The folks who write about movies, go to movies and give awards to movies look for quality. The folks who sell tickets to movies -- i.e., the theater owners -- deal in dollars and cents, and live in a world where a movie's quality is judged by the number of people who shell out money to see it. No wonder then that the emphasis was squarely on facts and figures at the recent National Association of Theater Owners (NATO) convention in New Orleans.

The figures were mostly downbeat; theater owners think it has been a rotten year, and they blame the Hollywood studios for not making enough good -- "profitable," that is -- movies. (As a result, most studios were far less visible than usual at this gathering.) But some of the facts were intriguing, courtesy of a bunch of polls taken and presented to the NATO attendees by a bunch of speakers.

For example, one poll asked moviegoers what they look for in a film ad. Rex Reed may be disappointed to hear this, but it isn't rave quotes from critics: More than four-fifths of the respondents said the prime factor was starting time.

Another survey, done for NATO by the Opinion Research Corporation, asked how viewers feel about the current rating system, and the system got the highest marks it has received in the 17 years it has been surveyed -- a finding that should help moviemakers in their current drive to quell congressional interest in calling for an additional rating to signify drug abuse.

That survey also asked moviegoers what they look for in a theater. And while good popcorn may be a factor for some of us, in this survey cleanliness won out. Sex and the Teen Movie

If the nation's theater owners are unenthusiastic about 1985's crop of movies, the studios themselves seem more uncertain than ever about the process of film-making. At least, that's one conclusion you can draw from a count assembled by the Hollywood Reporter that says there are two dozen or so films currently in production by the nine biggest Hollywood studios, perhaps the lowest figure in history.

A genre-by-genre breakdown says that the biggest casualty is the teen-age movie, which most studios stopped producing after a few of those films failed this past summer. Of course, that's all subject to change if one teen exploitation film hits it big. And director/writer Philip Koch thinks he has a better idea: He's got a new teen-age sex movie with a twist -- no flesh. "Pink Nights" has a vaguely raunchy title and is about the amorous exploits of two teen-age pals, but in the words of a Daily Variety reviewer, it covers the topic "without baring a single supple thigh." Koch thinks nudity intimidates younger girls and thereby limits the audience. Visions of Things to Come

Theater owners aren't entirely gloomy these days: They're reportedly happy, for example, about a couple of Christmas releases. The Steven Spielberg production of "Young Sherlock Holmes" -- directed by "Diner's" Barry Levinson -- got high marks at recent exhibitor screenings. Apparently, theater owners like its combination of "Gremlins"-style special effects and occasional "Raiders of the Lost Ark" action.

High marks also are reported for the Robert Redford film "Out of Africa" and for Sir Richard Attenborough's film of "A Chorus Line" -- though if the exhibitors were genuinely enthused about the latter film, that makes them more upbeat than Columbia employes at at least one recent screening. Many of them were reportedly unenthusiastic about the straightforward adaptation unless they were already big fans of the stage show.

Not much word yet on the reaction to "Santa Claus: The Movie," the Dudley Moore film about an overzealous elf and a plot to take Christmas out of the hands of St. Nick. If you can't wait until Christmas to find out who wins, though, you can always pick up the comic book: It's already out, and yes, it does give away the ending.