The 6 Things Cinema Owners Need To Do When Movies Return

By Jim Amos | February 16, 2021 6:48 pm PST
Movie Theatre Usher

Let’s start off on a positive note. Slowly but surely cinemas around the world are starting to reopen and there is at least a plan to open those in major cities such as New York, Los Angeles and London. It may not be full capacity starting next week but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Fingers crossed.

Now here’s the tricky part. Once everything reopens, cinema chains will have to confront a new and somewhat scary reality, one that has led even their most fervent customers to consume their content at home, in their sweats with their fingers perched on the remote pause button.

One thing is crystal clear. If theater owners want to lure consumers back to their friendly confines they’ll have to do much more than simply open their doors, wipe off a few seats and wait for the throngs to come flowing in, popcorn in hand.

What cinema owners will need to understand is that in addition to providing a big screen, multimedia experience they will also have to combat an entire mindset change that movie fans have undergone. The past twelve months have seen content consumers simply flip on their Roku to find the latest Hollywood offering and it’s going to take a concerted, well focused effort to bring them back in the cinema fold. Here are six suggestions for cinema owners to do just that.

Remember advertising? Sometime during the early 2010s in the cinema industry that concept went the way of the iPod Shuffle and Riverdance but cinema chains are now up against a new reality, one that features a myriad entertainment choices that consumers might feel they already “paid for” with their monthly streaming subscriptions. It’s vital for cinema chains to remind the general public why coming to the cinema is so special and, while you’re at it, why your particular movie theater is a more pleasurable experience than the guy five miles down the road. Look, you don’t have to buy a Super Bowl ad or a West End billboard but you do have to reach your audience in a way you’re haven’t in ages and that will involve rolling up your marketing sleeves.

The Return of Ushers
I know what you’re thinking, “Wait, did we return to 1978 or something? Ushers?!” Think about it though, exhibitors are going to need extra employees for cleaning and ensuring COVID restrictions are met so it would behoove them to put these workers to use  the show as well, ensuring picture and sound quality along with a quiet environment, free from cell phones. Study after study have shown this to be the number one patron complaint. They will also need to check that moviegoers are sitting where they’re supposed to. COVID distancing restrictions only work if attendees don’t decide to do a walk-about once they enter their respective cinema. Making each patron feel comfortable and, most importantly, feel their USD $12 ticket has paid for a different experience than they would receive at home is imperative. And while we’re at it, would an intro to the film, providing a minute or two of background info, ala a circuit like Arclight, kill you? It might be a refreshing change to display some, dare I say, showmanship.

Hire “Entertainment” Executives
This is more of an organizational suggestion. Over the past twenty years exhibitors have hired C-level execs from either the film industry (duh) or the hospitality or consumer packaged goods (CPG) sectors. If any circuit of note has recently hired someone from an entertainment (non-film) background it has certainly slipped under my radar. Understanding the film business in 2021 means understanding the entertainment business as a whole as it’s no longer just a battle between exhibitors vs. studios, it also now encompasses streaming, pay-per-view (PPV), premium video-on-demand (PVOD) and major studios hell-bent on building their respective streaming services. The studio executives that cinema chains are dealing with are no longer the ones who’ve been at the studio for 20 years, they’re most likely from another division within the studio conglomerate and exhibition executives will need to understand that overall entertainment landscape in order to negotiate effectively.

Add New Film Buyers
The last several years have seen a huge influx of new talent, both in front of and behind the camera and we have the wealth of streaming channels and a commitment to diversity to thank for that. Unfortunately too few circuit film buyers have a handle on the tastes of people under the age of 40, not to mention Gen Z or today’s teens and tweens. It’s questionable how many in the cinema industry could have predicted the success of a series like “Bridgerton,” for example, and what having one of the main stars of that series in a new motion picture means from a box office standpoint. The shift from established box office stars to hot new talent has tipped precipitously in the past few years, thanks largely to a wealth of available content opportunities, and buyers have to keep up. Adding buyers who look and sound like these new stars and reflect the tastes of the audience these talents appeal to is a must.

A Little PR Goes A Long Way
Working in the public relations sector I see first-hand how vital a strong PR campaign is to get the right message out to potential consumers. For the past 12 months the media, those whose focus is the movie industry and also those in the mainstream media, have been fixated on HBO Max, Disney+, Netflix, Apple, and Amazon rather than on cinema circuits, AMC’s recent stock joyride notwithstanding. It’s incumbent upon the industry to shift that focus back onto the unique experience that cinemas provide and how desperately it’s needed for all of us to start toe-dipping into social reconnection. The aforementioned advertising focus can only go so far. The value of hearing stars and directors talk about why the experience of seeing their film on the big screen is so special is priceless.

Innovative Scheduling
The five shows a day, seven days a week schedule for a film is so February 2020. Studios have spent the last year completely disrupting (a word I detest but it’s pertinent here) how films are distributed. Well, cinemas, now it’s your turn. Studio mandates of full shows for at least two weeks went out the window when they decided to make their films available day and date or after 17 days. In an odd way we’ve actually returned to the Wild West in the film business so program your cinema as you see fit.

It would be a tragic mistake if cinema owners around the world started reopening their doors to the current backlog of Hollywood tentpoles only to find that patrons are treated to the same rather lackluster experience they had pre-COVID. The same old, same old isn’t going to work.

What this pandemic has afforded the cinema industry, however, is a chance to shake the Etch-A-Sketch, so to speak, and start anew and provide a moviegoing experience for film fans that too often has felt like that classic quote in 1932’s “Grand Hotel,”

“Always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.”

It’s time to bring the industry into this brave new world.

Jim Amos
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