Cinemas Try it all: free tickets, popcorn, spa days

After two years of preaching the theatrical experience, exhibitors are leaning towards old-fashioned promotions clad in energy drink eye masks.

As the Cinépolis cashier explained, that 5:30 p.m. screening in Pico Rivera, California was not just showtime for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. She told the family of three that it was part of the chain’s “Self-Care Sunday” series, which was launched in conjunction with Mental Health Awareness Month in May: They would be treated to gold-soaked eye masks, a pre-show breathing exercise, and free popcorn.

“So we all get free popcorn?” the mother asked happily.

Cinépolis, which operates 26 theaters across the US, is among several constituencies that hope the introduction of new promotions and enhancements to the theatrical experience will lead more viewers to realize they just can’t replicate the cinematic experience at home.

Theater attendances fell 50 percent in 2021 compared to 2019, according to the Motion Picture Association. While Q1 2022 attendance was down just 40 percent compared to Q1 2019, and audiences of tent poles like Doctor Strange are poised to return, there’s still a long way to go.

The bottom line is that theaters need seating by any means necessary, whether it’s off-peak theater rentals to businesses and government organizations, live concerts, streamed plays, or competitive video gaming.

“Movie theaters are the perfect place to show eSports because they already exist,” said Rick Starr, owner of the CW Theaters chain, which has four East Coast locations. “And now – thanks, COVID – we have capacity, right? We didn’t necessarily have capacities in 2019. It would have been a lot harder for us to come here and say hey listen you have 10 screens and they are all stuffed with products and you shoot films for sometimes 120 days. Now we have ‘Batman’ at home in six weeks.”

However, most theater owners still hope to be able to support their operations in the way the movie gods intended. For now, that means old-fashioned promotions clad in energy drink eye masks.

Cinépolis Self Care Sundays are aimed at afternoon screenings when the weekend rush eases and there are often more empty seats, said Annelise Holyoak, the chain’s senior national director of marketing and loyalty. “Our goal is to add value and get people excited to go back to the movies,” she told IndieWire.

In the Cinépolis auditorium on May 15, small boxes of popcorn will be hand-delivered to each person’s comfy reclining seat, along with eye masks from beauty brand Grace & Stella and promo cards for mindfulness apps developed by PSYT. Before the show started, an on-screen breathing exercise began – punctuated by some giggling teenagers. “Welcome to Self Care Sunday. You can sit back, relax and let go completely,” the spokesman said.

Holyoak said the promotion, which runs through June, marks many firsts for the company.

“We’ve always tried to focus on experiential activations, but they’ve focused on the lobby with photo ops, fan events, and art exhibits,” she said. “We’ve never done anything specifically in the auditorium that was normal. We’ve never really brought in partners. That’s not very typical for cinema chains.”

Other chains looking for collaborations include Manhattan’s Angelika Film Center, which launched its Bring a Friend Back to the Movies promotion in April in partnership with Sony Pictures Classics. The deal offered two-for-one tickets to SPC’s The Duke, a British dramedy appealing to older art-house audiences who are slower to return to cinemas.

“This was the first time we’ve worked really closely with a distributor to ensure a program like this works,” Angelika President Ellen Cotter told IndieWire. “I think taking a step back and looking at the attendance numbers, it worked. Other distributors are asking about it.”

Cotter said the film was the most-watched title in the two weeks following its premiere in New York. And 2.5 weeks after its release, it was the 4th most viewed movie at this cinema in 2022.

The promotion was the brainchild of SPC Co-President Tom Bernard, a longtime advocate of working more closely with theaters. “What we’ve found is that once the older audience has returned to the theater, they keep coming back when they see what they’ve been missing,” he said. “A lot of the audience for specials, the older audience, had a group of friends that they went to the movies with.”

Angelika also took the opportunity to launch her very first loyalty program. Angelika membership is free and allows audiences to get free tickets, popcorn, and half-price tickets on Tuesdays. She said the program should allow the chain to collect valuable data and better market specific films and promotions to people.

“It’s a great way for us to understand our audience even better and make their cinematic experience more interesting and fruitful,” said Cotter. “If you make the effort to walk, either get a babysitter or drive, whatever it is, the experience has to be one to remember.”

There’s a theme that ties the Angelika and Cinépolis actions together: Theaters tend to sell audiences the idea that the experience in the theater is one they just can’t get at home on the couch. Whether it’s the ability to ignore your phone for two hours, enjoy hot popcorn, or catch up with friends, the theme drives decisions at the biggest chains.

AMC Theaters reported last week in its quarterly earnings call that people are spending more on refreshments — spending per customer on food and beverages was up 40 percent in the most recent quarter compared to the first quarter of 2019 — and that they are paying more for showings in the premium format are interested. These showings accounted for 13 percent of domestic maps in the first quarter of 2019, compared to 16 percent last quarter.

AMC also announced its largest projector upgrade since the industry’s digital transition. By 2026, 3,500 of its auditoriums will be equipped with laser projectors.

“With this upgrade, AMC moviegoers can expect improved picture contrast, maximum picture brightness and more vivid colors,” CEO Adam Aron said on the conference call. “In short, a much better viewing experience that takes moviegoers from their sofas at home to our cinema.”

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