For years, studios and theaters have stifled efforts to change the moviegoing experience. They have maintained a status quo that has been good for the biggest studios and theater chains, but bad for independents and consumers. The pandemic should be the Last Chance Saloon to reset the cinema experience or face inevitable decline.
So says Bloomberg entertainment reporter Lucas Shaw, who contends that exhibitors need to overhaul the experience, not just in light of COVID-19, but because the business model seems stuck in a 1950s rut when the moviegoing bug was at an all-time high.
“Theaters and studios have boasted of record box office figures in recent years by charging higher prices for tickets. But those records obscure two nettlesome data points. People are going to the theater less often than ever before, and the average theater is usually more than 70% empty.”
He offers a few choices that could make the movie business smarter.
Implement Flexible Pricing
You pay the same price to see Shang-Chi on opening weekend as you do Free Guy in its fourth week. You also pay the same price to see a movie on Wednesday night as you do on Saturday night.
This structure hasn’t wavered in decades, yet few businesses ignore basic supply and demand to this degree. “If you charge too much for a new movie, people may not be able to go. But there are a lot of people who would pay $30 or $50 to see The Eternals on its opening weekend,” he argues. Anyone who hesitates to pay that price could wait for a week or two when the price is lower. Why not offer older Marvel movies on Tuesdays for $6? Or have a Friday night special for date night?”
Exhibitors have explored similar ideas, but perhaps not sufficiently or at scale to make an impact.
Experiment With Programming
Similarly, cinemas have dabbled with showing classic movies, family favorites, kid’s films (where toddler noise is expected), as well as showing live sports finals, live or pre-recorded theater, opera, and ballet, even TV shows like Doctor Who, but Shaw wonders if they can go further.
“Why wouldn’t theaters offer a new Daniel Craig Bond [film] every week until the day that one opens? Surely there is as much demand for Casino Royale as Malignant,” Shaw writes. “So many theaters are empty because they are playing movies most people didn’t want to see in the first place for weeks longer than anyone has any interest. AMC just did a deal for NFL Sunday Ticket, so perhaps we are headed in this direction already.”
If you can’t beat them… is the lesson learned from successive sectors, including the music industry, which is now receiving a boost from streaming platforms after having spent years trying to shut down online piracy.
Likewise, exhibitors and studios have united to keep features made for streamers like Netflix and Amazon out of festivals, awards ceremonies, and cinemas. True, Netflix and Amazon have been more likely to debut their film on their own platform, or at the very least will grant a short theatrical window, contrary to the status quo that has governed the industry for decades.
Well, the windowing model is broken. The studios are now a streaming-first organization. Perhaps it’s time to work more closely with streamers of all stripes to deliver more varied content to the big screen?
As Shaw puts it, “If AMC took a new Netflix movie every week (with an exclusive window), it could replace some of the holes left by recent consolidation.”
Better Than Home
There’s the trick of enticing people to the cinema when the comfort and convenience of watching on a decent-sized screen at home is a cheaper alternative.
This is the route exhibitors have tried most to innovate — many upgrading their concessions (though not with enough imagination, thinks Shaw) and foyer ambience, as well as installing luxury seating, enhanced sound, and premium formats like IMAX and Screen-X panoramic screens.
“One obvious hurdle is the consolidation (and thus homogeneity) of so many theaters,” he says. “Different theaters should program to their immediate audience, not to some generic consumer. Unfortunately, the pandemic will only accelerate consolidation.”
There’s a lot of politics, not to mention hefty investment, involved here. Which exhibitors are powerful enough to knock back the studios that feed them blockbuster content in order for greater flexibility on price and programming and the fare of competitors like Netflix or Apple TV+? Upgrading screens, seating and tech specs of projection systems is hugely costly and requires payback over years (most exhibitors are still paying for the last round of digital 4K systems).
In my mind, going to a multiplex has always been a pretty soulless and corporate experience. Shaw is right that homogeneity is a killer. Independent cinema was always the better experience, but they tend to have limited screen real estate.
Perhaps cinemas, even those owned by chains, need to get more bespoke with their presentation and combine high tech with personalization and more creative design to bring back the romance and occasion of going out to experience a movie.