Industry Execs Express Cautious Optimism for 2024 at UKCA Conference

By J. Sperling Reich | March 15, 2024 5:58 am PDT
Executive Roundtable panel at the 2024 UK Cinema Association Annual conference

One of the more informative sessions at the UK Cinema Association’s annual conference held in London at the BFI Southbank, March 5-6th, was an executive roundtable moderated by Sharon Reid of Cinema First, an industry body that promotes cinema going in the United Kingdom. It left everyone present with a feeling of “cautious optimism” about the cinema business for the remainder of 2024 and into 2025.

Joining Reid was a panel that consisted of Stuart Crane (Vice President of Film, Cineworld Group), James Collington (Savoy Cinemas), Shona Gold (Executive Director of Brand, Marketing & Communication, Vue International), Nick Rush (Head of Theatrical Distribution – Europe and the Middle East, Walt Disney Company), and Toby Tennant (Vice President of EMEA – Regional Distribution, Warner Bros. Pictures).

The UKCA kindly asked us not to attribute quotes from the session to any particular panelist. This is mentioned not to call out the organization. Actually, the UKCA was rightly being forward-thinking; given the egg shells, thin ice, etc. executives from public companies in our industry so often walk these days, they wanted to allow participants to comment freely without fearing the wrath of corporate or government overlords. They needn’t have been worried, however, since everyone on stage was exceedingly professional and provided thoughtful, in-depth answers to some of the pointed questions asked by Reid and conference attendees.

The one item we will attribute to one of the panelists was actually a message being relayed by Rush from Disney. A day earlier Disney CE, Bob Iger, made some comments during the annual Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference about “killing projects” at the studio which were clearly aimed at Wall Street. Rush wanted to make clear that Iger was not referencing abandoning films or titles that were already on the theatrical release schedule, but rather those that were in various stages of development. It wasn’t the first time Iger has made such statements, all of which have been designed to assure investors that someone responsible was minding the store back in Hollywood.

In introducing the panel Phil Clapp, the Chief Executive of the UKCA, mentioned that certain issues, such as release windows, would not be raised during the session, which almost guarantees that one of the panelists will inevitably raise such a topic themselves. That’s exactly what happened when one of the studio executives stated that, though their company had been playing up their streaming service during the pandemic, a clear “change of strategy” had occured over the past 18 months. “We are only really interested in making theatrical quality movies for a theatrical exhibition,” he said. “I think that’s an important change and I think it’s been a consistently projected one; the importance of a robust theatrical window. That’s the main message I would want to convey is that there is absolutely no value in us doing anything to jeopardize that first window, because it is a crucial driver of value. For us, it’s an essential means of delivering that sort of cut through commercially and authentically in every sense for the benefit of the downstream media.”

Both studio executives reported that distribution strategies, especially when it comes to release windows, aren’t made without the input of the theatrical teams. “Where we are right now and for the last 15 months, we’ve been clearly committed to theatrical windows,” said the other distributor on the panel. “Windows are discussed very closely with our downstream content partners. It’s an open discussion. We have a seat at the table and drive that conversation from a theatrical perspective, we do have an exclusive approach to theatrical.”

That those quotes could have been said by either of the studio executives at the roundtable discussion is telling about the state of the industry. Both distributors agreed that audiences have come to believe that theatrical releases are on streaming services within 30 to 45 days when, in a post-pandemic market, that is not true. “I guess we need to do more to double down on the messaging that whilst the streaming service will come at some point, it’s not that immediate,” said one studio exec.

From an exhibition point of view, one executive said of windows, “It’s definitely not a one size fits all. But the fact is that movies will make more money with a larger window. That’s just a fact. And we’re obviously working with our partners in distribution to make sure that we get to a point where we’re all happy with what that ends up being. I think the conversations are happening now, rather than in the past where maybe they weren’t. We’re getting to a better place.”

Another key subject that came up several times during the UKCA conference and definitely during the executive roundtable was that of slate awareness. Exhibitors are reportedly having a difficult time making moviegoers aware of which films are opening in cinemas and when. The theatre operators on the panel were quick to point out that digital marketing is now an integral part of their marketing mix to drive awareness. They highlighted how partnering with distributors on social media posts has helped drive engagement on their campaigns. However, they warned about filling up audiences’ feeds with only posters and trailers. “I think Netflix is actually really good at doing this,” said one exhibitor. “Particularly on social media, they release a lot of behind the scenes footage, early access footage, and memes and GIFs. And it just gets people super, super excited.”

One theatre operator suggested customizing marketing campaigns to specific geographic locations. “Over the last year, local marketing has played a much larger role for us, going out into the local communities and trying to get more involved,” they said. “With foreign language [titles], distributors work with us to go into the local communities, and define certain catchment areas, to make sure we are hitting everyone in the right area.”

For their part studios wanted everyone to know that they are indeed heavily marketing upcoming releases, despite rumours and anecdotal evidence to the contrary. “I think it’s a lot of this is a question of perception versus reality,” said a distributor about not seeing advertising for a specific title. “Where are you looking? Because I think it does entirely depend on the audience, often you will find that if it’s not a bus shelter on their way to work, then that’s sort of indicative of the campaign we’re seeking to run. But we are spending as much, if not more than ever, given the inflation.”

One studio executive underscored the challenge of marketing via television given that ad rates for air-time have nearly doubled since the pandemic. “TV is somewhere where we do exist, but it is becoming increasingly ineffective and inefficient, not least because the audience just simply isn’t there anymore,” they said. “So we have to be much more nimble and much more selective about the means by which we reach the different audience sectors. And that’s a lot more work, a lot more resource. You have to create bespoke materials, bespoke assets, and deliver them to a very specific audience on a very specific platform, and there are a lot of them. So that sort of composite picture is actually quite complicated.”

With last year’s actors and writers strikes over, talent can begin promoting releases again which while, “eye wateringly expensive” the studio executives said such efforts deliver “a level of cut through to a company and augments their marketing and media campaigns that is absolutely priceless.”

Phil Clapp, CEO of UK Cinema Association
Phil Clapp, CEO of the UK Cinema Association, during the organization’s 2024 annual conference held in London in March. (Photo: Julie Edwards – UK Cinema Association)

There were the usual motions for exhibitors and distributors to share data to help with marketing. One of the exhibitors shared good news on that front about how a data sharing scheme with one of the studios had helped to raise attendance for that company’s titles. Meanwhile, the exhibitors on the panel stressed that, beyond marketing the awareness of exclusive movies, increasing the frequency a moviegoer returns to the cinema is now one of their main focuses. 

One exhibitor explained how their marketing goals have shifted over the last two years, from reactivating customers, to increasing frequency of attendance. “We are really about forming habits now, not just a one-off moment in time,” they said. “To form a habit, you have to be accessible. We need to make sure that cinema is accessible to everybody because you cannot form a habit if it’s not accessible to people, they can’t afford it or it’s not near them. And once you’ve done that you need the breadth of content for all age groups. I think as an industry, if our goal could shift from just being about slate awareness to being about how to drive habits, then we can win together.”

To augment programming during slow periods, some cinema operators have been successful in holding one day events to celebrate anniversaries of beloved movies or running an ‘awards season’ series. All of the exhibitors disclosed how foreign language titles have been key to their post-pandemic recovery. “Foreign language is an ever growing part of UK exhibition,” said one. “I think that last year we did GBP £31 million (USD $39.1 million) across the entire industry. Back in 2019, foreign language was doing about GBP £18 million (USD $22.7 million). So it has grown substantially.”

Exhibitors on the panel also emphasized the need to showcase how watching movies at a cinema is better than doing so via streaming. Not just with better sound and brighter images, but by enhancing the entire moviegoing experience. “We pulled out 1050 tilt seats and put in half as many recliners,” said an exhibitor of how they upgraded one of their cinemas. “I had a lot of sleepless nights before I did that. When we did it, the box office went up by 25% and now we’re working our way through the whole circuit. I think it’s now up 34% across that circuit. We’ve changed the experience to a much higher quality experience and that’s been the biggest driver of increasing attendance for us.”

Knowing that capital is hard to come by right now, this same cinema operator also suggested that reseating only a portion of each auditorium to recliners is another option as a way to begin improving facilities. “To get the customer out of the home, you have to provide them with an experience that they’re going to want to come back to,” they said. “If they are going to choose to spend their money to come to us, we have to give them that experience.”

All of this effort, be it in marketing or upgraded experiences, seems to be paying off, despite the slow start to 2024. All of the panel participants were upbeat about how the remainder of the year would play out. “We are very bullish about the long term,” said an exhibitor in pushing back against any negative sentiment. “I would say we’re cautiously optimistic, but against a really, really cautious expectation for the year.”

Acknowledging the industry’s perennial pessimism, another exhibitor joked, “I like that we’ve adopted 2024 as ‘cautiously optimistic.’ Of course, 2022 was ‘it is what it is,’ and 2023 was the very famous ‘next year is going to be our year.’ So I’m very excited to see what the theme for 2025 is going to be.”

J. Sperling Reich