookings.

So I tried phoning again. WHilst phoning I came across Rebeccas documentation of her experience with picture houses albeit at the Ritzy. I am still holding on the phone to book tickets and have been holding now for 27 minutes!!! At this rate I guess I will never get to even step inside a picture house.

Posted by: joy on 28 May 02007 at 11:35 AM

Why didn't you just go down there and sort it out you moron?

Posted by: Ricardo on 6 September 02007 at 9:59 AM

Ricardo, I think I've already answered a similar question (see my comment on 31 March), but just to be clear for you, Brixton Ritzy and Picturehouse Cinemas invited their customers to provide feedback via the web and email. I did not see them inviting customers to any drop-in feedback sessions: turning up unannounced would probably have created more problems for them, since the people in a position to deal with the issue may not have been available at the time. So, firstly, I thought my chances of getting a response were better by pursuing the issue in the way that the cinemas advertised as most convenient for them.

Secondly, travelling to Brixton Ritzy from where I lived at the time would have taken up to an hour each way, and cost almost as much as a new cinema ticket. By comparison, sending the emails took me about 30 minutes in total, and cost me nothing. It just wasn't a big enough deal for me to justify more time and expense.

On balance, then, your suggestion would have been more confrontational, more awkward and time-consuming, more costly, and less likely to lead to a satisfactory result.

Posted by: David Jennings on 6 September 02007 at 11:01 AM