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3 Theatrical Audiences, and Why Only Two Are Coming Back

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Shorter theatrical windows. Buy-outs of auditoriums for private showings. Exhibitor streaming platforms. Tickets at 1920 prices. Safety protocols.

Some clever ideas. Some desperate ones. Others a long-time coming. As the pandemic rages on, theatrical exhibitors are (rightly) willing to try anything and everything to woo movie-goers back to where movies are “best seen and heard” — big screens, big sounds, big groups of strangers.

The problem? Exhibitors are dealing with the symptoms, not the root causes of theatrical decline (which has been happening for years).

Here’s what we mean:

  1. Movie theaters are a weekend business, with a vast amount of inventory (seats) going unused each week.
  2. People don’t want to be with strangers, and this was true even before Covid-19 swept the world. We want to share experiences with like-minded people.
  3. Walmart sells a 82″ 4K high-def television for under $1300.
  4. Audiences, generally speaking, are fine with a $12 movie ticket. What they don’t want is to set their smart phone down for two-hours. Or give up two hours of their time.
  5. Big box (movie theaters, consumer electronics, bookstores, legacy department stores) are all going away.

We could go on, but here’s one more that exhibitors (and even more so, movie studios) don’t seem to understand.

The competition is not other theaters or other movies; it’s other entertainment. They need to tell audiences why movies in theaters still matter. Why it’s worth finding a babysitter, driving twenty minutes, getting a parking spot, buying a ticket … the movie theaters are competing with every other entertainment offering. The default of every consumer is to stay home, choose something different, scroll through their phone or flip through Netflix categories.

So what is the future of theatrical?

We believe all the trends (pre-and-post Covid) point to two audiences:

  1. Audiences wanting to watch big, spectacular movies first, on a big screen with the best sound, and with like-minded fans;
  2. Audiences that attend live, one-time-only alternative or specialty programming events with like-minded people.

Key word in both: like-minded people.

The old romantic notion of a “dark auditorium with strangers” is not desirable; in fact, it creates anxiety and uncertainty.

The irregular movie-goer (attending the theater 2-10 times a year pre-Covid) won’t return, even after the vaccine kicks in. It only takes thirty-days to form a new habit. After one year away from the movie theater the occasional movie-goer will see no reason to return.

Theaters (and content-creators) should think entirely in terms of eventized entertainment. Immersive, interactive experiences from the marketing to the ticketing, the walk-in to the pre-show, the content to what happens after the credits roll — all with people who think, believe, and want the same things you do.

We all want (and need) movie theaters to survive this moment. It’s the right time to be thinking about what comes next, how to best help theaters, content-creators, and audiences evolve, and to begin building today that future. Not looking back and trying to recapture something that is no longer possible. Instead, looking at the entire model — from concessions to tickets, content to revenue splits, windows to real estate, auditorium size to alternative uses for theaters.

The model was broken long before Covid came. Old strategies and approaches need to be abandoned. We need “third spaces,” similar to pubs and coffee shops, parks and concert halls, and its a vital part of our social infrastructure to help theaters to flourish in the years to come.

© Aspiration Entertainment, 2020

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