soc (save our cinemas)?

What a wild [checks calendar] three or four weeks it’s been…

Cruella and A Quiet Place Part II came out this week. F9 hits at the end of June. All are coming to theaters, open in most all parts of the country, and so Hollywood studios as well as the theater industry are feeling optimistic that the Summer 2021 season will be a strong one.

Emma Stone GIF by Walt Disney Studios - Find & Share on GIPHY

To help that along, the industry, buoyed by surveys indicating people are ready to head back to the theater and may be willing to pay a premium when doing so, recently launched a “The Big Screen Is Back!” campaign with a massive star-studded event in Los Angeles. A PSA for the campaign debuted during the recent Oscars broadcast, with Matthew McConaughey talking about how great theaters are as some of the employees who have been impacted by shutdowns appeared along with him.

At the Century City event celebrities like J.J. Abrams, Arnold Schwarzenneger, Jason Blum and others all declared their love of moviegoing, talking about how seeing movies on the big screen is an experience like no other. Overall, though, that event seems to have been a bit of a dud, with little new shown to the press and other attendees. If studios were keeping their powder dry and saving bigger moments for other events later in the year, it’s unclear what that campaign is meant to accomplish.

All that comes in advance of the Cinema Week campaign planned to run June 22-27, a period that A) is not a week, and B) I’m sure just coincidentally overlaps with Universal’s release of F9.

Charlize Theron Wink GIF by The Fast Saga - Find & Share on GIPHY

Whether they are independent of these campaigns or part of them, the marketing pushes for both F9 and A Quiet Place Part II have both prominently featured “back to theaters” messaging. In the latter’s case it was a significant message throughout, especially when the marketing restarted earlier this year. With the former, the spectacle is certainly shown to be best experienced on a big screen while individual spots have specifically and clearly called out that the movie will be in theaters exclusively.

Changing the Viewing Experience

I’m glad movie theaters are reopening. There’s a lot that’s great about the theatrical viewing experience, including the sensory deprivation tank you essentially put yourself in for a few hours. You relinquish control for that time to the movie, allowing yourself to be completely immersed in it.

At least in theory.

In practice, going to the local multiplex is a mix of logistical hassle, Frogger-esque evasion of the distractions that are still present and the nagging fear that in the end it won’t be worth all of that. Between the pre-show ads for local car dealerships and herbal spas and the fact that you can’t actually turn off your phone because you have both college-aged children and older parents who might need help at any moment, your attention can still be pulled in quite a number of directions. And while critics love to wax poetic about the “booming sound” and “crisp visuals” in theaters, you have about a 1-in-3 chance of there being some problem with either the audio or video portion of the presentation. Or maybe the house lights never go down. Or maybe masking is off. Or maybe [fill in the blank].

Yes, some types of movies definitely play better on a big screen with deep bass, which is why the titles touted during the “The Big Screen Is Back” event were heavy on super heroes, franchise sequels and other similar releases. The experiential differential between Mortal Kombat on the big screen and the home screen is substantial, whereas the gap for something like I Care A Lot is not nearly as wide.

Let’s also be clear that as some of these “event” movies get longer, they’re harder to sit through because some of us need to go to the bathroom.

For movies in the second category, home viewing is just fine, and should be accepted as such by all involved. And that’s not even getting into the question of actual quality, which can make the $14/ticket you just spent seem very, very wasted. At home, even if you finish a bad movie, it’s just a matter of time spent because the cost is spread out over all the movies/shows you watched on that particular streaming platform.

Oh Hey, An Elephant. In *This* Room

There’s also the fact that most all of the studios praising the power of communal viewing in a shared physical environment are hedging their bets by sending some of their movies to their owned streaming service. Black Widow, In The Heights and others are all getting day-and-date theatrical/streaming releases either because plans were made when pandemic uncertainty was still high and haven’t been changed or because these companies are experimenting with new models to see what works.

Washington Heights Pride GIF by In The Heights Movie - Find & Share on GIPHY

Recent deals between the studios and exhibitors seem to have solidified a 45-day theatrical window as the new normal, and even then theatrical exclusivity may be on its way out as power shifts in the industry. While consumers may be willing to head back to the movie theater, they’ve also developed habits — and expectations — over the last year that will be hard to break.

While the notion of exclusive theater runs has been flailing in the water recently it got a lifeline when the producers of the James Bond franchise, in the middle of Amazon buying MGM, committed to a worldwide theatrical release for the upcoming No Time To Die. That statement seemed necessary because Amazon’s overall strategy for MGM is to use the studio as an instant catalog of movies and shows either to stream directly or remake, reboot and turn into content properties.

James Bond GIF by Regal - Find & Share on GIPHY

In short, the purchase continues the overall assault on what had previously been an unshakable paradigm, even if one-off examples continue that tradition. Long-term the trend toward shorter — or non-existent — windows will continue as studios find find some iteration of a hybrid approach where releases are tiered to their distribution points.

Theaters Matter; Or They Should

Eric Kohn at Indiewire makes a good point here:

The driving force of the “Tribeca Festival” is just that: a physical presence with curated experiences. Trust the brand and it might be worth the price of admission.

Studios keep throwing product into theaters, which those theaters are then obligated to run. But the “experience” that everyone references is one that involves frustrating parking lots and the risk that the trailers we saw last month will wind up being better than the full movie.

There’s no curation behind it. The pre-show ads are not specially chosen to match the movie being presented. The experience lacks any sense of being personally arranged, from the lineup of titles at the theater to how you’re greeted by staff when you walk in.

To that point, the importance of a great staff can’t be overlooked here. Pay them well so they actually care about their job, encourage them to interact with customers on a personal level, educate them in film history and other details and then watch them become ambassadors for both theaters and movies. It’s a simple equation, but one that’s frequently overlooked.

Theaters can be a magical place. I’ve been to several and worked at one that worked hard to achieve that level of enjoyment for patrons. But instead of being an egalitarian venue for both escapism and contemplation they’re becoming premium venues for big screen spectacle, one location indistinguishable from any other. That’s the wrong direction to be heading in.

Restaurants Had a Tough 2018. Next Up Could Be Theaters.

Movie theaters bounced back in 2018, the story goes, lifted up by a slate of films that people wanted to see on the big screen. That was partly because the movies released by studios were big spectacles that were unique experiences, in addition to featuring more diverse casts than has been seen in recent years. Despite problems facing the industry, NATO and its members are feeling hopeful about 2019 it seems.

But let’s pull out one bit from that Brent Lang/Rebecca Rubin story at Variety that shows how tenuous the perch theaters are sitting on is:

As the cost of making movies rises, the major chains have continued to invest in improving their amenities. Recliner seats, reserved ticketing, and alcoholic beverages have become more ubiquitous as theaters have scrambled to find ways to differentiate cinemas from home entertainment platforms.

Innovating the theater-going experience to differentiate it from what is available at home has been a long tradition in the industry. The introduction of 3D, Cinemascope and more in the 1950s was driven by the need for theaters to offer people a bigger picture than what they could get on the small, boxey television sets that were becoming more and more ubiquitous in living rooms across America. And in the last two decades as home theaters have become less expensive and higher in quality theater owners added those recliner seats and introduced even more prestige formats, as well as trying to combine going to the movies with a night out, introducing all those food and beverage options, believing the standard soda/popcorn/candy offerings were staid and outdated.

Concessions, as we’ve long known, are where theaters make money. The margins on food sales are somewhere around 80 percent, while theaters send 60 percent or more of ticket sales to studios. Disney in particular is using its market dominance to demand higher percentages and longer guaranteed runs of the blockbusters it releases simply because it knows it can.

That means theaters are, and will continue to be, vulnerable to the same kinds of market forces restaurants are. And that doesn’t bode well considering what’s happening in that industry.

As noted by Ad Age, restaurants are being pressured by:

  • Rising food costs and higher employee wages
  • Consumer preference for meal delivery as opposed to eating out
  • Higher prices for other goods that eat into discretionary entertainment spending

All those recently-introduced food options on theater menus are getting more expensive, costs that will be passed along to the consumer at some point lest they eat into company profits and shareholder value. Eventually all but the wealthiest members of the audience will be priced out of buying any food at the theater, particularly as inflation eats into the value of worker wages and people simply decide not to go out for entertainment at all, or cut back significantly.

At the same time, it’s likely chains will keep finding ways to cut back on labor costs. More and more theaters have introduced self-service kiosks for ticket sales, reducing or eliminating the traditional box office. Those kiosks, combined with online/mobile ticket purchasing (including subscription ticket programs), allow for easier selection of reserved seats and requires only a scanner checkpoint at the theater itself. There’s already a widespread lack of workers willing to take low-wage positions in the service industry, so theater owners will use that in combination with consumer trends in general to justify eliminating positions held for decades by teenagers looking for part-time jobs.

Just as theaters are subject to the same market forces impacting the retail industry as a whole, they are going to face the same headwinds restaurants face. They are an out-of-home entertainment experience, one that gets more expensive every year. As ticket sales fall or remain stagnant, which they have for years, they are more and more reliant on the success of their food and concessions revenue stream, one that could be pinched in the year ahead and beyond.