On the morning of March 12th of this year, Leon Newnham, the Chief Executive Officer of Vista Cinema, woke up to discover much of his hard work over the past several weeks would be for naught. The growing coronavirus pandemic had caused President Trump to restrict travel from Europe for the next 30 days, which in turn, led to the National Association of Theatre Owners canceling their annual convention, CinemaCon, scheduled to take place in Las Vegas during the last week of March. Since CinemaCon was one of the last major industry events in the United States not to be called off or postponed, its cancellation wasn’t a complete surprise. Still, it meant that all of the anxious planning Newnham and the Vista team had undertaken to prepare for the show, all of the scheduling of meetings at all hours of the day, was all now completely redundant.
Within a week, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti would issue stay-at-home orders for the city just hours before California Governor Gavin Newsom did the same for the entire state. The second largest city in the U.S., so often identified by its ties to automobile traffic and Hollywood, screeched to an abrupt halt. This meant that Vista’s Los Angeles office on the outskirts of Beverly Hills would close; the company’s employees relegated to working from home.
For those that may not have heard of the company, Vista Cinema is the leading enterprise technology provider in the motion picture exhibition industry. Founded and headquartered in Auckland, New Zealand, where much of its product development is conducted, Vista’s software is used by more than half of the cinema operators in the world. It is used to run everything from a theatre’s point of sale at the box office and concession stands, to inventory management, to film booking to facilitating third-party ticket sales and that’s just scratching the surface. Any such system, no matter which company has developed it, allows a cinema to operate at baseline. By mid-March Vista was receiving phone calls and emails from distressed clients asking how they could sell tickets in a way that allowed for reduced auditorium capacity and something called “social distancing,” a virus avoidance concept that was just beginning to become de rigueur, if not (yet) legally mandated.
Whether in Europe, the U.S. or elsewhere, most of the cinema chains Vista works with had voluntarily agreed to limit their auditorium capacity to prevent spread of the coronavirus, at that point dubbed COVID-19. Though not ideal, it was better than having to close due to the virus the way movie theatres in China had. At least that was their thinking early on, for the first few days, before some of the world’s largest cinema chains like AMC, Cinemark, Cineworld, Odeon and Regal began shutting their doors for what they believed would be roughly six weeks. “We didn’t know back then what was going to happen from one day to the next,” Newnham recalled. “At that point we were trying to set some semblance of order among the chaos and help out the cinemas as everything was changing around them.”
Most cinema operators sell showtimes at least a week in advance, so Vista’s first order of business was assisting theatres with all the refund requests they were facing. Within a one week period theatre owners all over the world realized they could not escape a global pandemic and somehow avoid closing down. Rather than helping their customers run their businesses, Vista was suddenly helping them wind down operations for an indefinite period of time in a way that would require very little on-site care and attention. That’s because, in part, without any customers most cinema chains had to furlough staff, which the payroll functionality of Vista’s head office system needed to allow.
“All of that was happening before cinemas closed, compressed into like three or four days. It happened so quickly,” recounted Newnham. “We were taking all of those inquiries ad hoc and helping where we could.”
One way Vista strove to aid cinemas was through the publication of a paper titled “For Your Consideration.” Nobody was certain when movie theatres would be able or allowed to open again, but initial thinking was roughly six weeks. Surely, the thinking went, they’d have to be open by the end of May. After all, Chinese cinemas were already reopening (only to close again just as quickly). Thus, Vista began to think ahead, filling their two page paper with different ideas about what theatre owners could do once they opened their doors again. Everything from raising the awareness of special hygiene and sanitation measures via digital signage to reducing human contact through the use of kiosks and mobile apps were included as suggestions.
It was after the initial flurry of activity, as cinemas went dormant, that Vista’s team went to work in earnest on preparing their product line for an eventual return to business. “We sat down as a team and decided we needed to speak to anybody that would speak to us about what they need to get them in good shape,” said Newnham when we spoke to him in early May. “It was all about understanding what other industries were doing that was being received well, because we’re one of the common threads. There aren’t too many. If you take a look at the various things that unite us as an industry worldwide, other than the film product, Vista is in half of theatres, if you exclude China. So we all agreed that it was our responsibility to arm cinemas with the right technology and they can choose what to use and not use. We want to equip our customers with a really great story about how they’re looking after customers. If anyone was able to influence that, along with the trade bodies, it should be us.”
During this time period, from late March and throughout April, you couldn’t attend one of the many industry webinars being held without someone inevitably asking how Vista was going to help cinemas reopen, especially if social distance seating was mandated. Though representatives could sometimes be seen in attendance, Vista was watching quietly from the sidelines. Or so it seemed, for in the background, Newnham had gathered his team with two objectives. The first was to determine what technology Vista had that could help cinemas restart operations, or which missing pieces of technology could be built by the end of May. Then they needed to put together a package of all the pieces and present it to theatres. This package was soon dubbed the Cinema Reopening Kit.
Vista’s second goal was, as Newnham put it, “to get the Reopening Kit out and give it to as many cinemas as we possibly can to maximize the effect of consumers worldwide feeling like it would be safe to return to cinemas.”
While the company could remove adoption barriers such as licensing costs, because not everyone who uses Vista is on the same version of its software, building the various pieces of technology that went into the Reopening Kit wasn’t as straightforward. Development of new features had to be backwards compatible in a way that wouldn’t require customers on older versions to upgrade. For the most part Vista’s engineers succeeded, with most of the major functionality, such as social distance seating, available on all versions of software. “We basically said, ‘All right, cinemas are in trouble. We want them to reopen. We want them to reopen well. What can we give them to help them do that?’ Simple as that,” said Newnham.
Simple may not be exactly how Vista’s developers would describe the effort it took to deliver all the functionality in the Cinema Reopening Kit in roughly six weeks. With each piece of new technology added or modified within the software the goal was to remove as many touch points and as much human interaction as possible; something that had never been a consideration previously. The hardest code to include in the system was that which allowed for social distanced seating; the ability to space out patrons within an auditorium by two meters (six feet) or more.
“There are many other parties using the code base, third party website developers, ticket aggregators,” explained Newnham. “We knew we had to do this in a way that external systems would not break and would not require redevelopment, otherwise things like their websites wouldn’t go down. To mess around with the seating algorithm, if you think about it, there’s not really any system like it or that takes social distancing into account, and so we had to think through that.”
As well, contact tracing, a concept that, at that point, Newnham (and much of the world) was unfamiliar with, was also baked into Vista’s software. Now, a cinema operator can require a patron sign up for their loyalty program to purchase a ticket. This way, if contact tracers ask an exhibitor for a list of attendees at a specific showtime and location, the cinema will have it on hand through Vista’s system. “Think about it,” he said, “things like kiosks never had any code where you can say everyone needs to be a loyalty member, but we built it and released it so that’s now the case if need be.”
A big part of the Cinema Reopening Kit is something called the Living Ticket, which Newnham described as, “just a really sexy, paperless ticket that allows you to see dynamically where you’re sitting, because we now support the idea of moving guests around for social distanced seating, after a ticket has been purchased, which has got to be very important during this period.”
Of course, what makes the Living Ticket possible, to some degree, is mobile technology, and we all know cinema operators usually aren’t keen on having customers use cell phones in auditoriums. However, now Vista has built in exhibitor-friendly functionality that enables mobile ordering for food and beverage, whether it’s for pickup at a concession stand, inside auditoriums for dine-in cinemas or even outside a multiplex for curbside pickup. Vista worked closely with Megaplex Theatres, Fridley Theatres and Studio Movie Grill to develop the curbside pickup functionality that enabled them to sell popcorn and other concessions outside their cinema premises while they were shut down. This involved implementing the inclusion of a label via a sticky printer to place on completed customer orders.
Even while still putting the Cinema Reopening Kit together Vista’s development team has kept busy paying off the technical debt that accrues over time with the kind of software the company has spent over twenty years building. Plus there are always development projects in the company’s product roadmap that could be addressed. Vista initially released the Reopening Kit the first week of May, helping to answer the many cinema operators who had been asking, “How is Vista going to help us restart our businesses?” Ten weeks later, a lifetime in the COVID-era, we caught up with Newnham to find out how the industry was responding to Vista’s offering.
“One of the things we weren’t sure of when we released the Kit is what shape theatres would be in,” he said. “How would they be seeking to run their business? We had a whole bunch of assumptions. With theatres beginning to reopen across Europe and even in pockets of the United States, like Texas, we were able to see what their challenges were and they were hoping to do. Now, having seen that, we know which elements of the Reopening Kit are important and we know now what’s likely to stick around. It’s much clearer to me and our team, which parts are critical and which parts will be adopted by almost all theatres.”
One of those critical elements that will stick around is social distance seating. “Every theatre chain has picked up that technology and has chosen to adopt it in one way or another,” Newnham said. “Now that won’t stick around long term, but what’s interesting to me is that every theatre chain that we work with has chosen to use it. We’re also seeing a real shift in consumer behavior of not wanting to be in front of a human any longer than they need to right now, probably because of the health focus, but also because of the convenience.”
More and more Newnham believes that what will emerge from the coronavirus shutdown is the ability to drive the theatre experience digitally, letting a more limited staff focus on making patrons feel good about going to the movies. Ultimately Newnham said, “Our main intention was for cinemas to pick this technology up, to help them reopen and that would ultimately create an industry change for the better.”
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