We’re All Grounded: The Impact of a Lack of Trade Shows on the Cinema Business

By | August 28, 2020 1:49 am PDT

I squinted at my phone at 6:00 am on the 12th of March. “Did you see that they cancelled CinemaCon as well as all flights to and from Mainland Europe?” read the text. The news had broken overnight (for those of us outside of the United States) and the email from the show’s Managing Director Mitch Neuhauser and National Association of Theatre Owners head John Fithian had landed in my inbox at 4:30 am confirmed the fact.

It wasn’t unexpected, of course. CinemaCon had almost been the last spring time convention standing for a while, and as festivals and other events fell one by one it was looking increasingly unlikely to happen. What no one was expecting though, with CineAsia also cancelled in December 2019, is that the industry would be devoid of trade shows for what could likely be an 18-month period.

I’m aware that we need to apply a bit of perspective here. With the entire cinema business shuttered for several months and cinemas fighting for survival, a lack of executives decamping to Las Vegas or Barcelona (CineEurope) for a week is the definition of a first-world problem. But for some parts of the industry – vendors in particular – trade shows are an invaluable part of the calendar year. What can be done in the absence of our major trade shows and when they return, will they suit our evolved needs?

For vendors and manufacturers, the trade show format is less about generating sales, but more about first contact with their prospective customers. “In recent years the major trade shows like CineEurope or CinemaCon have been less about generating direct sales – there is some of that but it’s more about product launches and time spent with clients,” Vista’s Managing Director EMEA Mischa Kay explains.

CinemaCon 2019 – there wasn’t a CinemaCon 2020. (photo: Patrick von Sychowski / Celluloid Junkie)

“The conversations that take place at the show with customers provide the foundation for subsequent business opportunities” Michael Archer, Vice President of Worldwide Cinema Sales, Dolby Laboratories adds

CinemaNext’s VP Sales Tim Potter agrees: “Trade shows provide a platform for us to demonstrate new products and services, and get direct feedback from cinema operators on their needs.”

An experiential business requires a physical presence in order to showcase products. “It is impossible to replicate the cinema experience online; you cannot judge the comfort of a recliner or sofa, see the crisp clear picture quality of a laser projector or ‘feel’ the sound from a subwoofer through the window of your laptop,” observes Potter.

If you need to showcase a product, you need to be where customers are en-masse, basically. New technology has even been demonstrated within the conference auditoriums themselves or in neighbouring cinemas, such as the Dolby Atmos presentations in the local Cinesa theatre in Barcelona. It’s also a brand awareness tool. “We leverage trade shows to showcase the Dolby experience,” explains Archer.

“These shows are great for getting our brand out there,” Kay adds.

So how best can you reach your customers when you cannot do so in person? Along with pretty much everything else in 2020, much of the trade show activity transitioned online. CinemaNext even sponsored the CineEurope virtual trade show floor, but Potter admits that by far “the largest and most successful [consumer] reach for us has been direct to cinema operators through our digital communications strategy of (multilingual) webinars, e-newsletters and social activity.”

CinemaCon 2019 – this year Caesar’s Palace was empty. (photo: Patrick von Sychowski / Celluloid Junkie)

Knowing that in-person meetings were off the table, Dolby strategically created the Dolby Studio “virtual broadcast booth” which allows them to demonstrate products, host training and connect with customers whilst also serving as a launch platform for products. “The pandemic has forced everyone to reimagine the trade show experience and how we can create meaningful ways to connect virtually. It’s been exciting to see a lot of momentum around webinars and webcasts and look forward to this serving as a long-term resource for the industry,” comments Archer.

Vista’s Kay is doubtful about the value in online trade shows however welcomes the forum for industry discussion and round table comments. “From a vendor perspective, I don’t think there’s value in running online trade shows. What the CJ team have done with the online CJ Summit every Thursday has been really well received – it’s great to see such active engagement from the community around meaningful topics. Perhaps there should be an in-person CJ Summit in 2021…”

Whilst billed as “trade shows,” the likes of CinemaCon and CineEurope are more than the shop floor. Product presentations are not reserved solely for pieces of equipment, but for studios to run through their upcoming slates, and for seminars on key topics.

One positive to come out of our enforced hiatus is that discussion around industry topical issues is no longer reserved for bi-annual conference seminars. Instead of hearing from a round table of four seasoned trade-show panellists on similar topics, information and best practices are now being shared at an operational level. Cross-industry and cross-territory collaboration has allowed cinemas to share their own re-opening experiences and challenges. The frequency of webinars such as the Comscore and Box Office Company sessions as well as the CJ Cinema Summit (now entering its sixth month) have provided the perfect platform to do this in real-time and remain relevant.

Now that the infrastructure is in place for on-going dialogue on key topics, does the in-person seminar format seem a little redundant? Not entirely, I would say, but it has the perfect opportunity to evolve. “Headline” topics have become day to day discussion points, and there is far more to be gained from workshop style sessions involving a range of cross industry participants.

Trade shows like CineAsia is where Hollywood likes to launch its films. (photo: Patrick von Sychowski / Celluloid Junkie)

As previously mentioned, a key part of the trade show experience which simply cannot be replicated at home, is the slate presentations from studios. For cinema owners and programmers, there is no more efficient use of time than seeing footage from and hearing marketing release plans around the next year’s releases. It’s also a great way for the studios themselves to gauge how a title is going to land with an audience. You pretty much know what you are getting with a Marvel title but as one studio executive told me “it’s the films like ‘Three Billboards’ in your slate that are useful to show to an audience – if that plays well you know you’ve got a hit on your hands and you can adjust accordingly.”

Asked whether, given a lack of events over the year the industry can survive without trade shows going forward, Vista’s Kay notes, “The difficulty here is that we haven’t just not had trade shows this year, we’ve had no cinema business to speak of at all and so it’s difficult to say that, all things being equal, the lack of trade shows would have an impact, it’s just not a fair test.” ShowEast is currently still scheduled for December in Miami, though in a rapidly evolving situation it would come as little surprise if that were to change. It’s already been announced that CineAsia 2020 is taking place online.

However useful online trade shows may be, the most intangible benefit of conferences that is virtually impossible to replicate online is networking. “For me personally, trade shows are also a great way to pick up new ideas – a conversation at the hotel bar that could open up a new business opportunity,” remarks Potter.

Kay’s closing remarks sum this up perfectly: “We’ve learned throughout this crisis is that we can get a lot done via video conference in small groups or individuals but you really start to miss the in-person stuff – I don’t think we’ll be looking to host a Vista beach party via Zoom any time soon. The trade shows and the events that surround them are part of what make the industry so good, because they bring together all of the really great people in this industry and I for one can’t wait for the next opportunity to meet up with colleagues, customers and friends.”

For an industry that takes pride in providing a social out of home experience, it’s not a surprise that a key part of us doing business with one another is social and out of the home. It seems that the trade show format is more integral to the running of our industry than we may have given it credit for, and we may even be guilty of taking it for granted. Like all other parts of our business, COVID should make us question whether there are innovative, more efficient ways of doing things, but for now it seems that the trade show format is here to stay. I can’t wait to re-book my Vegas flights.

The Vista party at CineEurope 2019. Can you spot Sperling? (photo: Patrick von Sychowski / Celluloid Junkie)

Claire Beswick

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