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Movie theater attendance plunged in 2014, hitting numbers that haven’t been this low since 1995. To add insult to injury, the sharpest decline occurred amongst the 14-24 age group. Cinema is dying. What can the industry do to swing back up?
It’s a tough question. Personally, I’ve been to my local movie theater twice over the past five years and the experience was so poor that I have no intention of going back without a big change in how theaters operate.
In their current state, they provide no value to me. I find much more value in streaming services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant Video because they’re cheap, easy, and convenient. For those happy to dabble in morally gray areas, torrents are always an option, too.
Ultimately, movie theaters need to stop competing on “convenience” and start focusing on “experience.” They need to offer more than just a way of watching the latest movies. Here are some ideas that might work to add value to the whole experience.
“Higher Experience” Theater Designs
There are a lot of opportunities worth exploring when it comes to an elevated viewing experience in movie theaters. Some of these possibilities have already been implemented by forward-thinking establishments, and several of them are prospering because of it.
One obvious example is IMAX. Nobody’s home theater is large enough or advanced enough to replicate the IMAX experience, and this is true whether we’re talking about IMAX screens or IMAX domes. The massive size provides a uniquely immersive experience — especially when you combine it with a top-notch sound system.
There’s a world of difference between watching a film like Avatar or Interstellar on a 48-inch TV and a movie theater screen, but the difference is even greater on IMAX, and that difference is well worth the hike in ticket prices.
But IMAX is just the beginning. What about smell-o-vision? Many people don’t know that smell preceded sound in the world of film production, probably because no contemporary theater actually uses smell-o-vision of any kind.
The issue is that odors and fragrances are expensive to replicate. Unlike a screen, which can project an infinite combination of colors and images, each particular scent needs its own chemical. The resource cost is simply too high for a home theater, but if unique experiences are the way forward, this is one way that movie theaters could step up their game.
Kinetic seats are another area worth exploring. Some amusement parks, such as the Six Flags franchise, have custom-built theaters with kinetic seats that tilt, spin, and rumble according to what’s happening on the screen. Usually the film is something short, like a dinosaur chase.
Now imagine an action film that employed this kind of feedback in scenes ranging from intense (e.g. car chases, helicopter fights) to mundane (e.g. slamming doors, train rides). The idea reminds me of the old Nintendo 64 Rumble Pak, which was a surprisingly awesome development in the history of video games.
Would movie theaters benefit from something similar? Possibly. If it turned out to be a successful move, they could certainly charge a large markup for the experience.
Thematic theater designs could be a worthwhile gimmick. Inspired by a photo collection of the 15 Most Beautiful Cinemas Around the World, what if movie theater seating was taken to the next level? For example, would you visit a movie theater where the “seats” were individual hot tubs?
Imagine a movie theater that didn’t have any seats at all. Instead, sand covers the ground from corner to corner and the temperature is kept at a comfortable 78°F all year long. Would you visit that “beach theater”? I sure would, especially during the winter months.
Lastly in this section, movie theaters should be more than movie theaters. Some locations are evolving the original concept by including dinner with the film, essentially turning the movie theater into a glorified restaurant.
In fact, one of these theater-and-restaurant hybrids is currently under construction near me and I will certainly be checking it out when it’s finished. Its name? The Movie Tavern.
The “meal with the movie” concept doesn’t have to be dinner as long as it’s more than popcorn and candy. What about a wide selection of craft beers? Or even something as humdrum as coffee and ice cream? A small change like this could shift the traditional theater atmosphere in a new, more appealing direction.
Private Screening Rooms
Private rooms are an offshoot of the “higher experience” that we explored above. On the surface this idea seems like it could be a logistical nightmare for contemporary theaters, but that’s because their business models rely on huge attendance numbers. What if we proved that assumption to be wrong?
This idea would be to stop appealing to the lowest common denominator and start offering individualized movie screening experiences. No more big open spaces with hundreds of attendees watching the same film. Instead, a person — or a group of people — could rent out a private room at a per-person-per-movie rate.
Think of it as karaoke but with films instead of songs.
In this model, the experience would be on a par with a top-tier home theater: smaller than a traditional movie theater, but certainly better than a 48-inch television set. If it’s worse than a traditional theater, what’s the point?
Of course, the main value comes from the private space.
Tired of strangers talking through the movie? You don’t need to worry about them anymore. Sick of stiff, uncomfortable seats? Now you can spread out, lounge around, and crunch on your chips as loudly as you want without disturbing others.
Contemporary movie theaters only play the latest releases because those are the films that draw in the biggest crowds. However, in a private screening model, show times would cease to exist. Instead of switching out films to keep up with the latest releases, they could keep a massive library of on-demand titles that include the old and the new.
You could order food and drinks during your movie. You could pause the movie when you need to visit the restroom. You could even bring friends and talk to them during the movie if you wanted to do so. Best of all, you could reserve rooms to ensure there’s no longer the need to get there early and find good seats.
If we take it one step further, private rooms could come in different sizes for different rates.
Strict Enforcement of Rules
Admittedly, a lot of these ideas require a complete overhaul of the movie theater model. Is there something that currently existing theaters can do to ensure their survival? Not much, in my opinion, but there is one thing that couldn’t hurt: growing some balls.
If you randomly asked people why they no longer visit movie theaters, I could almost guarantee that reason #1 wouldn’t be Netflix or Amazon. It wouldn’t be price. It wouldn’t be the massive markup on concessions. It would be disruptions.
There’s nothing worse than sitting down to watch that movie you’ve been looking forward to seeing, the one that’s been hyped up by all of your friends, only to have it ruined by an obnoxious movie-goer with no sense of common courtesy.
Well, there is one thing worse than that: movie theaters which are so frightened by their dwindling attendance rates that they refuse to kick out those who are being disruptive. That means people who talk, people who kick seats, people who refuse to turn off their smartphones, people who bring crying babies, etc.
The irony is that movie theaters are likely losing attendance numbers because of these disruptive jerks. For every nuisance that they refuse to kick out, they lose at least one innocent movie-goer who becomes fed up with said nuisances and vows never to return.
Case in point: Alamo Drafthouse. This theater has earned a reputation for being strict. If you’re under 6 years old, you can’t go. If you’re under 18, you must be accompanied by an adult. If you talk or text, you’re ejected. And they only serve patrons who are well behaved.
Is it surprising, then, that Alamo Drafthouse is generating more revenue than AMC Theatres, Regal Cinemas, and Cinemark? Not to me. It’s all about the experience, after all. Make it enjoyable for your customers and they’ll come back. That’s all it takes.
Free to Watch, Pay for Perks
Micro-transactions are one of the biggest gaming industry trends of the past five years. Why? Because they’re profitable. Free-to-play is important because its the easiest way to generate the numbers for word-of-mouth while micro-transactions allow people to pay for what they want.
As it turns out, the micro-transaction model tends to encourage splurging behavior. While a majority of the users never pay a cent, the passionate minority end up spending thousands of dollars, essentially subsidizing the users who never pay anything.
Could movie theaters survive on a similar “free-to-watch” model? If implemented correctly, I don’t see why not. The difficulty is in determining what would be the correct model to use.
It comes down to this: the “free” aspect is all about bringing in huge crowds. If this model is to be successful, it has to capitalize on that fact. Getting people through the doors is easy; getting them to buy something once they’re inside is the real challenge.
Merchandise is a big possibility. Maybe you went to watch Interstellar for free, but afterwards you realize that you absolutely LOVED the movie’s soundtrack by Hans Zimmer. So, you snag it on the way out. If not the soundtrack, then posters, DVDs, swag, etc.
One other idea worth mentioning is paying for better seats. Maybe the best 50 seats in a given studio are reserved for those who want to pay $25 per seat. Or maybe there could be multiple seat designs: the cheap seats are free, while reclining seats are $10, love-seats are $20, and kinetic seats are $30, etc.
Subscriptions are the counterpart to a “free-to-watch” model. With subscriptions, people would pay something like $50 per month for unlimited viewings. Simple but effective, isn’t it?
Most people would bring up MoviePass as an example of this, but I’m thinking of something different. MoviePass is a subscription service that basically buys free movie tickets on your behalf. It isn’t tied to a particular theater chain, which means it has a lot of restrictions.
Honestly, MoviePass is not worth it. There are better alternatives to MoviePass. I’m talking about something more along the lines of Cineworld’s model.
Cineworld is a UK-based chain that offers an “Unlimited Card” subscription that grants unlimited access to its basic theaters for around $24 per month. The upgraded subscription also includes its West End theaters, which amounts to $29 per month.
Because Cineworld is its own chain offering its own subscription service, it doesn’t have to impose a bunch of restrictions like MoviePass does.
The benefits of this model are two-fold. First, theaters pay the same overheads whether a screen is empty or full, so the potential for abuse of unlimited viewings is largely negligible. Second, theaters continue to generate revenue even when there aren’t any good movies playing and nobody watches anything.
It’s like a gym membership, or any other digital subscription for that matter. As long as the users keep paying, it doesn’t really matter if they use the facility or not.
What Would You Do?
Are you happy with the state of movie theaters today? If not, what kind of changes would convince you to give them another shot and skip watching movies on your smartphone? Do you think it’s too late for movie theaters to make a comeback? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!
Image Credits: Old theater front Via Shutterstock, Alan / Falcon via Flickr, Aroma-scope via Wikimedia, Phil Campbell via Flickr, Empty Theater via Shutterstock, Moviegoer on Phone via Shutterstock, Clare McBride via Flickr, Film and Popcorn via Shutterstock