Filmgrail: Doubling Cinema Audience Engagement

By Helen Budge | March 29, 2021 7:54 am PDT
Filmgrail is a Norwegian company, approaching customer engagement in a unique, results-driven way

If you’re a cinema exhibitor then depending on where you are in the world you’ve probably had a year of this COVID-19 “nonsense” (for want of a better swear word) keeping your cinema closed. But there is now light at the end of a very long tunnel. In planning your eventual – and hopefully final – reopening you’re having to take many factors into consideration, not least that there will be a degree of reinventing and adapting your business to the vastly different landscape of 2019, early 2020. But one of these considerations is the all-important question: how do you re-engage old customers and, indeed, engage new ones?

Enter Filmgrail, the company that’s quietly been combining data and technology to reinvent the cinema-customer relationship.

In founder Simon Souyris Strumse’s own words, “At its core, Filmgrail develops bespoke, branded apps and websites to engage with specific audiences, customised to the needs of any cinema and powered by a sophisticated marketing automation engine. These core products can be integrated with all major point of sale (POS) systems, payment providers and other tools currently in use by movie theatres.”

Movies – But Not Cinemas
Strumse’s love of movies originally saw Filmgrail begin life as a streaming website and app. Indexing every available on-demand service in its native Norway (HBO Go, YouTube, Netflix etc.), the company brought their catalogues together into one interface. With 500 data points for 5000 films helping to build their recommendation engine they then progressed, over the course of the first three years, to an exploration of 30,000 movies – and investigating the best ways of helping people find the right film for them. These early years truly proved to be formative for the company as the team learned the power of integrated cues, social discovery of video and user engagement by tracking reviews, friends’ opinions, likes and comments.

After building one of the largest film communities in Norway with over 100,000 users and after the addition of cinema showtimes to Filmgrail’s interface, a natural move was to start talking to cinema operators. And Strumse quickly realised that exhibitors were missing a trick.

Five years ago or so, a cinema’s website function would be to just sell tickets. And if customers were only buying a ticket, watching the film and then heading home without any additional interaction the problem lay in the costly – and difficult – exercise of re-engaging them. It was often necessary to pay a third party platform like YouTube or Instagram to recapture their attention and reel them back in. But in the meantime the valuable constant dialogue with guests in between cinema visits was lost.

So Filmgrail created a much more fleshed out digital customer journey, specifically to drive social engagement for cinemas. Looking to the example of tech giants like Facebook and their own past experiences with streaming, Filmgrail started pushing relevant notifications out to users and, in doing so, creating audience interest for upcoming movies. And users began to regularly connect with the content, which in turn opened up channels of constant communication between cinemas and their communities – even with those customers who hadn’t been to the cinema to watch a film in a while. Through data tracking and smart recommendations Filmgrail has seen 38 percent of monthly active users return every day (NB: anything over 20 percent in the industry is considered impressive).

Strumse said, “Our mission is ultimately to help cinemas thrive, which is the vision behind our products. The apps and features we create are just tools to facilitate an intimate dynamic between cinemas and moviegoers. We’re helping movie theatres to build a similar relationship with their customer base in the same way Netflix, Instagram or other modern tech companies do.”

Simon Souyris-Strumse (credit: Filmgrail)
Simon Souyris-Strumse (credit: Filmgrail)

Bergen Kino, Norway
Almost five years ago now Filmgrail launched their first cinema app for Bergen Kino, one of Norway’s largest cinemas and it was an instant hit. So what was it about the app that made it so successful with Bergen Kino’s audience?

Other bespoke apps engaged in push marketing aren’t cheap to create and the non-targeted content they send out can have an adverse effect, actually resulting in alienating customers. Filmgrail, however, learned the power of asking the right questions at the right time and taking all their cues from their users so their communications don’t present as intrusive but instead feel helpful. They’ve even found that customers become frustrated when they haven’t had a Filmgrail reminder or notification arrive, as users often come to rely on them.

Daniel Eikelund, Head of Sales and Customer Service for Bergen Kinos, said of their experience with Filmgrail’s products, “We’re very happy with the results [from the app] which has boosted our digital sales by 10-15 percent. Our customers are much more engaged with us and we’ve had really positive feedback, especially from our younger users who prefer it greatly to our old website.”

Achieving Bergen Kino’s goal of increased online sales means that customers can then be marketed to in a personalised way. Once a customer has converted to purchasing tickets via a mobile app they’ll use it almost exclusively over website ticketing. Indeed, Filmgrail has seen their app sell twice as many tickets as a cinema’s own website. And this success is reflected in Filmgrail’s high app adoption rate – almost nine out of ten people who have downloaded the Filmgrail app log into it.

Bergen Kino (credit: Bergen Kino / Filmgrail)
Bergen Kino (credit: Bergen Kino / Filmgrail)

Wanting a Website
The success of their mobiles products has been such that clients are now approaching Filmgrail requesting to have the app experience replicated for their websites, so much so that they made the decision to shutter the streaming side of the original business. Strumse said of this move, “Our goal is now to unify and streamline the whole experience for our cinema clients, to have all the features built in the most efficient way on both a website and an app. And if a client requests a website or an app we’ll simultaneously create the other for them at close to no additional cost.”

Ultimately, the vision is to create and make available the technological architecture so that the most advanced, premium technology is accessible to all sizes of cinema – particularly small and medium operators – and not only to those with deep pockets. And because of the ever-changing tech landscape, Filmgrail’s development team will continue to constantly update products indefinitely, to ensure cinemas can keep up with the rest of the fast-paced digital world.

The pandemic has, however, meant that the team has been working closely with their existing clients to see how their needs have and will change, post-COVID-19. One focus has been helping clients to automate certain functionalities that can be integrated into the Filmgrail dashboard, reducing the needed manpower to carry out particular tasks. Overall workload is then reduced making a post-COVID bounce back easier.

Building Cinema Brand Loyalty
As Filmgrail has observed, brand loyalty starts long before a customer signs up to a moviegoing subscription programme. In actual fact it starts with creating a user experience that people love to use.

“We all have particular apps that we prefer to use, even subconsciously,” Strumse said. “If an app opens even one second quicker than a competitor’s it creates a psychological benefit in the mind of the user that will make people use it more often. Especially in situations where you only have a few minutes to check something on your phone, like when you’re on the bus, or even the toilet (!), speed and efficiency is everything.”

Recognising the need for these every day, streamlined functions – especially from an operating perspective – the Filmgrail team has created its new jewel in the crown: Activate. A new marketing automation product, Activate is tailored specifically to the cinema industry, and is a tool designed to take advantage of the huge wealth of data amassed by operators that may not, until now, have been fully utilised.

At both an aggregate level and a one-to-one customer level, Activate gives a full overview of the moviegoer journey and enables operators to talk to every customer in a hyper-personalised way.

The data that Activate tracks – views, likes, watchlists – can be used to ensure tailored content, offers and incentives are delivered at the right time. Simply put, Activate helps cinemas to specifically locate the right audience for the right film thereby “activating” the right customer base. And because of its automated function, all contacts in the database will be marketed to but without increasing the workload of cinema staff.

So, for the current, seemingly overwhelming task of clawing back the last, lost 12 months, Filmgrail has an arsenal of tools and a proven track record, ready to continue the good fight for existing and new clients alike.

After all, in a post-COVID world where exhibitors’ main challenge is to convince folks to leave the sofa and venture out into the “new world,” capturing their attention is only half the battle – keeping it is the other half.

And, of course, there are other successful, commercial solutions out there: Vista and Influx to name but two. And in-house development is becoming more common as companies decide how to approach their customer engagement and retention. But their unique methodology and interactive approach might just position them as close to being the Holy (Film)Grail.

NB: Filmgrail is Celluloid Junkie’s partner in the #CJCinemaSummit (alongside The Big Picture) and we happily admit to accepting their funky freebie socks (but they’re also genuinely doing cool things).

Helen Budge